In this day and age, a small farm typically can’t stay afloat simply by farming; it needs to establish multiple income streams. This harsh economic reality is the primary driver of today’s myriad agritourism offerings: pick-it-yourself operations, corn mazes, petting zoos, maple sugaring demos and so on. While the Phillies Bridge Farm Project in Gardiner is one of our region’s earliest and most successful CSAs, it too needs to do more than merely raise, harvest and sell produce to its membership. As a not-for-profit entity, it has an educational mandate to fulfill as well.
Farm-stay vacations and farm-based summer camps are options growing in popularity among families — urban ones especially — who want their kids to learn to appreciate where their food actually comes from and how much work it takes to grow it. Phillies Bridge has been hosting a day camp program for some years now, hosting kids aged 4 to 12; and, according to camp director Jazmine Langlitz, only around 70 percent of the campers are local. The other 30 percent come from the New York City metropolitan area, staying overnight with family members who live or are vacationing in the mid-Hudson.
Of this summer’s five two-week segments of the popular Farm Summer Day Camp at Phillies Bridge, the first four were completely full up; a few spaces were still available as of presstime for Session 5, Around the World (August 13 to 24). Each session’s activities, though grounded (both literally and figuratively) in a hands-on experience of farm life, have a specific theme, and 2018’s third session unveiled a brand-new focus: STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) Discovery Camp. “Campers will participate in exciting hands-on science experiments and use their creativity to construct gardens, animal habitats and more,” read the online sales pitch.
“Okay,” you may be thinking, “biology and botany are scientific disciplines; but Phillies Bridge uses low-tech sustainable farming practices, so where do the technology and engineering come in? Do the kids take tractors apart and put them back together again?” Fortunately, Langlitz is a Montessori School teacher, so making learning opportunities out of hands-on exercises with real-world objects is her forte. The 12 children in this summer’s STEAM Discovery Camp started off with a unit on simple machines like levers and pulleys, eventually building their own catapults and learning how old-time barn-builders raised heavy arched roof trusses into place. They applied this construction technology on a micro scale by constructing their own fairy houses and model barns.
The first week’s curriculum also included lessons in energy and how it is used around a farm. The kids learned about electric circuits and then made light-up greeting cards for their parents, using copper tape, button batteries and LED bulbs. A lesson in optics led to the creation of kaleidoscopes from cardboard tubes and Mylar paper. “Most days they make something they can take home,” Langlitz said. Her own daughter, Madison McMacken, 4, said, “I liked solar camp, because we made sundials from clay and sticks and clipboards.”
Although many of the participating children were too young to have learned simple addition and subtraction, they were able to internalize some fairly sophisticated mathematical concepts via a string-art project undertaken in the second week of STEAM Discovery Camp. Langlitz demonstrated how a parabola can be formed from the intersection of straight lines radiating out at different angles. Then she and the other camp counselors guided the kids in a project that involved sanding blocks of wood, pounding nails into them in a circle and looping colored string around the protruding nails to form beautiful snowflakelike geometric patterns, stealthily being taught multiplication along the way.
A typical day at camp begins with a morning meeting where children are challenged to solve a riddle written on a dry-erase board. They each express gratitude for something in their lives that day, then play a song together on handbells. A lesson follows, on a farm-related subject such as how to tell different kinds of bees apart or why the pH level of soil matters. Then they’ll have a movement session to burn off the wigglies, followed by farm chores. Each camper rotates through a succession of responsibilities, including planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, feeding the goats or chickens or cleaning out the animal pens. Organized games, lunch (often involving farm-fresh foods harvested and prepared by the kids themselves), free time and a structured activity connected with the camp session’s theme — such as making mason bee homes out of paper tubes, or litmus paper from cabbage juice — are also part of each day’s schedule.
Art, that nonconformist stepchild of STEM, finds its way into many of the activities quite naturally. When rain got in the way of the regular farm routine, the kids stayed inside and put on an impromptu talent show, or went outside and did a rain dance, or brought their watercolor paintings out to get splashed into psychedelic “rain art.” And for the very last day of the camp session, the campers took over and organized a bit of theater of their own design: They used their newfound engineering skills to build an arch out of sticks and vines that they found beside the farm’s nature trail, set it up inside the goat pen and carried out a wedding ceremony beneath it, uniting the two most popular goats, Eleanor and Paul, in furry matrimony. “Eleanor’s the wise one. Paul’s the most friendly,” according to Langlitz.
For the final STEM activity, the director said, “I had planned to do tessellations.” But the kids had other ideas. Camper Camila Joffe came up with the idea of marrying the goats, enlisting the help of counselor Emily Feigelman to pass around “secret” wedding invitations. Feigelman, an ordained minister, composed the ritual; camper Noah Solano even wrote a wedding song. The kids dressed the two goats up in random scraps of finery, and Eleanor and Paul solemnized the marriage by sharing a carrot instead of a kiss.
Clearly, the STEAM Discovery Camp participants had learned something more profound than any single lesson during those two weeks: that it’s both feasible and fun to be scientific and creative at the same time. Tessellations can probably wait for some future schoolday.
To find out more about Farm Summer Day Camp and other learning opportunities at Phillies Bridge Farm, visit http://philliesbridge.org/summer-farm-camp.