Durham outdoor camp reaches over county line

05/23/2014 12:00 AM

02/15/2015 11:22 AM

Since 1989, Schoolhouse of Wonder has run nature camps at West Point on the Eno Park with a guarantee that kids come home “dirty, tired and happy.”

Now, to make its silver anniversary special, the Durham Schoolhouse is reaching into Wake County.

“There were some nature activities that were going on in Raleigh,” said Schoolhouse of Wonder director Wendy Tonker, “but ... not a program that was doing exactly what we do.”

What Schoolhouse does is offer week-long and day-long camps during the summer and any time school is not in session, along with field trips through woods and along streams for school classes and home-school youngsters, all outdoors.

“Kids get to try it, taste it, touch it, feel it, smell it, experience it and try to bring things (learned in classrooms) to life,” Tonker said. “Part of the awesomeness of being outside when you’re 6 or 10 is just discovering what’s around the next corner.”

Leslie McClellan of Durham said her son, Asa, came home from a Schoolhouse camp with a sense of accomplishment. “He felt really proud of the skills he learned,” she said.

This summer, Schoolhouse will hold its first week-long day camps in the Reedy Creek section of Umstead State Park, just across I-40 from Cary. This fall it will hold its first camps at Wake County’s Harris Lake County Park while year-round schools are between sessions.

“This is on a trial basis for us to see how it works out,” said Christopher Snow, Wake County’s director of parks, recreation and open space. “Basically, it was demand-driven.”

Over the years, Tonker said, Schoolhouse programs at Durham’s West Point on the Eno have drawn campers from across the Triangle. With the 25th anniversary coming up, the program’s management wanted to see if there was a market niche for them elsewhere.

“We do a lot of education programs that are similar to theirs,” said Snow, but not that run for a full day or full week. “We don’t do a lot of those.”

According to Tonker, Schoolhouse’s approach is that “the outdoors is kind of the vehicle we use to help kids figure out how to be their best selves.

“We focus a lot on communication skills, group problem-solving, creativity – a lot of those skills that are being lost a little bit now with the way the culture is evolving,” she said.

“It seemed like a pretty small, low-key group,” said Umstead Park Superintendent Scott Letchworth, that does the sort of nature programs that fit the park’s own mission.

“It sounds like they’ll be pretty much spending time out in the woods,” he said.

Cavett French of Durham was impressed with what friends said about Schoolhouse of Wonder and has helped in a fund-raising drive to pay for children from low-income East Durham to attend the camps since visiting them.

Activities included what was called a “smudging ceremony” of sitting still and listening to the woods, checking for animal tracks in a sandbox and figuring what made them, and a game of kick the can among the trees.

“I always know when (my sons) Sam and Noah have a great week, not just by how much they report about each day, but by their attitudes,” said Elizabeth Barron of Hillsborough. “Full of joy and excitement each day after camp and even through (the next) weekend.”

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