Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of a pandemic will stay Hburg’s outdoor learning

Trey Smith (left) and Diar Kaussler, staff members at Camp Horizons, at one of the many hand-washing stations around the property – this one built from a repurposed canoe.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Imagine you’re 9 years old, scampering through the woods on old game trails. You find a token with a food or water symbol on it, and run back to the Nature Center – a yurt filled with turtles in aquariums and natural history illustrations. Some of your classmates bring back tokens, too. Others couldn’t find any. This is how competition works in the wild, your instructor explains. With limited supplies, sometimes there aren’t enough resources for a population of wild animals.

This is one of the activities children enrolled in the Horizons Learning Foundation enrichment program will experience now that the 2020-21 school year commenced Monday. The foundation, in partnership with the Harrisonburg City Public Schools, has created a semester-long outdoor school in response to the division moving to virtual learning for most students this fall. Two locations – Camp Horizons, a 300-acre summer camp — and the affiliated, 50-acre Horizon’s Edge sports campus, can each host 124 students.

 “I can tell you kids aren’t going to be bored,” said Sal Romero, director of equity and community engagement for the schools. 

Both locations will break students up into small, grade-specific “pods,” each with an instructor who mentors them through their online classwork each morning and then guides them through activities like soccer games, archery, fire-building, fiber arts, swimming and high ropes courses. 

When each student arrives in the morning, they’ll have their temperature checked before joining their pod. The Horizons staff will enforce health precautions like face coverings, frequent hand-washing and social distancing outside.

“They still have to get to that online piece, but we are backing that up by having mentors in real time, the same way your parents would be there hounding you,” said Trey Smith, director of the outdoor learning center at Camp Horizons.

On the screened-in porch of the arts and crafts cabin, students can paint, make fiber arts, and try out a maker’s space modeled after the one at the Explore More Discovery Museum in Harrisonburg.

Large outdoor campuses designed for teaching children are particularly well-poised to fill the gap left by traditional classrooms shuttered by the pandemic, especially as young students engaged in virtual learning need oversight if their parents or guardians work outside the home.

“There is a struggle in Harrisonburg to find care,” said Diar Kaussler, Horizon’s director of business development. “We thought, since we have all this space, we can actually create smaller pods and have a larger number of children served.”

The city schools are also working with childcare providers Second Home and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harrisonburg and Rockingham, but they can only host 60 and 50 students, respectively. As of last Wednesday, Horizons Learning Foundation only had about 35 kids enrolled in their program, which runs from September 10 to December 18, and is open to both city and county students from kindergarten through 7th grade. 

Families have the option to send their kids to the outdoor school two, three, four or five days a week. The program costs $45 per day, so for a family to enroll their child in the program five days a week, it would total about $3,000.

Fifty elementary school students from Harrisonburg will receive full scholarships to attend the Horizon’s Edge sports campus five days a week. Romero said he put together a committee including a social worker, home school liaison, and school counselor to develop parameters for each elementary school in the division to “identify some of the neediest students.”

“We would like for them to have the opportunity to experience the community’s opportunities that they oftentimes don’t have the chance to explore,” Romero said.

Because the sports campus sits closer to downtown Harrisonburg, transportation, breakfast, and lunch will be included for its attendees – which also makes it the easiest choice to host students who rely on school meals. For families who send their kids out to the camp location, they’ll have the option to pack lunches or buy them for five dollars a day. The camp has a farm-to-table garden and livestock barn that the kids help with – picking tomatoes, identifying “good bugs and bad bugs” and collecting eggs. 

“I think kids are settling into a state of lethargy right now because they’re not physically active,” Smith said. “When I’ve given tours, I’ve said the words, ‘I think our goal is really just to make your kid tired,’ and the parents are like, ‘Yes!’

Students at the camp location will also get to study the ecosystems of streams and ponds on the property.

The two locations will have slightly different curricula – the sports campus will focus more on general STEM education, including rocketry, laboratory science, drones and coding. The camp naturally lends itself to more environmental science and nature exploration. Besides the benefits of fresh air and exercise, the programs will also give students the opportunity to engage with some classmates in person, albeit at a distance.

“Developmentally, to go six to eight months without really having a meaningful conversation and connection with kids your own age, I can’t imagine what that will do,” Smith said. 

Horizons has hired a few extra staff members for the semester, and all of them are attending trainings led by the city schools in topics like trauma-informed care, behavior management, restorative justice and computer learning.

Smith said they can instruct the students almost entirely outside, even with their semester ending in mid-December.

“Inclement weather, we’re pretty good. Those covered shelters do a really good job. We also have outdoor space heaters. But for the most part we should just be able to do warm-up stations and things like that,” Smith said.

Kaussler, who originally hails from Sweden, added, “you’d be surprised how much gloves, hats, and a good coat can do!”

A llama is one of the resident farm animals that students enrolled in the Horizons Learning Foundation enrichment program at Camp Horizons will get to care for this fall.

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