March Break EcoCamp, the 3rd edition

Sometimes, mostly during school holidays, I emerge from my east-end bubble and head off to work at the other side of the universe… I mean the west end of Toronto. 😉

As I’ve written a lot about over the years, I’m really lucky to work in High Park. I’ve worked there for 5 summers already, with the summer EcoCamp day camp programme. In 2013, we started our first March Break EcoCamp. I’ve been able to work all three of the March Break camps.

Planning for March Break camp presents some different challenges from summer camp. A few weeks before March Break, when doing the planning, you really have no idea what the weather will be. Sure, summer weather can be somewhat unpredictable, but March Break is super varying from year to year, even sometimes from day to day. (For more on that, read what I wrote about last year’s March Break EcoCamp.) But our EcoCamp schedules are pretty flexible anyway, so we can adapt to the needs and interests of the group of campers; having backup plans for different weather is really not much different. This year, the weather was surprisingly stable all week – a few degrees above freezing during the days, just below freezing at night, and sunny most days. Most of the snow was gone by the time March Break started, but there was still a good amount of ice here and there to explore.

This year’s crew of campers was very curious and excited about experiments. Checking out the Nature Museum in the mornings was a hit, where they got to explore and ask questions about all sorts of things we’ve collected in the gardens and around High Park over the years. They were pretty into books, and lots of good conversations came from what we read during the week. They were good at playing and working together fairly independently of us, so we did lots of semi-structured outdoor activities, where we gave them some sort of focus, but they really had a chance to show their creativity. They also really liked journaling and sharing their daily highlights. On the first day of camp, we mapped our favourite parts of the day. Throughout the week, there were lots of great drawings and stories in their camp journals.

Our age group for this camp is theoretically 6-10, but we ended up with a slightly younger crew this time. We had a couple of 5 year olds, only one 8 and one 9 year old, and most of the campers were 6 or 7. I love this age group and connect well with them; I was excited! Definitely some quality silliness throughout the week. 🙂 But having a younger age group also often means increased spaciness… 🙂 They were definitely one of those groups where you often feel like you’re herding cats – you get 12 of the 15 kids ready to go outside, and while you go to help the last 3 get ready, another 5 have managed to get distracted by something else… hah. But once we got them focused on something, they’d often be really into it. There was definitely lots of nature knowledge in the group, they asked great questions, and were great at taking turns with different tasks (especially important with our baking activities).

We spend about half of our time (if not more) outside, which this group of campers loved! They were really into birds. There’s a great bird-watching spot right by our kitchen – we spent tons of time there! While it often took quite a while to get the attention of these kiddos to explain activities, etc., they all just quieted down as we approached the birds. We could stand there for quite a while, and they were all mesmerized!

This group also really liked building. One day, we did an activity called “Micro-Hikes” from a lesson guide called Into Nature. In this activity, a small creature (in this case, it was Pinecone Acornhead) wants to join us on our hikes, but is too small to come along on our rambles through all of High Park. So Pinecone Acornhead asked the kids to create hikes for her that were her size. The kids loved building little structures in the garden and creating stories about them, and then taking Pinecone Acornhead on guided tours of their nature hikes. A couple of days later, they built human-sized structures, and took each other on guided tours of them. We also taught them about compasses on the first day of camp and they created their own maps. Throughout the rest of the week, there were often discussions about what direction we were going while on our hikes.

We also spent lots of time observing and experimenting with ice. We made ice decorations for the garden (and watched how they melted), using found objects from the garden, and some water and string in muffin tins. On one of our hikes, some of the kids also discovered a big patch of very cool ice crystals (which some of the kids thought would make us rich). And when we hiked down to Lake Ontario one day, we started by making predictions about whether or not the lake would be frozen; turned out, it was partially frozen. We saw some cool ice formations down there, the coolest of which was one that just I and a couple of campers saw as we were lagging behind the group – a perfect circle in the lake ice, with a circular chunk of ice floating in the middle. Very neat!

Since this group wanted to do lots of experiments, we framed all of our baking as experiments (not a stretch by any means, but just using the right wording really worked to get them excited about some slightly strange recipes). One thing I’d been wanting to try with kids was baking sourdough bread, and March Break seemed like the perfect time to do this – we had enough time, and the kitchen didn’t get super hot like it does over the summer. Definitely a successful experiment! We started feeding the sourdough starter (which I’d brought from home) on Wednesday, and baked in on Friday morning. They were really excited about seeing how the dough had bubbled and grown each time we fed it, and liked smelling the changes too. We also made some butter (using whipping cream) to have with the fresh bread. All but one of the kids tasted the bread, and while some of them found it a bit strange or too sour, many of them loved it! There were 3 kids who just kept coming back for more… I found it to be one of the best batches of sourdough rye bread I’ve made so far – I’m wondering what the magic was at the High Park Teaching Kitchen, and how I can recreate that at home. (Though I’ve been very happy with the sourdough rye I’ve made at home too.) We did some other baking and cooking throughout the week too: we made pizza (including making the dough from scratch), beet chocolate muffins, and popcorn with spices.

Aaand, some bonus pictures! I love taking nature pictures, and took lots throughout the week. Here are a few more which I didn’t fit into the topics I was writing about in the post. 🙂

What a great March Break full of laughter, adventures, silliness, experimenting…!

Happy growing (and cooking and exploring)!

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