Guest Blog: Vermont State Parks and All4One Partnership- Park Fun Club! by Kelsey Finnell
As an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) member, most of the work I do for Vermont State Parks on the Muckross project and day camp is behind the scenes. I’ve been designing curriculum, writing grants, and applying for the state parks to sponsor an AmeriCorps NCCC Team for a second summer, all of which are done out of the Springfield office.
The Muckross Environmental Education and Outdoor Recreation Day Camp is part of an ongoing process to integrate a new state park into the community of Springfield, Vermont. The park and camp are the vision of the late State Senator Edgar May, who hoped to transform his 204 acre estate (“Muckross”) into a state park that offers the community opportunities for recreation, environmental education, and access to the natural world. The camp serves children in 1st-8th grades, and ran a successful pilot program in July and August of 2015. Our mission is “to provide a safe, natural environment where any child, regardless of economic and social circumstance, can experience hands-on environmental education and outdoor recreation.” We are currently busy getting ready for our 2016 session! The indirect service work that I do on the camp is important, but on Wednesdays I get the chance to engage in direct service with one of our main partners, All4One, by running an afterschool “Park Fun” club for some of their students.
All4One is a local nonprofit childcare program whose mission is “to support, strengthen and sustain before/after and summer school programs while promoting skills development and academic achievement through high yield learning available to ALL students in the Springfield School District.” Children who attend our summer day camp sign up through this program, and they provide us with personnel and material support. For 2016, we are expanding the partnership between Vermont State Parks and All4One to last throughout the year. One of our aims with the day camp is to have students feel a sense of ownership and place in the park and their community; and Park Fun Club is a way for us to allow students to help make decisions for the upcoming summer camp. This brings student participation and ownership to a new level.
We had a successful pilot run of Park Fun Club in the fall of 2015, and are continuing to meet on Wednesdays from 4:00pm-5:00pm for All4One’s winter and spring club sessions. Club members get to try out Muckross activities in advance, and voice ideas and opinions over what should be included in the 2016 summer curriculum. Katerina Fluharty, a Vermont Youth Tomorrow VISTA serving with All4One, and I collaborate each week to prepare state park focused activities for the club.
Scheduling activities is often difficult, as we have children ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade in the club. We have to identify how to make activities more difficult for the older club members, without making them too hard for the younger club members. This is excellent “balancing” practice for the summer, as we have to think on our feet to keep students engaged and excited about what they doing.
Activities that club members particularly enjoyed were making boats and “nature people” out of natural materials and craft supplies, Vermont animal charades, working in the State Park Junior Ranger Booklet, and heading outside to paint natural scenes with watercolors. As the weather gets warmer, we plan to spend more time outside and learn about plants that can be found in Vermont State Parks.
We run all of these activities out of All4One’s Park Street School site, which means we often have to improvise to provide environments that mimic the natural world. For example, in the summer we could test boats in a pond, but during the school year we put them in a small pool of water. The club members were excited to test their boats in general, but were even more excited when they learned that they could save the boats to be used on a pond during the summer!
When planning activities we try to focus on educational skills in addition to having fun. For example, in fall club, we had students write stories that took place in nature. We will combine these stories with those written at the day camp to start a “story trail” at the park!
We encourage club members to think critically about outdoor recreation activities like camping, by discussing healthy food options and what supplies to bring. We allow students to share their experiences with the outdoors, and speak about what nature-based activities they like the best.
At the Muckross Day Camp during the summer, we aim to bring environmental education and hands-on learning to children who otherwise would not have this opportunity. We hope to continue this with Park Fun Club. Through our activities club members and campers learn the importance of our natural resources, and feel a sense of ownership and place within the community. As someone who is usually “behind the scenes;” I love that I get the chance to head outside and hang out with the kids once a week! Their ideas will directly contribute to our summer planning, and they inspire me to create a curriculum that they will both enjoy and benefit from. Spending time with the kids at All4One reminds me why we are creating the Muckross Day Camp, and I always leave looking forward to the upcoming summer!