‘Nature is the best teacher’

Mass Audubon plans a nature-based preschool at Felix Neck’s new barn, beginning in 2019.

Elliot Berz inspects the bottom of his net for critters. —Bella Bennett

In a small pond tucked into the forest and surrounded by shrubs, five or six kids and a muddy counselor wade knee-deep, sliding nets through the water. The kids are quick to stop and check their catch, running to the shore to deposit creatures into waiting bins. Others sit beside their catch, observing and learning about each new animal they meet. Suzan Bellincampi, the director of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, and Josey Kirkland, the director of Felix Neck’s Fern and Feather natural history day camp, are nestled in among the throng of campers and counselors, sharing their knowledge of everything from tadpoles to water beetles.

There are endless activities at Felix Neck for all ages. Each summer, Fern and Feather day camp welcomes hundreds of new and returning campers. Children ages 4 through 14 are divided by age group, while those phasing out of camp age are invited to return as leaders in training, junior counselors, and counselors, depending on their age. Felix Neck is a sanctuary of lifelong learning, with a mission to expand its reach.

Where campers are concerned, bad weather used to mean time inside the cozy learning center, which in recent years has gotten a bit too small for the growing program. After a year of dedicated fundraising and hard work, the camp has built a brand-new four-season barn.

“Our camp got bigger without our space getting bigger,” Ms. Bellincampi said. Initially, Felix Neck aimed for a three-season barn. The institution began fundraising last August, with a goal of $200,000 to build a barn before this summer season. Over a six-month period, Felix Neck raised $200,000 through private donations and grants, and decided to aim higher. “We even had a 6-year-old give us his allowance; it was really a community effort,” Ms. Bellincampi said.

“Bottom line,” Ms. Kirkland said, “we needed a camp structure for this summer.”

The commitment to building this barn sparked another idea. Due to the high volume of kids entering Island preschools, many are full and have waiting lists. Ms. Bellincampi and Ms. Kirkland saw this barn as an opportunity to give back to the community in a new way, and expand the barn from a space for campers to a homebase for a nature-based preschool program as well. “We reach kids from age 4 and up, and we do preschool programs for Island preschools, but one of the things that the barn is going to enable us to do is have our own nature-based preschool. There is a huge demand for preschools on the Island — they’re all filled with waiting lists — and the nature-based preschool movement is something that Mass Audubon already does, and it’s something that we really believe is a great way for children to learn, through experiencing nature,” Ms. Bellincampi explained.

“Once we got this idea [to expand into a nature-based preschool], we got really excited about it. We were realizing that we could do a lot more with this space, and began thinking about how to make a case for a four-season, year-round space,” Ms. Kirkland added.

An MV Youth grant turned out to be the perfect solution. “We worked on a grant and pitched our idea that we’ve been quietly doing this work [as an established summer camp] for 53 years, we’ve expanded, and the way that we would serve the community year-round would be with a nature-based preschool. And they loved it,” Ms. Kirkland said. Mass Audubon already has four established, licensed, nature-based preschools located throughout the state, so the idea to do so at Felix Neck is based on a successful model. The MV Youth foundation recognized this, and awarded Felix Neck $350,000 to winterize their original barn plan to meet local and statewide preschool licensing standards. The sanctuary hopes to welcome its first preschool class in 2019.

From left, Felix Neck campers Hollis Tilton, Evan Sabel, Jada Hicks, Fionn Stinson, Frederika Amodio, and Evelyn Lavigne stand in front of Felix Neck’s new barn. —Stacey Rupolo

Autumn Construction contracted an Amish group from Pennsylvania to build the prefabricated building, which went up in a mere 48 hours. With beautiful honey-colored rustic wooden walls sporting rows of cubbies and hooks around a big, high-ceilinged space for activities, one would never suspect that the barn was such a swiftly constructed design. The barn doors remain open all day, allowing children to run in and out between activities.

“Giving kids their own space is really important,” Ms. Bellincampi said of the barn. “When it would rain last year, there would be kids in my office and the hallways. It was kind of crazy. The good news is, there is a lot of demand for nature-based education, which is really important to kids’ development, learning, experience, and well-being. The bad news is we were just kind of stuffing them in everywhere when the weather didn’t permit us to be outside. It’s good for kids not to feel as though they’re encroaching.”

Lilah York clambers down a tree trunk. —Stacey Rupolo

“They’re taking real ownership of it too,” Ms. Kirkland added. “Some of our explorers [campers ages 7 and 8] planted flowers there last week, which was really sweet. In the future we’re thinking about setting up gardens and compost, and the campers can actually take part in that and take ownership, so we’re fundraising for that.”

Ms. Bellincampi continued, “The next step is, we’re fundraising for the bookshelves, chairs, carpets, and the educational materials and the gardens — we want to do a bird garden and a scented garden. We want to make the indoor learning and the outdoor learning seamlessly come together. To have a building to do nature camp is kind of a funny concept, but in being free and playing in nature, you need to have the security of a space.”

Christina Raichle paints Leo Russel’s face during afternoon activities. —Stacey Rupolo

As second-season camp counselor Christina Raichle, a rising junior at Skidmore College, said, “The barn is a huge game-changer. Before we were outside and it was kind of intertwined with the public programs. Because there wasn’t a divide, we felt like we were encroaching, so it was really nice to have our own space. We did move out [to the area where the barn now is] last summer, but we had a tent, and it wasn’t the best in storms. The barn is a huge help now.”