Open House this Saturday, April 2nd

Join The Nature Place for our open house this Saturday, April 2nd, any time between 1 and 4 pm. We’ll show you around camp, answer any questions you have about this coming summer, and provide you with an overall picture of what, how, and why we do what we do!

Daffodils, blue bells, and hyacinths are popping up all over our campus, we hope you’ll show up too!

IMG_9895

Ed’s Corner

Staying Grounded

 

The only thing that is constant is change.
― Heraclitus

Our lives are full of change: climate, style, diet, opinion, music, expertise, technology, even our historical contexts…shifting sands at every turn. Nowhere, nowadays, is more in flux than the field of education, with parents and teachers facing a multimedia barrage of conventional and unconventional wisdoms on the care and feeding of happy, intelligent children. There’s the Core Curriculum, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds, A Nation at Risk, Race to the Top, and now STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. The Three R’s might not have served us all that well, but they at least had the virtue of simplicity, of not overthinking matters.

32 years ago, before I started The Nature Place, I visited some well-established day camps and asked their inveterate directors for advice. I was told, among other things, that access to computers was going to be essential; that awards, award ceremonies and trophies – especially trophies – were crucial; that my interest in a non-competitive environment was out of step – and might even be seen as ‘sissified’. On the contrary, I needed to have a full complement of sports programs, and camp would just not be camp without ‘color wars’, a combative week of partisan aggression that was an alleged favorite with the kids.   And a camp could not be financially stable without at least 500 campers, despite the potential for those numbers to make counseling the equivalent of crowd management.

I was advised to arrange rainy day contingencies with local movie theaters, to keep campers as happily dry and entertained as possible. And it would be prudent to include some academics, to reassure parents that the learning paradigm didn’t get lost in the summer shuffle. That last consideration has been steadily gaining traction lately: I understand some camps this summer will be weaving STEM concepts into their activities. We will also be weaving some stems this summer…the non-capitalized kind. 

You might wonder why I bothered to consult anyone, given that I eventually chose to ignore most of what these successful camp owners and directors told me. I really wasn’t being contrary or smug…I certainly didn’t suppose that I was the only one in the parade marching out of step. I was just following my instincts, not entirely confident that they would prove out. Gulp. In retrospect, whether I was bemused by naïveté or imbued by beginner’s mind, I decided to take my own counsel. Let’s just do it and see what happens.

Since then we’ve made many changes and adjustments — every year we re-examine our structure, our programming, our logistics. But even though we ask ourselves again and again whether we’re still doing what we set out to do, our philosophy hasn’t changed. The political scene, the cultural morass, the earth itself may be changing, but what we offer our campers seems to us to be…well, natural.

Ed, young, with troll

Even at a younger age Ed was hanging out with trolls…

Ballerinas in the Snow

Wild food forager and Nature Place activity leader Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild in our area. This month’s plant, the humble snowdrop, IS NOT edible!

When wandering through a meadow during late winter it is not uncommon to come across a cluster of pendulous white blossoms atop delicate green foliage poking up through the snow, like a group of ethereal ballerinas. Understandably, these delightful blooms have earned themselves the popular name of snowdrops.

Snowdrop

The common Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), and other related species are members of the showy Amaryllis family, and although far less bold and colorful than some of their cousins, snowdrops are still striking, as they are often the only flowers to appear in an otherwise barren winter landscape. Before the appearance of the blooms, a group of Snowdrops may be easily mistaken for a clump of grass, as its leaves are long and thin. However, once the flowers open, they demand all our attention with their elegant beauty. Even though they are cold-weather-lovers, the flowers are responsive to light and warmth, drooping mournfully on ill-lit days and opening their petals wide when the sun appears. Actually, what appear to be three long petals around the outside of the blossom are in reality sepals (the lower, protective part of a flower, usually green, which encloses the delicate bud before it opens). The shorter petals protrude from the middle of the flower like a funnel, tipped with green markings.

After the flowers have died away there remain seedpods filled with small white seeds that contain a substance which attracts ants. Foraging ants carry the tempting seed pods into their tunnels, eating all except that which is necessary to produce a new plant next year, and in this way snowdrops are able to ‘colonize’ new territory.

Snowdrops

Although inedible in any quantity, the snowdrop has some rather interesting medicinal properties. The plant contains galanthamine, an alkaloid which has proven successful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic injuries to the nervous system. Snowdrop lectin is also being researched for its possible uses in treating HIV.

The plant makes a very effective insecticide against beetles, wasps and moths, however its most effective property is its ability to lift the spirits after a long  winter, and to assure us that spring is just around the corner.

Polecat Weed

Storyteller Chuck Stead spins us a timely tale of early spring

By March we kids knew that winter was nearing its end. The chickadees that survived the cold, the snow, and the long nights were now dancing around wet Hemlock trunks, picking for food and singing a song that declared “Spring is com—ing!” Deer now dug through the melting snow and found last season’s acorns while the squirrels desperately tried to remember where their hidden nut stash was. But most remarkable was the skunk cabbage. Down along the cold wetlands we kids found the thick nub of skunk cabbage surrounded, halo-like, by the melting snow. The skunk cabbage begins to heat up through the frozen ground. By the time it breaks the surface its warm cabbage heart has melted an opening in the snow crust.

IMG_9888

Ricky Cramshaw and I were sent up along the Ramapo River to find some new cabbage hoods, (which are called spathes) brownish with a purple, shell-like pod and splotched with a green splatter. We were to yank a few of them from the cold earth and bring them back to Grandma Cramshaw. Ricky’s grandmother woke up with a nagging toothache and wanted the cabbage for a remedy. We walked up river under the railroad trestle and into a low lying place just below the well field. Sometimes a few skunk cabbages could be seen here. As we stepped through old broken ice and felt the spongy earth below our boots, I entirely forgot about our mission upon spotting some mink tracks. Mink tend to print their tracks in sets of two, toes spread like little hand prints. I wanted to see what the mink was up to so I followed the tracks back to the water.

Ricky shouted, “Here’s some!”

I looked at him over in the wetland, pulling off his gloves and hunkering down to grab a brown-hooded pod. Walking over to him I spotted another little splotched spathe in an open snow hole. I pulled off my gloves, squatted and wrapped my hands around the warm, hooded pod and yanked upward, landing on my butt. I grabbed the skunk cabbage nub and pulled as hard as I could, but this cabbage must have been hanging onto a boulder underground. I gave up and walked over to help Rick with his. We wrapped our hands together, counted to three and pulled straight up. Then, with a sucking sound followed by a deep gurgling, a long, pale, slimy root came up out of the earth and popped free. By now, after wrestling with this brown-headed, purple pod, its pungent odor (for which it is named) was so strong we could taste it in back of our teeth.

I said, “Why does she want these?”

“She got a toothache.”

I looked at the gangly pod and root in our hands and I said, “Doesn’t she know about the dentist?”

He shook his head and said, “She won’t go to Doc Yankee.”

“Doc who?”

“Doc Yankee: she calls him that ‘cause he yanks teeth out of your head.”

So we took the skunk cabbages, spathe and root, muddy and cold back to his grandmother. The old woman chopped them up on a board near her sink and soon the whole room was deeply skunk-scented, even her pig monster dogs wandered back into the house and crawled under the furniture. She slid the mess of stinking, slimy skunk cabbage into a bowl and then set it on her kitchen table. Then, standing over the bowl, she inhaled the cabbage stench once, twice, and then a long, deep, third time. She touched her cheek and smiled, the toothache was gone. She looked at us and said, “Now that’s good Polecat Weed!”

IMG_9890

Dinner Table Dilemmas

Nature Place cooking activity leader, Eva Szigeti, writes about food, family, and finding our way.

 
Sitting down to the table and sharing food with our family is mostly a source of pleasure. But dinner could easily turn into a less-than-pleasant power struggle if children are not happy with the food being served.

As parents we make dietary choices not only for ourselves but for our offspring as well.  We do our best to stay informed and to make the right decisions. We try to educate ourselves: we read, we research online, we talk to those who have more experience than we do, we learn from our own experience and our mistakes. On our quest for best dietary rules for our family, we are bombarded with information and sometimes it is not easy to weed out pseudoscience, myths, folk wisdom, or marketing strategies masked as science. The quantity of of information itself can be overwhelming and is often contradictory. We try to answer for ourselves a multitude of questions: Is gluten harmful to my children? Would they be better off on a vegetarian diet? Paleo perhaps? Is red meat a good choice? Is lactose making my child hyper? How much sugar is too much? Should I limit the intake of fresh fruit due to its sugar content? Do they need to take omega-3 supplements? Is the latest superfood truly beneficial for my child, or is all the fuss just a marketing strategy? It used to be common knowledge that peanuts should be avoided at an early age because their consumption might trigger an allergy. According to more recent research giving peanuts at an early age might actually prevent peanut allergies. So what does a new parent do about peanuts? It seems that the list of questions never ends. We are lost in a jungle of information and we feel more confused than informed.

Feeling overwhelmed, I choose to step back, take a deep breath and using the best of my knowledge, I set up my own dietary rules. They are based on information I deem scientific, on common sense, and intuition. Of course I am aware that I am also caring the baggage of my upbringing, culture, beliefs, and my own dietary habits that will undoubtedly influence my decision. The balancing act starts.

Once decisions are made and rules are set, meals are planned, cooked and eaten. Well, hopefully eaten. Since most of us incorporate into daily meal plans foods that not all children are excited about, we face the next dilemma: how to motivate children to try foods they are resistant to eating, how much to encourage and push. Is modeling right eating habits enough? Of course, involving children in growing food and cooking is a great proven strategy for growing good eaters, but it is not always an option.

How we perceive food is based not only on its flavor and texture. Sometimes giving a dish a special name makes all the difference. When I had offered my kids a vegetarian bean chili and called it Bean Chili, no one was interested. I served the very same dish next time disguised under the name of Cowboy Beans. The children were very excited, seconds were served and we had no leftovers that day. Ever since it’s been one of my kid’s favorite meals.

When a young child is more likely to eat broccoli if I call the florets ‘little trees’, I am more than willing to call them just that. Rice and other grains can be made into ‘mountains’ by using a small porcelain cup as a mold. A rain of fresh herbs falling on the mountaintop makes the rice even more appealing. Just playing with words can sometimes be a tremendous help.

Then there is the aesthetics of food presentation.  I perceive it as the finale of the cooking process. The meal starts with a visual feast, then as we inhale the aroma of the food, smell gives us a hint regarding flavor and our taste buds are ready… I enjoy arranging food on a plate and on the table almost as much as eating it. With a nice presentation we honor the food and the work that went into preparing it.

IMG_3656

Still, I do want my children to learn to value food for what it is, and I do not like to go overboard with making dishes look overly ‘child friendly’. The food on the plate should be visually appealing, but flower-shaped pancakes or sandwiches resembling hearts do not appeal to me. Perhaps a special occasion like a birthday or seasonal celebration can be an exception, such as the ‘duck pond” we made on a special spring day.

Since eggs have a green light on the list of my dietary rules, an egg dish is an obvious choice for the season. Eggs not only symbolize spring and a new beginning of the cycle of life, but they are also abundant at this time of the year. For the last few weeks we have been finding a nest full of eggs every day. Some of our hens lay brown eggs, while eggs of our Ameraucana chicken have an unusual green tint. Children like to collect eggs as much as they enjoy the dishes made out of them.

IMG_3624

 
Duck Pond

4 hard-boiled eggs
2 teaspoons butter
½ teaspoon mustard
1 tablespoon sour cream
½ cup plain yogurt
salt and black pepper to taste

boiled potato
8 black peppercorns
piece of carrot

 
Cut the eggs in half, gently take out the yolks. In a small mixing bowl combine the yolks, butter, mustard, sour cream, salt and black pepper. Mix until smooth. Refill the eggs with the mixture. Combine the leftover egg yolk mixture with the yogurt. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spread the yogurt on a plate. Arrange the eggs, cut side down on the yogurt “pond”. Mash the potato and form small balls, add peppercorns for eyes and pieces of carrot for a beak. Use a toothpick to attach the ‘head’ to the ‘body’.

IMG_3652

 
Eva Szigeti operates Pinebrook Garden Day Care, child-care centered around hands-on homesteading activities and free creative play. She also offers cooking and fiber craft classes for children and programs for homeschoolers.  For the past three summers Eva has been teaching cooking at The Nature Place Day Camp.

Maple Sugaring & Open House This Saturday, March 5th

Join The Nature Place for our annual maple sugaring program, it’s surely our sweetest event!

This program is happening twice on Saturday, once from 11 am – Noon, and then again from 2 – 3 pm.

We’ll learn all about maple sugaring, tap trees, boil sap over a fire, and taste syrup over crushed ice, accompanied by a dill pickle! Participants will take home their own spouts and simple, clear instructions for making your own maple syrup at home.

Between programs you can learn more about The Nature Place Day Camp during our open house, any time between Noon and 2 pm.

138044 CLIFFSIDE PARK, NJ MAPLE SUGARING DEMONSTARTION 2-25-15 Ed and Daniel Bieber of The Nature Place Day Camp demonstrated maple sugaring at the Cliffside Park Public Library on Feb. 25, 2015. KRYSTI SABINS/FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER

138044 CLIFFSIDE PARK, NJ MAPLE SUGARING DEMONSTARTION 2-25-15 Ed and Daniel Bieber of The Nature Place Day Camp demonstrated maple sugaring at the Cliffside Park Public Library on Feb. 25, 2015. KRYSTI SABINS/FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER