By Mary Hightower
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Under blue skies and in blistering temperatures youngsters squealed about the slippery fish they just caught, while others in their bright orange life jackets, steered silver canoes around Lake Laverne. The Arkansas Outdoor School Adventure Day looked like any summer day camp.
Except for the masks and social distancing and all the sanitizer.
“Our campers are handling the ‘new normal’ well,” said Mike Simmons, Arkansas Outdoor School day camp coordinator for the Arkansas 4-H program. “We haven’t had any complaints about masks or physical distancing. I think kids are just happy to be outside having fun.”
The COVID summer meant programs like Arkansas 4-H had to find new ways to deliver beloved camping experiences, either in-person or virtually. Arkansas 4-H is the youth development program of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
“At the beginning, I was holding on to hope that by the late summer we might be able to have camps,” said Eric DeVries, Arkansas Outdoor School program coordinator. “As the COVID situation progressed we realized the safer choice was to wait until we learned more.
“We have been working on the safety protocols since the beginning of the outbreak. As more information came out the plans were modified to match best practices,” he said.
The best practices meant new tasks and increased vigilance for camp counselors and supervisors. Among other things, COVID safety protocols saw DeVries sanitizing arrows the campers had just used in their archery activity and Simmons spraying and wiping down kayaks. Program tech Jewell Miller made sure camper helmets and harnesses were wiped down, and that each camper got a handful of sanitizer after descending the indoor climbing wall.
Simmons said the hardest thing about camping during COVID-19 is “remembering not to touch my face … and all the cleaning before, during and after the programs.”
Best practices also included small group sizes: 10 or fewer youngsters at a time
Glad to be out of the house
“Keeping kids in masks and socially distant is difficult,” DeVries said. Still, “I have been amazed by the kids. They seem to adapt better than anyone. They are having fun, being kids, glad to finally be out of their homes and around someone their age.”
Adriane Miller has two daughters in the camp.
“The Miller girls have a special place in their heart for the Natural State. We’ve moved away and attended other camps, but they absolutely love the hiking, fishing, and swimming areas near Little Rock,” Miller said. “AOS Adventure Day is an incredible program for their physical and mental health during this pandemic.”
When asked what it was like to be outside at camp, one group in early August yelled, “It’s great!”
“It’s really fun to be out of the house and be able to be out here and do things I wouldn’t be able to do in my own backyard,” said camper Kylie Belverstone.
Lillia Miller said “it feels good to be at camp because I’ve found friends from my school who are here and it’s also fun to be outside the house.”
Keeping the (camp) fire burning
Creenna Bocksnick, the camping coordinator for the Arkansas 4-H program, took another tack with her programs, keeping the flames alive virtually.
Every week, she has offered a 4-H virtual camp through Facebook and Zoom. On Facebook, she published dates, times and lists of supplies for the projects they’ll complete together during the virtual camp.
Bocksnick has even brought the campfire online. Her Fourth Friday Virtual Campfires are broadcast live from a fire pit at the home she shares with husband Jesse, the 4-H outdoor skills coordinator. While no campfire is required of participants, it’s encouraged and campers are advised to enjoy a favorite snack. Zooming around the virtual campfire is an opportunity for the campers to share what they created in her other virtual camps and just connect.
The idea for a virtual campfire arose “from a conversation Jesse and I had,” she said. “We were trying to come up with a way for youth to engage their friends from across the state in an informal setting versus a structured program.”
Going online was not without challenges at a time when both adults and children worry about the amount of screen time they get every day.
“The most difficult thing was figuring out what activities would work well virtually as well as a time frame that would keep campers engaged but not overdo it and cause screen fatigue,” Bocksnick said.
Her interns, Zoe Pitman and Grace Shipman “did a house scavenger hunt with a couple of the camps,” Bocksnick said. “The kids, mostly preteen and younger, really enjoyed playing. They were all active, smiling, and interacting.
“I have been offering weekly virtual camp sessions for 18 weeks, as of July 22,” she said. “They were open to anyone and were offered for free. These weekly sessions will continue until members return to school. We wanted to provide a constant experience that 4-H’ers could join when they otherwise were not able to attend meetings or school.”
Bocksnick offered extended online sessions to replace traditional summer camps and “families had a range of registration options ranging from free to paying a fee that included camp supplies and shirt,” she said.
The pivot to virtual camping wasn’t hard for the campers.
“The kids handled it really well. They had already been doing things virtually so it wasn’t a big leap for them,” Bocksnick said.
The new format opened a new world for some of the youngsters.
“Around two-thirds of our virtual campers have never attended camp in the past,” she said.
“We plan to keep some kind of virtual programming in the future.”
Two more sessions of the AOS Adventure Camp were scheduled for Aug. 12 and 19. To learn more visit: www.uaex.edu/daycamp.
To learn about extension and research programs in Arkansas, visit www.division.uaex.edu, Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk, @uaex_edu or @ArkAgResearch.