Each September, hundreds of local 7th graders raid their closets in search of flannels, flashlights, and sleeping bags as they prepare for camp: a week in the wild. Okay, perhaps it’s not so wild. Storer Camp does have cabins and warm water and a well-appointed dining hall. But this trip is the first time away from home and family for many kids and the outdoor setting does provide all kinds of opportunities to connect with nature—and each other.
Dexter students have been attending 7th grade camp for more than thirty years.
It’s a tradition that depends on the help (and good humor) of dozens of parent volunteers, who chaperone the kids throughout the day and act as cabin counselors at night. Teachers travel with student groups during the day, facilitate courses, and give parent volunteers support as needed. Cabin counselors and teachers agree: it is invigorating and exhausting work. As the week progresses, kids (and staff) fall asleep earlier and rise later each day. By Friday, the main motivation to get moving in the morning is the promise of return to “civilization.” Camp keeps everyone quite busy.
Each day, students travel to classes such as horseback riding, canoeing, a climbing course, science classes, and cooperative games. The 55-foot climbing tower gave students a chance to set personal goals, cheer each other on, and try things that were outside of their comfort zones. A class called Taste of Nature helped kids identify wild foods that are safe to eat as well as plants that should be avoided. Mill Creek Principal Jami Bronson reported that although cattails may look like small corndogs, they have a decidedly fluffy texture and tend to get stuck in braces. A few brave souls even ate earthworms.
Mill Creek students aren’t just learning about science. A huge component of 7th grade camp is experiencing challenges that require turn-taking, problem solving, and cooperation. These social skills are key to middle school students’ academic and interpersonal confidence. Storer’s camp’s website cites independent studies that show
outdoor environmental education programs raise students’ science scores by up to 27%.
OEE programs are also correlated with positive effects on academic achievement in general. These kinds of programs have measurable impact on student behavior and peer interaction. Attending 7th grade camp at the beginning of students’ middle school career sets a positive tone for the year and helps students quickly feel connected to their peers.
Personal responsibility is a theme underlying many of the activities at camp. One ongoing assignment is to reduce food waste. Students are encouraged to take only what they can eat. Food waste is measured after each meal. Earlier in the week, meal waste ranged from 12-9 pounds, but by the end of the week, they had whittled it down to an average of 3-4 pounds, with their last breakfast being a big round zero pounds wasted. Progress. Another life skills challenge was the cleaning of the cabins. The tidiest cabin each day earned a golden dustpan, while the messiest ones were awarded a golden toilet seat “trophy.”
Parents of many of today’s 7th grade campers attended camp during their school days in Dexter.
Back then, parents had to wait until students returned to hear about all their adventures. These days, Jami Bronson’s twitter feed allowed families to get real time updates of the fun. Some things have changed a lot in the thirty-plus years that Dexter families have been experiencing 7th grade camp. But one thing remains the same: it’s the experience of a lifetime, for kids and adults.