If you could spend the day pressing apple cider, collecting still-warm eggs, or going on a scavenger hunt for forest animal homes, wouldn’t you? Those are just a few ways children are engaging in Stonewall Farm’s Outdoor Enrichment and Educational Support program for kids in kindergarten through grade 5.
“After a highly successful summer camp program, we knew we could offer safe programs using the farm as an outdoor classroom with the back-up of ample indoor space in inclement weather,” said Tara Pratt, Stonewall Farm’s youth education director. Seeing a significant need in the community, the farm’s staff decided to put their 25-year history of profound educational programming to use in a creative, new way this fall.
“During a time that school-aged childcare, time outdoors, socialization and remote learning are all on a child’s daily checklist, our staff feel like we are making a real difference,” Pratt said. Each week, they hear from more families looking to join. Participating children often say things like, “Today was the best day ever” or “Can I come back to Stonewall every day?”
It’s clear the work Stonewall’s team is doing provides children with a much-needed sense of normalcy (and play!) during an uncertain and chaotic time.
“Although there has always been research encouraging outdoor education for children and the impact on their mental and physical health, new research is suggesting that it is more beneficial now than ever,” Pratt noted.
Each day at Stonewall encompasses a range of outdoor activities tied to a seasonal theme. Children create leaf insects, interact with cows, work with wool and play camouflage. In addition, every day has built-in time for group circle, remote learning, forest free play, crafting, games and other interest-based activities.
A local family, the Klopchin’s, shared that their daughter has loved attending and “comes home dirty, as a kid should, and with a smile on her face. We are really grateful to be able to send her to a place that teaches her about nature and allows kids to be kids.” The family also mentioned how critical the flexible schedule has been as they, like all families, try to navigate the “new normal.”
Outdoor Enrichment and Educational Support runs Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., with three or five-day options (which receive a discount) or drop-in style scheduling.
“We’re feeling really positive about providing a schedule that has the ability to change as school plans continue to morph,” Pratt said.
Despite managing the varying schedules and school workloads of the children, Pratt noted that what has really helped is “building strong relationships with each student to understand their learning style, strengths and personality, just as their classroom teacher would.”
Stonewall staff also have many practices in place to keep everyone healthy, including leveraging outdoor spaces and when necessary, large indoor areas that allow for distancing. Staff also follow all New Hampshire 2.0 guidelines for day camps, including daily screenings, limited group sizes without intermingling, regular handwashing and frequent disinfecting of supplies.
“We really feel honored to be able to provide this service to the community,” said Stonewall Farm’s Executive Director, Julie Davenson. “As a working parent myself, I can appreciate its value.”
Though the situation will continue to evolve, she and Pratt are confident about continuing programming as we move into the colder months. They’ll be putting an emphasis on proper gear, keeping everyone active in the outdoors, and taking advantage of all of the farm’s resources, including access to a fire pit.
“Our goal … is to create a positive relationship between our students and the natural world,” Pratt said, adding that keeping kids warm and dry is an integral part of that.
But beyond the logistics, New England’s snowy season actually offers a beautiful environment.
“Children love thrilling winter opportunities such as snowshoeing, sledding and animal tracking,” Pratt said.
Davenson hopes that even aside from Stonewall’s educational programs, the farm will continue to serve as “a place of respite and retreat for many people in the community who seek solace in our forests and on the trails, free of charge every single day of the year.”
To learn more about Stonewall Farm’s programs or volunteering, visit stonewallfarm.org or contact Julie Davenson at (603) 357-7278.