At the end of summer 2017, we sat down with some parents near the end of their Family Camp session to ask them what brought them to Wildwood, what they and their kids love about Family Camp, and what makes the experience at Wildwood so special. Below, you’ll hear from Alec, a first-time Family Camp attendee but a long-time Mass Audubon member, as well as Shane, whose family has come back to Wildwood for summer fun for more than five years, despite not identifying as big “nature people”.
Have you been to Wildwood before?
No, this is our first year at Family Camp.
Why did you sign up for Family Camp?
We signed up for Family Camp because my daughter just finished Kindergarten—she’s starting first grade—so this is the first summer we’ve had need for any kind of camp. There was a camp fair in our town, which I guess happens in a lot of towns, and we went to it. There was an Audubon table and we are already [Mass] Audubon members, so I said, “Let’s see what they have.”
They mentioned Family Camp when I was stopping by the table and I said, “Oh, that sounds very fun,” so we decided to try it. And if you want the testimonial, it’s that this morning Sophia asked me, “Daddy do we have more days here?” and I said, “No, Pumpkin, we have to go home tomorrow.” She said, “No, I want to stay an extra day!” So she is clearly having a good time.
What things in particular is she enjoying the most?
If you ask her what things she’s particularly loving, she’d say, “S’MORES!” But that’s what she always says. Honestly, I think it’s just the wide variety of things available to her. What she’s loving right now and what she’s loved repeatedly is unstructured play in the woods with packs of kids about her age and emotional level, where they are finding things to do together. She definitely did like the Fairy House construction program.
Yesterday, on the Ropes Course, there was one activity that she just fits into the harnesses for and she loved just flying through the air. She’s not at the point that she wants to do high wire walks, but she definitely loves just being tossed through the air. She loves the boating on the waterfront and she’s always asking me, “Can we go out on the boat? Can we go for a paddle?” So, I think she’s kind of liking everything.
What do you see as the value of a camp experience like this?
A couple of things: One, it’s a chance to be with my daughter, in nature, in a relatively low-stress situation. Normally, I mean the past couple years, we’ve just gone car camping for a couple of days and it’s been super fun, but it’s also pretty labor-intensive because, most of the time, I’m either prepping for a meal, cleaning up a meal, setting up the tent, taking down the tent, and her ability to help with those is still a little bit limited. She’s only six so she gets distracted very easily and sort of complicated mechanical things are not her strong suit, so this is a chance to do things a lot more low-stress where we can focus on “Hey, let’s go do this fun thing! Let’s go do that fun thing!” and the tent and the food are taken care of and that is definitely a big plus.
It’s a chance to introduce her to a lot of activities and also to start introducing her to the notion of the summer camp as an environment to see if, in a couple of years when she is old enough for proper sleepaway camp, if she’s had good experiences here and I say, “Hey, do you want to just go to Wildwood for a week without me?” I suspect the answer will be, “Sure!”
So those are things that I feel that we, as a family, are getting out of it and really making it enjoyable. Plus, I get to do all the things that I used to do at summer camp that I was, at the time, too busy being a sulking teenager to enjoy properly.
What about the nature aspect of camp?
A lot of it is about being in the natural environment and just discovering what we can discover. She loves insects of all kinds and so has been fascinated to just see the wide variety of interesting caterpillars around here. Yesterday, somebody found a beetle, so she was fascinated by the beetle (right until it jumped on her, then she was freaked out).
A chipmunk is exciting to her because she spotted it and no one else did, so it’s that sort of thing. Right now we’re still at the age where it’s more about the emotional experience, where “I’m in an environment where the floor is dirt and the walls are trees and I am happy.” And I like being in this kind of environment, so I’m trying to create positive emotional experiences for her so that, when she’s older, she will still want to do these things and/or she will want to do them with her kids.
For society at large, it would be nice if more people felt that nature was something worth preserving in its original and relatively biodiverse, species-rich state, so yeah, I am hoping that some awareness of the value of the natural world, that the seeds of that are being planted right now. That is definitely important, but some of the value for me is just plain selfishness, like, “Hey, I have fun here, I want my kids to have fun here so that when they’re older maybe they’ll want to do stuff here, including with me.”
Some of it is also teaching a certain amount of self-sufficiency and independence. So one of the things that has really been pleasant for me about these past couple of days is that she has displayed a level of independence that I was surprised by but I’m loving. Yesterday, when she got bored with archery she said, “I’m going to go back to our tent.” I said, “Do you know the way to our tent?” She said, “Yes, I do.” And she sort of tromps off down the track and I thought, “I’m going to find you in another twenty minutes, in the middle of the woods, lost, but there’s enough staff around that if you start screaming for help, someone will come find you.”
But I was wrong! She knew the way back to our tent and I came back to find her happily resting in our tent. She’s now perfectly fine with tromping anywhere on the campground by herself, as long as she’s been there before. And she doesn’t care if I’m there or not for an activity. Right now—even though there’s a perfectly good great horned owl to look at [at a live animal demonstration]—she would rather be over the hill, playing with her friend and her stuffed armadillo looking for natural objects and hunting for fairies.
Having this kind of very unstructured, and yet at the same time a little bit “safe,” a little bit “sandboxed,” where, even though we’re in the middle of the woods, and even when she’s out of my sight, I feel really confident that she’s safe and that lets me feel comfortable letting her go off on her own and explore and that’s really important at her age to be building confidence in her own abilities and her own independence.
Have you been to Wildwood before?
Yes, this is our 5th or 6th year…we can remember exactly how many.
What brought you to Wildwood in the first place?
We came to Wildwood because we have a daughter and I want to make sure she had a chance to have summer camp experiences so we started at Drumlin [Farm Nature Day Camp], as many families do. She loved it and I was wicked impressed with the counselors. Both the program and the counselors’ interactions with kids and with adults.
So, we say, “Maybe we should try the Family Camp thing because she wasn’t old enough to go to overnight camp and she had never been away from home much, so Family Camp was the perfect introduction, which is one of the major reasons you have it. That introduction worked great for all of us, so I said halfway through the camp, “I want to come back next year,” as a parent and we’ve kept coming back.
What’s special about Wildwood that keeps bringing you back?
The location is perfect for the camp. And it’s Mass Audubon, so you know it’s going to have reliable staff and be put together well and be respectful of nature. So, that’s another big thing of ours is that we don’t actually “do” a lot of nature, so when we do “do” nature, we want it to be with somebody like Mass Audubon to show us how to do it “right”, so to speak.
But really, it’s people. At this point, it’s some of the families and other parents who, both parents and kids, have made some friendships, but over the long term, it’s really been the staff. I’ve been incredibly impressed. We started when Bob [Speare] was here, but Welch [Narron] and Meredith [Dean] have done an amazing job, have kept all the standards up, have added new programs.
I’m always impressed when we come at the end of the summer and all of the staff have been doing crazy work with one day off every other week, or whatever it is, and they interact with the parents and joke around a little bit, they’re super goofy with the kids, they make sure they’re safe, they lead all the activities, and they do it all with a smile right up until the last family leaves at the end of the summer. So I can definitely see the “Wildwood Family” aspect that way. Any place that has that many good people is just good to be around.
What do you feel your daughter has gotten out of being at Wildwood?
The basics of nature—she’s not huge into it, but when she does pick a program, she really enjoys it and she pays attention—and independence and self-sufficiency. Now she’s twelve, so we’re happy at this point to have her go off on a Family or Kids-Only event and come back or, when she’s with another kid here, go off and play in the woods by themselves for an hour. You know, use their survival tool or look for herps [herpetological wildlife, i.e. reptiles and amphibians] themselves.
And the other thing is the appreciation for nature. Mass Audubon, overall, helps you get out and enjoy nature, helps you to appreciate all that is there, and usually has some experts, so if you want to learn more about the butterfly that went by, then a counselor will be like, “Oh that’s so-and-so, and they come around, usually around 3:30, they come across this field and yesterday we saw about 20 of them over here.” Or, for birdwatchers, of course—I’m not a birdwatcher, but I definitely can see the few birdwatchers when they come out and Welch is like, “Oh, we saw so-and-so last time!” and they’re all like “Wow, that’s awesome!” And one of the staff is an expert in the details of the different parts of nature, so it’s both the introduction for newer families of all the basics and then the families that really want to get into something, you’ve got a program that’s solid science and it’s interesting and gets into the details of the 20 different kinds of pond creatures they found.
What about that appreciation for nature is important to you?
As a friend of mine who writes comic books said, “Don’t bet your planet.” We only have one environment, so whatever the rest of your politics or policies, we only have one and we need to be careful of it. Our daily life doesn’t interact with it much, other than, you know, we fill up our blue recycling bin and we have solar panels, so we do that part, but it’s nice to support environmental causes in a way that’s fun. For all of the other things, the other Mass Audubon sites that we probably won’t visit for a while, it’s still worth supporting that with people who are local who really get both the “We need to preserve it and understand it,” but also “We need to be realistic; we need some of it that we can go enjoy as humans.”