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Great outdoors at doorstep for Philadelphia kids

Kids living in the city may have easy access to cultural experiences, but when it comes to summer camp opportunities, parents often are at a loss. Do their kids have to hail a bus to Chester County for a date with Mother Nature?

Bayard White prepares to cast his line during camp last summer at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.
Bayard White prepares to cast his line during camp last summer at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.Read more

Kids living in the city may have easy access to cultural experiences, but when it comes to summer camp opportunities, parents often are at a loss. Do their kids have to hail a bus to Chester County for a date with Mother Nature?

They don't.

Here's a roundup of some programs with green summer fun - all within Philadelphia.

Ahoy, matey!

Summer day camp at the Independence Seaport Museum introduces kids to life on the water by way of pirates, sea monsters, Vikings, and underwater explorers.

One day might involve checking out the museum's collection of historic maps dating to the 1600s - many with pictures of sea monsters - and drawing their own versions of maps and monsters. Then they might navigate a rowboat or kayak in the museum's sheltered boat basin on the Delaware River, comparing their experiences to what they learned about ocean explorers.

During "Underwater Explorer Week," campers learn about shipwrecks and how to maneuver remotely operated robots to make rescues under water.

Campers also have the run of the two ships docked in the museum's boat basin at Penn's Landing - the steel cruiser Olympia and the World War II submarine Becuna.

"We have activities like scavenger hunts or games that incorporate the history of the ships," said Olivia Thomas, the museum's education coordinator. "And with the camp educators, they can explore and have imaginative time on the ships."

Growing gardens

The Urban Tree Connection's eight gardens in the Haddington neighborhood of West Philadelphia are a place for kids to grow vegetables, sell their produce - even learn public speaking.

"The kids are part of the entire process from the start," explained Annie Preston, programs director for UTC. "It helps build their feeling of ownership of the gardens and the harvest."

Elementary school-age kids, called the Sprouts, work in the gardens one afternoon a week, learning to grow veggies - carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, garlic, collards, kale - make healthy eating choices, and appreciate nature.

It's an eye-opening experience for many of the youngest Sprouts, who often think vegetables come from supermarkets and stickers belong on every apple.

"They have never seen how things grow," she said. "It's pretty amazing the first time a child pulls a carrot out of the ground, brushes off the dirt, and realizes that they can eat it."

Middle-schoolers, called the Veggie Kids, ride their bikes to deliver produce - a bag of greens or maybe a few potatoes - to community residents for $1, getting to keep what they earn.

"It teaches them so much about working, responsibility, dependability, leadership, and managing money," Preston said.

Although children from the community get priority enrollment, anyone can apply. Last year, about 100 children participated.

"The kids in this neighborhood are very aware of plants and trees, thanks to the gardens," said Lisa Barkley, a block captain and community volunteer whose grandson, Azjan Ransome, 12, has participated for six years. "They've learned all about different vegetables and good bugs and bad bugs."

The largest garden, fondly called "the farm," is a three-quarter-acre plot at 63d Street and Wyalusing Avenue that produces enough vegetables to supply a community-supported agriculture program and a summer farmer's market, where kids in the program help staff a table.

High school students can work 20 hours a week for six weeks at the gardens, learning about the life cycle of fresh food - from seedlings through harvesting and cooking.

"We also teach them concepts like food access, job skills like public speaking, and keeping track of their personal finances, leadership and teamwork," Preston said.

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An oasis above the expressway

Just off Ridge Avenue in Roxborough, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education uses its 340 acres of forest, ponds, wetlands, and walking trails to guide children to make connections with nature - whether it's a worm at their feet, ants crawling on tree bark, or a hawk soaring overhead.

"Kids watch animals on the Discovery Channel, and that is removed from their lives," said Camila Rivera-Tinsley, the center's manager of school programs. "We teach the children that they are part of the ecosystem, they are part of nature. We look at leafhoppers and ladybugs, green frogs and ants carrying crumbs. We want the kids to realize that even back in their neighborhood, nature is still all around them - and, hopefully, if they watch an ant or see a worm again, they will remember."

Campers ages 4 to 9, the Nature Ramblers, explore weeklong themes such as "things with wings," "flower power," and "the pond and beyond," with summer educators leading the campers through hands-on discoveries and art activities.

Last summer, Sage Bellot, 7, discovered his affection for salamanders.

"We searched for salamanders in the woods and I found one," Sage recalled. "I picked him up and we all watched him. We saw deer, too, and birds. It was great."

His mother, Jen, said that Sage and his friends have formed a salamander club at their Green Woods Charter School, demonstrating that the connections he made to nature during camp remain strong.

Schuylkill summer campers, ages 10 to 15, can sleep overnight and fish in the Schuylkill, canoe on the Brandywine, kayak in the Chesapeake Bay, or mountain-bike in the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. Weekly camp sessions run from June 17 to Aug. 23.

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Working together in wilderness

Whenever there's a downpour, 18-year-old Daniel Farmer thinks about the time he hiked across a mountain ridge with Outward Bound, and the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse. With no time to get to shelter, the hikers went into a "lightning drill," splitting up in groups to stand on a mat, holding a special position.

"It was raining so hard that a waterfall formed on the cliff in front of us," the senior at Wissahickon Charter School recalls. Nobody was hurt, and it eventually stopped raining. "But it was an amazing moment that I'll remember forever."

Outward Bound wilderness courses are full of moments like that, said Katie Newsom Pastuszek, executive director of Outward Bound Philadelphia, which hosts one- and two-day team-building programs at its custom tree house and high-ropes course in Wissahickon Valley Park. The program also offers backpacking, canoeing, and rock-climbing excursions in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area and Michaux State Forest.

A typical day on an Outward Bound excursion starts with a morning stretch and meeting about the day's plans. Participants decide who will serve as navigators, cooks, or journalist to keep a log of the day's events.

"Even something as simple as assigning the tasks opens the group to learning new life skills, like negotiation, planning ahead, and working together," Pastuszek said. "These are skills that will translate and be valuable in a classroom, a job interview, or a work environment - not just in the wilderness."

One of the first lessons is to appreciate the conveniences left behind.

"No cell phones, iPods, or anything electronic are allowed on the trips," Pastuszek said. "They quickly learn that it's a luxury to sleep in a bed or eat without having to gather wood, light a fire, and put together your own meal."

Instructors start by teaching the participants how to stay safe, warm, and dry, Pastuszek said.

"We teach them how to cook over an open fire. How to navigate, using a map and a compass, not a GPS on a phone," he said. "How to set up a campsite and leave it cleaner than they found it." Someone who has learned the wilderness creed of "pack it in, pack it out" might be less likely to litter when they get home.

Emilia Rastrick, the health and physical education teacher at Lingelbach, a K-8 school in Germantown, finds the courses particularly useful for the seventh graders, who face significant academic and social challenges. She recalls her first course with eight girls and three boys - they remained in cliques, even on the trail.

Then, "on the fourth day, one student asked if all of us could air some grievances. We sat on the Appalachian Trail for two hours, voicing constructive comments, listening to each opinion, trying to teach the kids to be positive," Rastrick said. "Once we finished, we still had hours of hiking to go, but the instructors and I stepped back. The students took it upon themselves to lead the group and were able to effectively organize the camp tasks and roles."

Outward Bound also runs a special camping excursion program called Heroic Journeys, for teens who have suffered a traumatic loss.