At Berkshire Nature Camp at Pleasant Valley Sanctuary this summer, children from ages five to twelve have been getting comfortable outside, spotting the vivid orange of Orioles and listening for Blue Jays, turning nature into crafts and talking about their latest natural finds in the woods.
Though this summer has been thoroughly reshaped by Covid-19, children at Mass Audubon’s annual camp have been going on field explorations in the woods and learning how to identify different types of birds, insects and plants every weekday — all while wearing masks and safely socially distancing.
“It’s a common thing at camp for a child to come on day one and not want to even sit in the grass,” Berkshire Nature Camp Director Max Galdos-Shapiro said, “and by the end of the week they’re flipping over rocks in the stream and getting muddy and picking up frogs and lying on the grass or in the mud, and when we see this release in our campers of their tension and their connection back to nature, there’s just nothing like it.”
Covid-19 has become a potential obstacle for children to have these kinds of experiences this summer. While almost all sleepaway camps in Massachusetts have fully closed for the summer and day camps have either closed or adopted strict health protocols, one thing hasn’t changed — kids want to go outside and see their friends.
Berkshire Nature Camp at Pleasant Valley is open this summer and is giving kids a chance to get outside and explore nature with their peers every week while employing a number of strict health and sanitation protocols, such as having all campers and staff members wear masks and answer health screenings each day. Galdos-Shapiro said it is one of the very few outdoor programs in the Berkshires for children that is open this summer — he knows of only two or three others nearby.
Making connections outdoors
Berkshire Nature Camp’s main goal is to connect kids to nature. Galdos-Shapiro explained that usually around 60-70 percent of campers come from the Berkshire area while the rest come from more urban places like New York City, and many of them have not had the chance to spend time in the woods or feel comfortable in nature.
“Fundamentally I think a lot of our nature programming comes down to both connection to the natural world and awareness of it,” Galdos-Shapiro said. “So everything we do is trying to encourage campers to become more aware of themselves, of the world around them [and] of their effect on the world around them, and to [teach] that people are not separate from nature. And we do that by guiding their exploration and encouraging their curiosity.”
At Pleasant Valley, children have the chance to study and interact with the plants and animals in the area. This time of year, the campers have been seeing plenty of beavers and muskrats as well as certain seasonal birds such as the Yellow Billed Cuckoo and the Cedar Waxwing.
“The wonderful thing about Pleasant Valley is that because we don’t allow dogs and haven’t for a long time,” Galdos-Shapiro said, “is this time of year, Pleasant Valley is just full of baby birds. There are nests all over the place with birds fledging. It starts [in the] middle of May and continues through the summer. The birds and the baby birds are so spectacular and the kids get to see them every day.”
Campers may see the bright flash of Goldfinches, Eastern Bluebirds or Cardinals in the meadow by the pond.
The camp’s oldest age group gets the chance to learn how to track wildlife and map bird-nesting sites. Campers also get to go on field explorations using nets and jars with magnifying glasses built into them so they can collect plants and insects from the woods. They then come back as a group and share what they found and try to identify the specimens.
Counselors also lead campers in natural crafts, such as weaving baskets using bittersweet vines and building secret gnome-home villages in the woods.
Reshaping camp safely in a time of pandemic
Mass Audubon protects 37,000 acres across Massachusetts, including over 3,000 acres in the Berkshires. Pleasant Valley has 1,300 acres, and Berkshire Nature Camp has been open there every summer for 79 summers, including this one.
“The goal this summer is to make it as normal of a summer as possible,” Galdos-Shapiro said.
The daily activities that happen at Berkshire Nature Camp are similar to those that would happen during a normal summer, but with modifications for the safety of campers and staff. Instead of registering 50 campers per week, the camp registers only 30. Those campers are then split up by age group with one counselor for each group, and the groups spread out as much as possible and interact with each other as little as possible.
“This summer we are running our three core groups,” Galdos-Shapiro said, “which [are] five to six year-olds, seven to nine year-olds and 10-12 year-olds.”
Berkshire Nature Camp also normally runs early childhood and teen programs, but those were cancelled for this summer due to concerns about being able to enforce social-distancing rules for toddlers as well as the space and size of the camp.
“We didn’t add things this year; we stuck to things we know best,” Galdos-Shapiro said.
All campers and staff are required to wear masks all day, except for a few minutes of break when they are more than six feet apart. They are also required to take a health screening test at the start of each day, and if anyone feels any Covid-19 symptoms, they are not allowed to enter the camp for that day. These protocols are in place so that the camp can operate as normally and safely as possible.
“The day always starts altogether in the drop off area,” Galdos-Shapiro said. “The groups are physically distanced from each other, but they can still see each other. I talk to the groups in the morning. We sing a song as a camp with masks on and socially distanced. And then the groups set out for their day.”
Daily activities vary from group to group, but they all involve the exploration of nature.
“The day can have anything [like] exploring the fields and streams and ponds,” Galdos-Shapiro said. “Today two of our groups are hiking up to the top of Lenox mountain. That’s a weekly tradition. And our younger group is now looking at invertebrates in the stream.”
Each age group has its own designated outdoor area with a tarp to sit on where campers and staff eat and talk every day. In fact, almost none of the camp day is spent inside.
“They’re only coming inside if they need to use the restroom or if there’s a thunderstorm,” Galdos-Shapiro said. “So we’re very lucky that we have a unique situation that we’re able to [be outdoors] relatively easily.”
Berkshire Nature Camp Education Coordinator Dale Abrams said the camp’s transition to being mostly outdoors was a long-time coming.
“What was kind of cool for Max and [me] was that Covid-19 pushed us to do what we aspired to do,” Abrams said, “which was [to] spend even more of our camp time outdoors than we had in the past because that’s where the learning happens.”
A rare chance to go outdoors
Berkshire Nature Camp at Pleasant Valley is unique this summer in that it is able to bring campers physically together. It is one of the few outdoor programs currently open in Berkshire County, along with Berkshire South in Great Barrington, Flying Deer Nature Center in East Chatham and Flying Cloud Institute in New Marlborough. Of the 19 Mass Audubon day camps that typically run during the summer, only a handful are open. The large amount of outdoor space at Pleasant Valley was a big factor in allowing the Berkshire Nature Camp to take place there this summer.
“Out here the rates of Covid-19 were quite low and we have 1,300 acres at Pleasant Valley that camp can spread out in,” Abrams said, “so we felt like there was potential here to run a camp here, and then we took a whole bunch of steps to make sure camp could run safely here.”
“Some sites are really small and in urban areas,” Abrams continued, “so they just don’t have the physical space to spread out the camp and to have separate restrooms for different groups.”
Galdos-Shapiro said that the decision to open Berkshire Nature Camp this summer was not made lightly.
“We have a very good relationship with our local health department,” he said, “and so from the beginning, it was always, as long as it is safe and continues to be safe, we will run [camp], especially since we are outside. But we are very aware that if the data changes we will have to stop, … and all of the things we have to do to stay healthy — we just really embedded that into our camp culture from the beginning.”
A refuge for kids and parents
Overall, Galdos-Shapiro said that both kids and parents have reacted very positively to being able to attend Berkshire Nature Camp this summer. The camp’s week-long programs have generally been completely booked, and future programs even have waiting lists.
“Parents are desperate to get their kids out of the house,” he said. “Kids are desperate to see their friends.”
Due to Covid-19, there have been a small handful of families who are wary of sending their kids to camp this summer.
“The vast majority of parents really want their kids to be here,” Galdos-Shapiro said, “but there are a few who have high-risk folks at home that have made the decision to not come to camp this summer.”
Before families sign their children up for camp, they are given all of the current information that the camp has to share, including its Covid-19 policies and protocols. Parents are asked to make the best decision based on their families’ specific situations.
But while camp has been in session, Galdos-Shapiro said he has yet to hear a single complaint from a parent or camper about mask-wearing. “We built it into the culture of camp from the beginning,” he said, “and kids always need reminders. They need reminders about everything. But it really has felt like a really strong community effort to do this together.”
He also stressed the importance of bringing children together during this difficult summer.
“Finding ways for kids to be safely together is just so critical,” he said, “especially in this part of the world where they have ready access to nature and we can provide that safer place. Additionally, parents need somewhere to send their kids and we’re in a situation that we can provide something that’s safe and so we felt it’s very important that we made every effort to do so.”
Teaching and adapting in the pandemic
Now, in July, Berkshire Nature Camp is able to happen due to strategic planning from its team of year-round staff, including Galdos-Shapiro and Abrams, but Mass Audubon’s school-year programs actually transitioned to a virtual format in March.
“We work with literally dozens of schools,” Abrams said. “This year, I think [we had] 80 different classes, where one of our three education team members was in those classes providing weekly or biweekly lessons over the portion of the school year. They’re all nature-based lessons focused on our local ecology that support the science standards that the schools are trying to teach.”
“We did do heavy pivot this March to virtual lessons, so we were producing videos as well as calling in live with classes,” Galdos-Shapiro said. “Our first focus was on retaining those classes, so we started by taking lessons we would have taught in school [and] creating videos for them and activities, and then setting up times where we could join the classes during their live conversations lessons, so the kids could ask questions, talk about the videos [and] talk about the things they’re seeing outside around their neighborhood.”
“It was fun and successful for what we had to do,” Abrams said of the virtual school programs.
Mass Audubon also typically hosts outreach programs in the community year-round that take place from libraries to senior care facilities. These programs came to a halt when Covid-19 hit the Northeast in the late winter, especially affecting vulnerable communities such as seniors.
“[Those programs are] just resuming now with the sort of normal group size and mask-wearing guidelines that we’re seeing everywhere,” Abrams said, “but we are restarting those now after a couple months of those not happening.”
While no one knows quite yet what the pandemic will look like in the fall, Mass Audubon is planning to continue its school programs in whatever way will be necessary.
“[For] school programs,” Abrams said, “I think the final word from schools remains to be received, but we’re expecting that schools in the fall will probably have some very different configuration than they have had in the past. It won’t be a typical fall.”
To read more about specific programs at Berkshire Nature Camp, you can go to the camp’s website.