Berkshire Botanical Garden camp gives kids real taste of nature

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STOCKBRIDGE — At age 8, Coulson Sutherland, is now a two-year veteran at Berkshire Botanical Garden's "Farm in the Garden" summer camp.Coulson says his favorite activity is "hanging out with the livestock." He enjoys walking the goats using something similar to a dog collar and leash, and affectionately mentions spending time with a younger goat, Thomas, which isn't yet old enough to be walked.
He said he loves the livestock so much because "we get to brush them and clean up their poo," noting the older sheep are the hardest to brush because they have "wool hanging down, and it gets soggy."

While this might not sound like fun for everyone, the kids at this camp fully embrace all aspects of agriculture, from the dirty work of mucking pens to the joy of turning goat's milk into frozen yogurt treats to be eaten at their weekly "farm feast."

The camp runs for seven sessions between July and August. Coulson said he starting going there after his older sister, April, now 11, had a great first summer there. When asked about how it felt watching her younger brother be a part of the same camp, she said, "It's exciting because I see him switch from energetic to focused in a matter of minutes."

Just like her younger brother, April loves the animals there. She said that if she had to pick a favorite animal at the camp, it would be a little lamb affectionately named "Tiny Tim." She said it's important for people her age "to be with the animals and to learn to understand them. If kids don't have that experience, they will think that humans rule the world."

Both siblings also enjoy being with the other campers. Coulson said he makes new friends every year, and "some are from the same area and some are from different areas." Coulson takes part in sports camps as well, but says farm camp is "different, because there are more activities here."

Each session enrolls up to 25 kids, who are then placed in one of three age divisions: "Planters" are 5- to 7-year-olds; "Harvesters" are 8 to 10, and "Farmers" are 11 to 14. April said she loves being a part of the Farmers because "they are more involved with things and they get to help the [younger] kids."

Though she has a few more years before she ages out of camp, April said she's considering becoming a CIT, a counselor-in-training, "because when this camp is over, it's over, and I don't want it to end."

The camp provides age-appropriate activities that are designed to challenge the kids but fit their capabilities. Each group starts with a different chore in the morning, which may include weeding, watering the garden and taking care of the livestock.

"At camp, we're all about meaningful work. We intend to educate kids and give them the experiences and a sense of place here," says Alex Fylypovych, the camp's director.

During a reporter's recent visit to the camp, the Harvesters were learning how to make yogurt from goat's milk by heating it, seasoning it then letting it set overnight.

While the Planters used citrus for their yogurt, the Harvesters added fresh herbs from the Berkshire Botanical Garden beds, a healthy alternative to artificial flavoring and sugars. A lead educator, Eileen Zajac, taught them how to properly identify and pick the leaves. Some kids were hesitant to approach a lemon balm plant after they caught wind of a "spider invasion." While the couple of meandering spiders didn't seem to mind the campers, the kids moved on to picking lavender and stevia leaves. The counselor reminded them to only pick one or two leaves each, and not to harvest the entire plant.

"It's all part of the learning process, and it's adorable," Fylypovych said.

The kids certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves as they added their harvested herbs to the yogurt base, laughing and talking as if they were lifelong friends. Fylypovych said, "To see the smiling faces and the laughter and kids completing activities successfully is a fantastic feeling."

While the camp offers both indoor and outdoor activities and classroom spaces, Coulson said he prefers being outside. In the garden, the children's fascination and excitement is palpable as they become stimulated by their surroundings. The earthy scents of fresh herbs mingle with the smells of musky farm animals, wafting throughout the grounds on the warm summer breeze. The constant humming of insects and chattering children create an atmosphere that sounds, smells and feels like summer at its best.

At the end of the week, the kids have a farm feast, where they make a pizza from scratch. That means no canned pizza sauce for this group. When a group makes something, the entire camp gets to try it, regardless of whether they helped to make it. Coulson said he likes trying the goat cheese they make from scratch every year. The kids also make quiches with the fresh vegetables, herbs and eggs they pick, then whip up meringues using the leftover egg whites.

Each day, the whole camp meets in a circle first thing in the morning and before they go home in the afternoon. They talk about their highlights and challenges, and also play games in the circles as a communal activity. April said, "I think it's a nice way to interact with other kids and the games help everyone get to know each other." Her favorite game is the camp's version of four corners.

One of the biggest lessons learned in the camp is ownership, over the things they grow, the actions they make and the ideas they bring to the table. On the Thursday of every weekly session, the kids set up a farm stand where they sell food they have made, or the produce and honey they've harvested to their families and visitors. All of the money that is made goes toward funding another kid's summer camp experience and support education activities.
"They think that it's a great thing," Fylypovych said. "It's wonderful to see kids caring so much."

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