A photo and note received by the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond: “Thank you so much for the use of the fishing kits. My family had a great time! It inspired my husband and I to renew our fishing licenses.” Submitted photo

WOODSTOCK — The University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond has found ways to continue its mission of engaging youth in outdoor education by using a smartphone, activity kits and state and school partnerships during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For over 50 years the facility beside Lake Christopher in Bryant Pond village has strengthened children’s relationship to the natural world with a combination of inspired outdoor fun, practical woods-wise skills, and “hands-on” conservation education.

When the pandemic hit last spring, the camp had to suspend its programs but it didn’t give up on a workaround. It starting with virtual sessions last spring as a way to support SAD 17 educators in distance learning and adding new programs for quarantine activities. Camp directors were able to connect with those unable to attend, campers from previous years and those who had never been involved with 4-H, including children in the state’s foster care system.

Program and Camp Director Ron Fournier said his smartphone and Zoom sessions made it possible to stay in touch with students during their time of distance learning.

“Towards the tail end of the school year we went into virtual classrooms supporting second- and fourth-graders in SAD 17 once a week,” Fournier said of the Oxford Hills School District. “We did that for seven weeks and our focus was on ecology – watersheds, wildlife and how it all connects. Each lesson would build on the next one the next week.

“There was still snow on the ground when we started,” he said. “Basically, I would go out with my phone in my hand and explore. Kind of channel my inner Steve Irwin. I would go out to the pond and show them frogs and tadpoles to identify. We would talk about metamorphosis and stuff like that. I made it fun and engaging and would sometimes be silly. At one point I almost fell in the river during the watershed lesson.”

Fournier made each session interactive to keep the students engaged and encouraged questions. He did not make things easy on himself, trekking outside for a lesson on watersheds during a downpour. But what better way to demonstrate how watersheds work than with Mother Nature calling the shots?

“I said, ‘Class, glad you’re joining me and this is the driest I’ll be for the next hour.’ And out the door I went,” Fournier said. “I started with water as it washes down into the lake and went backwards, up the streams and cascading waterfalls to the top of the mountain and then back down in a loop.

“I was able to show them sedimentation and how a watershed works. I was soaking wet, trying to keep my phone dry and the kids were right into it. It made a lot of sense to them.”

Fournier believes participating in the distance learning helped teachers, providing an alternative voice and face on the screen and giving students an educational diversion. Because many students in SAD 17 take part in camp programs, it also provided a sense of consistency for them.

“I was as hands-on as I could be,” Fournier said. “I did a lesson on survival and had the kids figure out what to put in their own survival kit and show them on the screen. I gave fire and shelter lessons and kept it in the moment.”

His lessons didn’t end with Zoom.

“I’d instruct them as after-class learning to put on their boots and go outside themselves,” Fournier said. “Check out the mud puddles, build a little dam in the stream. Whatever the theme of the week was, I encouraged them to go put into practice what they saw me do. Roll over logs to find salamanders, look for different tadpoles and aquatic insects in their ponds.

“The next week I’d have the kids tell everyone in the Zoom session what they did after the last lesson. They were able to share their own learning and they were engaged in it.”

Activity kits

When the school year ended in June, Fournier and the staff created activity kits based on four exploration themes: family fishing, wildlife and animal tracking, backyard gardening and bird watching. Some kits are for keeps and some loaned on request for one to two weeks.

“All four activities we selected have really risen in popularity because of the pandemic,” Fournier said. “We landed on targets that have been very valuable. They are meant to inspire backyard adventures for families or kids/siblings individually and the feedback on them has been great; parents have sent pictures of their kids fishing, sometimes it’s been the first time they’ve ever fished as a family and it caused them to go out to buy licenses and enjoy new activities together.”

A fishing kit provided by the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond. Submitted photo

The fishing kit comes with a rod and a tackle box, instructions for fishing and fish identification, recipes and how to clean and cook fish. It also has information from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, including maps on where to fish, crafts and activity ideas.

“The fishing kits have been a way for us to get the equipment we have here used,” Fournier said. “It doesn’t do us any good for it to sit around when there are kids who can benefit by getting outdoors and be active.”

The tracking kit comes with cards to identify animals, their habits and habitats. There’s a small amount of plaster to make a cast of a track, a scale to measure tracks and distance between them.

For backyard gardening, a starter kit distributed it early summer included plastic hand tools, peat pots, seed starter materials, seeds and information on growing certain vegetables. There was a journal to record those activities.

A backyard birding kit provided by the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond. Submitted photo

“The bird-watching kit is very popular,” Fournier said. “It comes with a bird-watching guide, binoculars and instruction for several versions of DIY bird feeders using natural materials.

“What we heard from parents about this kit is that it was a way for families to get out on hikes and visit new places,” he said.

The activity kits brought a small, unexpected monetary bonus for the camp. Regional School Unit 10 in Rumford and SAD 17 officials asked to be partners and used 21st Century grants to pay for 80 more kits for summer after-school programs.

Other 4-H leaders have requested kits, some county offices made their own, and 20 were sent to the 4-H office in Washington County, Fournier said.

Connecting

Fournier said he is particularly proud of a new program the Bryant Pond camp implemented for teenagers in Maine’s foster care system. In addition to lessons about nature, the program focused on communicating with them about making healthy choices and forming healthy relationships.

“We partnered with Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Health and Human Services to connect kids with nature,” he said. “We presented one virtual session on outdoor preparedness and a second one on hiking, backpacking and wilderness survival. And then we added a third session where we captured the themes from our activity kits – fishing, bird-watching and animal tracking.

“Teenage foster children are a sorely underserved group,” he said. “We were able to engage 30 individuals we would not have normally seen. Each participant received a starter kit to get outdoors and make their own connections in the natural world — a backpack with an AMC field guide, rain jacket, hooded sweatshirt and base layers from our Bryant Pond supply.

“Now we are a resource for them to find new activities,” he said. “They are reaching out to me and asking about places they can do their own fishing. These are kids that have never been connected to 4-H until now. Maybe some of them will enroll in other 4-H programs. Reaching non-4-H youth with our programming has been a major accomplishment.”

The three groups have decided to pursue additional grants and plan new sessions to start in the fall and continue through next spring.

Fall plans

While the Maine Department of Education has greenlighted schools in all counties to reopen, Fournier said with restrictions and guidelines subject to shift on little notice the camp is adjusting its fall plans to a more narrow scope and hopes to expand it again for spring sessions. This fall they will focus on SAD 17 schools and Telstar Freshmen Academy, part of SAD 44 in Bethel.

“We are rediscovering that kids actually thrive when they go outdoors to learn,” he said. “We’re looking to create more outdoor classroom spaces here for kids. Covered spaces like pavilions, and natural venues where the students can spread out. We are here to support learning hands-on in an experiential way that educators can dovetail with their class curriculum.

“Beyond the fall, we are looking at bringing more schools back for winter activities – snowshoeing, ice fishing, hiking.

“Our goal is to tie it to the schools’ curriculum. Keep their time here applicable to their learning and provide value to teachers. We are taking the experiential education model into their classrooms by pulling the classrooms outdoors.”

Even with the successful distance learning, Fournier said it’s still hard to see the camp so quiet.

“Normally we’d have several groups of campers, probably 120 or more, doing a wide range of activities, canoeing, boating, fishing, archery, hiking, geology, arts, he said. “We usually have 50 seasonal employees leading activities and instruction. But now we can only have three people working on-site at essential functions and three people working remotely.”

And finances are an issue, too.

“Even though we are part of the University of Maine, our revenue is largely generated by camp tuition, with some grant support,” Fournier said. “Being unable to run our programs, our funding has essentially stopped. Now more than ever we need support to help weather through the pandemic and keep serving Oxford county communities.”

To donate, go to https://extension.umaine.edu/bryantpond/support/ for give through the Maine 4-H Foundation.

For information about programs and services, call 207-665-2068 or visit the camp Facebook page.


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