Girls! At Science Camp.

Brenna (12yo) uses strike magnesium flint to light a campfire.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a family friend whose 12 year old daughter was attending a local science camp. A story had just run in our local paper, a cute little telling of the experience the 15 campers were having at Survival Science Camp being held at our local nature preserve. There was just one problem, and it was a BIG one. The article made no mention of ANY of the girls attending the camp. One third of the campers were girls, yet except for a pair of legs in an accompanying photo, you’d never know it. I’m sure it was just an oversight. Thing is, I get a little bothered when girls are overlooked. So here’s Pigtail Pals’ version of Survival Science Camp….

I arrived at Janesville’s Outdoor Science Lab feeling like a girl again. The Survival Science Campers that I was here to interview were all around twelve years old, which was the age I began working as a camp counselor, spending my next six summers at a day camp settled into the Wisconsin prairie. There are few places more pretty than Wisconsin in the summertime, and running around in the woods and stomping through rivers was a great way to come of age.

As I approached the group of parents and campers circled around the fire pit, I had to chuckle as I observed Brenna, 12 year old extraordinaire, light the camp fire with strike magnesium flint. In part, it was humorous because Brenna is the daughter of a firefighter, but also because as she did so, and the embers started smoking and then crackling, one of the boys raised his arms victoriously in the air and said “WE HAVE FIRE! We are cavemen!”. Brenna looked up at him and rolled her eyes, and I couldn’t resist. “Caveman, I think by ‘we’ you mean ‘she’. She has fire. Just sayin.”

Brenna cooks me breakfast - a chocolate chip banana split.

Brenna came over and gave me a hug and I started jumping up and down telling her how excited I was to hang out with her for the morning. I’m sure Christianne Anamanpour would have kept her cool, but I was embedded with science-loving middle school girls offering to cook me a breakfast of chocolate chip banana splits and s’mores.

“So Brenna, how did it feel to light our fire with a group of people watching you. You didn’t even use matches!” -Me

“I was happy. I’ve never done that before. I’m not allowed to light fires.” -Brenna

“What has been the coolest part about this week?” -Me

“Definitely lighting fires with flint. And finding people when they got lost. We learned a lot of new things and pushed our limits.” -Brenna

One happy sigh from me and a tummy full of camp fire melted chocolatey-goodness later, we walked around the trails so Brenna and her friends could tell me more about this week and what they learned from their fearless survival instructors, Neil Boys and David Hintze, science teachers at Parker High School here in Janesville and creators of this co-ed camp experience for junior high students.

The girls told me all about making sun dials and cooking food with natural heat and using GPS and compasses to find lost hikers in the woods. I heard all about boiling oak bark and plantain juice as natural remedies for wounds. And somehow they talked me into eating wild berries that was assured me were not poisonous.

Sun dial made by campers, which Brenna said was the most difficult project.

“So Brenna, tell me what you would say to younger girls who want to come to science camp.” -Me

“I think it is really fun. There is a lot to learn, about plants and animals and wild berries. We cooked hot dogs using tin foil and a solar cooker we made.” -Brenna

“How long did that take?” -Me

“About an hour and a half. But they were so so good.” -Brenna

“I don’t know, B. That’s a really long time to wait for a dog.” -Me

“Well, I would tell girls it is important to get outside and enjoy nature and learn about nature. Its not all about make-up and stuff. There are really neat things you can do here.” -Brenna

“Tell me more.” -Me

“Well, you can be free. You can be open. You can just be yourself. You can do anything here.”

Replica pioneer log cabin we would have called home 200 years ago.

Oh, that Brenna. See why I was jumping up and down? Next I spoke with the teachers in charge of the week, Mr. Boys and Mr. Hintze, and asked them about their thoughts on girls getting involved in math and science. Both are fathers of daughters, and they agreed that feeling comfortable in science and math can build a girl’s self esteem. The teachers had used multiple disciplines in science to teach the kids about water purification, fire building, shelter construction, and navigation. I asked them how it went to have a co-ed group of junior high aged kids, and Mr.Hintze said, “Oh, it was great. They were one big happy family. They were cooperating, both had great ideas. They would problem solve together and work together. The girls definitely spoke up when they needed to.” Mr. Boys agreed, saying that is was important for girls to feel comfortable in nature, and in taking leadership roles. He said he was proud of the girls and how they handled themselves during the week.

Brenna then led her mom and I down a winding trail in the woods to a stream. Having bad ankles, all of the rocks on the steep hill Brenna forget to mention made me a bit nervous, but I quipped she could just boil some plantain lace for me and I’d be fine. “Oh no,” Brenna sad, “That’s only for open wounds. If you sprain your ankle you’re on your own.”

Luckily, my weak ankles and I made it to the bottom in one piece. We approached the stream and Brenna wasted no time chucking off her shoes and jumping in. A few moments later one of her girlfriends came tearing across the bridge, yelling at her, “Wait! Don’t have fun without me!” as she tossed her shoes on the bank and jumped in after Brenna. Oh, happy sigh. Twelve year old girls acting like twelve year old girls, just as they should be.

Brenna and Riley examining the stream.

As if on cue, this camper walked up with a large frog in her hand

Trail down to stream.

While talking about this post on twitter, a mom from our Pigtail Pals community sent me an email with her daughter Hannah’s thoughts on science camp taking place in another state.

Here’s what Hannah had to say:

Chemistry…I felt like a scientist because I had a mask and gloves. We put a bunch of stuff in the cup and mine exploded! It was my favourite!

Biology…We dissected the stuff that owls’ throw up. There were mice bones and hair in there and stuff. It was disgusting because it smelled really bad.

Anatomy… The professor brought in a skeleton and we touched real bone. She was very interesting.

Microscopes… Very cool! She (the professor) had our names on there the first day as a surprise. Looking at the germs was really interesting because they were breathing and alive. One had a whole bunch of points, and one had like a hair moving around. We got them from the fish tank. They kind of freaked me out!

Astronomy… I loved the star dome. They talked all about the constellations and it was dark so you could see all of them.  I got dizzy at part of it because I couldn’t see. One of the teachers fell asleep! (a university student lol)

My least favourite part was the nature walk because it was too hot. Everything else was fun.

And that my friends, is how girls do science camp.


What The Hell Happened To Summer Camp?

You know, when I was a kid, summer meant lemonade stands, trips to the library, afternoons at the swimming pool, bike riding everywhere, and overall free lancing until it was time to come home for a late dinner. Throw in some sailing and annual trips to visit the cousins in Toledo….It was grand. It was all very Norman Rockwell-ian and exactly as it should have been.

And there were the weeks I went to camp. Brownie Day Camp. Girl Scout Camp. YMCA Day Camp. Band Camp (shut up). Sailing Camp. Student Council Camp. Then there was the six years I was a camp counselor at the YMCA Day Camp I had grown up at. I spent so many summers having adventures and living outdoors and enjoying nature that I gave Laura Ingalls Wilder a run for her money.

I loved all of it – being outside, hiking through the woods, teaching sports to kids, dumb camp songs, river walks, arts & crafts, cooking on a campfire, swimming, boating, preparing skits for Parents Night, the sound of the cabin door creaking open, All-Camp Capture The Flag, throwing frogs at lifeguards, the epic 160 foot slip-n-slide we made with pool covers and dish soap….even the underwear on the flagpole.

You know, S-U-M-M-E-R  C-A-M-P. The kind with bugs.

A few weeks ago my mother sent me a letter in the mail. It has a yellow sticky note on it, which means she thinks it is something serious and the sticky note bears her warnings and forebodings. In college this would have been articles on STDs and binge drinking and the importance of antioxidants. But these days, in my matured adulthood, it means one thing and one thing only: Sexualization & Gender Stereotypes.

I read her note that says: “Pigtail Pals needs to become a corporate sponsor for this camp and redirect curriculum”. Huh, I thought. I actually used to run this community day camp the summer after I graduated from high school. What could have possibly become so awful about it?

Gender Stereotype Summer Camp!

Did you digest all of that? Let’s break this down:

Girls: For ages 4 and up, those girls whose dreams are wild and daring enough to be an “aspiring princess” get to go up to the school, sit in the gym, make capes and craft tiaras for themselves and their favorite doll, learn a princess dance, wear a princess dress, and attend a tea party and something of a debutante ball.

Boys: For ages 4 and up, Adventure Camp! They will explore Ravine Park, go fishing, sports day, Olympics day, they will venture away from the school gym and embark on safe adventures all around the village.

In fact, the boys will become such Masters of the Universe that they only meet at the school for the first day, after which their grandness takes them to locations and activities so exciting they cannot be named in the community newsletter.

Summer Camp for girls should look like this (images from Rachel Simmon’s Girl Leadership Institute, where even I want to be a camper!)


Girls sitting in a gym doing arts & crafts on what is really a glorified play date with princess dresses and tea parties DOES NOT a summer camp experience make.

What it does make is Stepford Wives. What of the girls who are ages 4 and up and do not aspire to be princesses or learn a princess dance? What of the girls who can kill it on the soccer field and rip into a softball? What of the girls whose eyes shine at the thought of adventure and tromping through the woods? What of the girls who enjoy the sound of waves lapping gently at the shore while they wait for a tug on their fishing line?

For that matter, what of the boys who are interested in textile and fashion design and prefer less testosterony, Gladiator-like afternoons? What of the boys who enjoy choreographed dance and storytelling?

This camp is held in the very small community I grew up in. I personally know ALL of the high school graduates from the last 15 years or so. And you know what? Not a single one of us gals grew up to become a freaking princess. Not a one. We grew up to become teachers, lawyers, investigators, social workers, doctors, mothers, business women, chefs, policy makers & legislators, finance and accounting gurus, artists, writers…you get the idea.

If girls want to play with dolls and have tea parties, that is darling. My own four year old daughter loves to seat all of her plush toys and dolls around a little table in her room and host an afternoon tea at which she serves buttons, pennies, and nickels. And she loves art. And dance. and storytelling.

She also loves sports. And fishing. And exploring and adventure walks and all of the things that this tiny village seems to think requires stratification between the genders.  Couldn’t there have been a way to have Castle Camp (instead of Princess Camp), where the children of BOTH genders, design their own castles using recycled materials like boxes and paper towel rolls and construction paper? Or draw castle dragons and coat of arms on giant rolls of butcher paper? Create mosaic crowns? Participate in Royal Field Day where there are egg rolls and wheelbarrow races and waterballoon tosses? What about create a menu and songs for a castle feast where everyone dances after the dragon is captured?

And why does the exploration of Kohler Village necessitate the having of a penis? Couldn’t both genders attend Adventure Camp? I do not have a penis and I spent my entire youth getting eaten by mosquitos while I built forts in the woods, caught crayfish in Ravine Park, played soccer and baseball at Upper Lost Woods Park, and rode my bike to Woodlake to get ice cream and feed the fish stale bread.

Summer camp and the experiences it gives children for exploration, pushing boundaries, friendship making, leadership training, learning about nature, skill development, and overall providing of new opportunities should not be squandered and packaged into Pink and Blue Boxes.

We should never limit and label our children.

We should NEVER teach them to do it to each other.

Here are some other great posts about summer camp, and summer activities:

My Little Hen: “Be a Preservationist of Childhood Summers” Read here.

Rachel Simmons (with Michael Thompson: “Putting Camp In the Childhood Equation”  Read here.

Parenting Pink: “Tips for a Fun & Productive Summer With Your Daughter” Read here.