CAPE MAY — Children laughed and ran barefoot through the grass of the Nature Center here Monday as they played a lively game of “sharks and minnows.”
On the center’s lawn were tents and benches ready for them to occupy. Across the street was the Cape May Harbor, where kayaks sat waiting for them, too, while nearby, a building with fish tanks and marine life awaited their discovery.
Not a phone screen or tablet was in sight.
Camper James Hurley, 9, shared his first-day experience, “I thought I was not going to like it. I thought we were going to be in the woods the whole time. When we started building a fort, that’s when I thought it was pretty cool. After today, I think I can survive in the wilderness.”
The children were taking part in New Jersey Audubon’s Discovery Kids annual summer camp, which for more than 20 years has introduced children to discovering and mastering outdoor living. The weekly camps are offered in themes, and families can register their child to attend all summer long or just for a week. Up to 50 children, ages 5 through 12, attend camp weekly.
New Jersey Audubon is an independent, not-for-profit, statewide membership organization. Founded in 1897, and one of the oldest independent Audubon societies, New Jersey Audubon maintains stewardship of 34 sanctuaries and conducts its programs through seven staffed facilities across New Jersey. The objective of the society includes encouraging conservation practices, disseminating information on the natural environment through education programs, advancing knowledge of New Jersey’s flora and fauna through field research and maintaining wildlife sanctuaries.
Monday was the start of “Survival Week,” when counselors and guides introduce the children to what plants could be eaten, how to build a raft, navigate the wilderness and even how to survive an encounter with a bear.
The camp, which connects kids with nature, has received an overwhelming response from families and children returning after a year-long postponement due to pandemic.
Collecting insects, planting seeds, observing marine life, and creating arts and crafts are a few of the activities the camp offers.
Emily Wilmoth has worked for New Jersey Audubon as a camp teacher before taking on her first year as camp director.
Wilmoth was looking forward to introducing the campers to the harbor and had a trip planned with a seine net to scoop up aquatic critters such as fish, crabs, jelly fish.
There were also nature trails, she said.
“We’re really lucky to have these teaching tools as part of our setting,” said Wilmoth. She emphasized the importance of applying the roles of science, physical activity and art during camp lessons.
“For some of these kids, they didn’t get to go to their first year of school. It may be their first time in a group setting or listening and following directions” Wilmoth said. “It’s really about disconnecting from screens for at least a few hours a day and get back to exploring outside.”
The camp works with the Local 4-H organization which allows older students to gain volunteer experience and practice working with children. Neishaly Nieves, 15, is a 4-H teen program volunteer. This is her first year volunteering for the Discovery Kids camp.
“I heard about the program through a family member. Every day is a new experience and I am always learning something. Right now, were crafting our own turtles and learning about their internal compass,” Nieves said.
Each morning, parents and teachers are asked to fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire, ensuring the safety of their campers. The camp is still operating with a limited capacity, and registration fills up quickly.
Since New Jersey Audubon is non-profit, the program is completely funded by donations and grants. Families are able to apply for scholarships for their children
In addition, college students may apply for the Randy Nuessle Memorial scholarship, which allows them to intern for New Jersey Audubon while funding their college endeavors.
Tamara Farrow, 19, is a Stockton University student interning for the camp.
“I was applying for scholarships and wanted something out of my career track, something that was involved with students and making an impact on someone’s life,” Farrow said. Her favorite activity at camp is walking along the harbor and observing the wildlife. She also loves the the reaction of the young campers when they see the same thing.
“Seeing their faces light up is my favorite part,” she said.
Natalie Bowman, 5, is a camper who attends weekly. “My favorite thing to do outside is climb trees”
Just recently, The Bowman family attended the Ghost Crab Walk, where families are able to walk along the beach at night and catch ghost crabs. Plenty of events are held by New Jersey Audubon are available for families to enjoy. Upcoming events can be found on njaudubon.org.