Shelburne Farms Adventures Camp Makes the Big Move Outdoors: All Day, Every Day

“Can we go back and play in

nature’s playground”


“I’m hungry, can we eat those



“I wonder if the fairies left us a note.”


-Campers, Week 1,

Outdoor Adventures Camp

 by Linda Wellings

Shelburne Farms has been offering summer day camps for young children for over twenty years.  The camps vary from half to all day for children ages 4 to 17.  The camps for the younger children are based out of our main building, the Farm Barn, and start the day in a classroom, then head out on the land for daily adventures.  Our primary goal throughout the seasons for our Adventure Early Childhood Program is to be outdoors as much as possible.  This summer, after much discussion, excitement, and trepidation, we made the decision to conduct our all day camps for 5, 6, and 7 year olds entirely outdoors.

Then staff began to envision the daily camp program.  We knew we didn’t want it to be the indoor camp moved outside.  We wanted minimal supplies, and to instead depend on the wonders of the forest and fields to provide motivation and loose parts with which to explore and play.  Our only supplies were nature journals made from paper and covered with a birch bark, pencils, markers, crayons, kid size garden tools, plastic buckets to move wood chips around our site, lots of good children books both fiction and non fiction relating to the animals and plants of the forest, fields, and garden.  We also brought some cooking tools; bowls, knives, cutting boards, foil, s’more supplies and matches. Our woodland staff cut kid sized stumps and chairs to use around the camp fire and two beautiful, rough slab wood tables.


This new offering necessitated some additional communication with families on the new logistics of spending the entire day outside, and what it would mean for their child:  drop off in the forest by our sugarhouse, snack  and lunch in the woods or fields, rolling over logs, digging in the garden, getting dirty and having fun!  It would also involve using a Port-o-let, or going to the bathroom in the woods!  We made sure parents understood this new set up, and gave them the opportunity to put their child into another camp.  No one requested a move.

As the first day of camp approached, we were ready to go, but anxious-- How would campers and parents react to this new setting?  Our “outdoor classroom” was up a hill behind the barn- could parents navigate the hill?  Would it be accessible for the campers and their families?  Though we had a Plan B for those parents or guardians who could not manage the climb, we still worried. Staff was also apprehensive about following a more emergent teaching plan...what would we do each day, would we have the materials we needed, would kids be comfortable, have fun and learn?

All these questions were answered on the first day of camp!  Parents loved the walk up the hill, it was a great start to the day.  Campers immediately started exploring their new ‘classroom’, looking under logs, drawing in their journals, and making tree cookie necklaces. At our first circle gathering we set the guidelines for the week.  Written on birch bark were the three guidelines: Respect, Be Safe, and Have Fun.  After talking about what they would look, sound and feel like, we hiked up to Sheep’s Knoll for morning snack.  We were astounded by our campers’ appetites for both food and learning.

As the week progressed, the staff continued to be awed by our campers.  The children’s enthusiasm for creating a daily plan built around their own interests reinforced our decision to be more emergent.  Parents’ stories supported our own observations-- when asking her daughter what was on tap for tomorrow at camp, one mother was told, ‘Don’t worry, the teachers will ask what we would like to do and we’ll tell them.’   We closed each day with the campers by talking about the possibilities for tomorrow, and the children’s suggestions became the adventure choices for the next day.

We started the week with a big pile of wood chips purposefully situated near our camp site.  Every day upon entry, several campers would pick up tools and get to work filling buckets with chips and spreading them out around our site where they thought they were needed.  Throughout the day, different children would tackle the chip pile and slowly but steadily the chip pile decreased.

The first week of camp took place during the Olympics, and one morning a group of campers decided to create an Olympic stump jumping event!  Tree stumps around the fire circle were arranged so that children had to walk on stumps and never put their feet on the ground.  We also had downed-tree-balance-beam-walking and vine-swinging events!

A large, upturned stump held magic as well.  Several mornings it became a ‘pirate ship’ and we definitely heard threats of having someone have to walk the plank!  Nature’s Playground, an area of our forest where grape vines have grown wild for years and hang in perfect ‘Tarzan swings’ or curly cues where children can climb nature’s jungle gym, became a daily destination for some, while others continued down the wooded path  to Fairyville and spent their time creating fairy houses.  These campers would return daily to check and see if the fairies had left any notes…they were sure the slabs of wood with beetle carvings were written by the fairies and only need to be translated for them to understand the message.

Our staff welcomed this play, and would also engage campers in other options: turning over logs looking for salamanders and other critters, reading books, writing in journals or harvesting vegetables from the garden.  Every day was easily filled with age appropriate experiences for our campers- based both in the wonders of the natural world, as well as in fantasy.  The staff was pleasantly surprised by how fast the days went by when we let children help determine the events of the day.  Responsibility for our adventures was shared and everyone benefited.

As the first week closed, the staff unanimously agreed that it had been a huge success.  But what about the parents?  Their sentiments were apparent as each day they hung around          after camp was over, led by their children to visit the garden or nature’s playground.  On the last morning we had a camp fire, and parents did not want to leave.  Formal camp evaluations came back with glowing remarks such as ‘being outside all day made it so unique’ or ‘the meeting place was fantastic.’ 

With such good feeling from campers, parents and staff, we are eager to add more ‘totally outdoor camps’ next summer.  We are also planning to bring what we learned in the woods this summer to make better use of our outdoor classroom throughout the year. Even in winter!

Download this article here.

Download the entire Fall 2012 Newsletter here.


Share this: