Trenton, N.J., a former manufacturing hub where nearly a third of the population now lives in poverty, is not known for nature or green spaces. It is understandable, then, that when two busloads of children from the city arrived last August at the Princeton-Blairstown Center, a bucolic, 268-acre environmental education center in Blairstown, N.J., some were a bit nervous.
When some two dozen children set out on canoes to explore the center’s Bass Lake, two stayed behind, both terrified of the unfamiliar body of water. Staffers had to coax them into the lake, first getting the children into life jackets, then helping them onto canoes, then gently bumping off the pier and, only when the panicked parties had found their sea legs, paddling off to join the other students in the center of the lake.
This is what the Princeton-Blairstown Center, a 114-year-old organization that brings students from some of the poorest parts of New Jersey to its campus in Blairstown every summer, calls “challenge by choice.” The goal is to help build social and emotional skills by getting children out of their comfort zones, helping them confront some fears and showing them how they could use those experiences to overcome challenges at home, in school and in their communities. The practice can cause its share of anxious outbursts, but staffers are trained to help students learn from them. “That’s the whole point of our activities,” says Christopher Trilleras, one of the counselors who helped the wobbly mariners onto Bass Lake. “To process frustrations at the end, to really talk about them and prevent them.”
Such social and emotional support is especially important for children today, as the coronavirus pandemic has robbed them of months of school, play and interpersonal experimentation. The Wallace editorial team visited two summer programs in 2021—one operated by the Princeton-Blairstown Center and the other by The Fresh Air Fund in New York City—to see how they worked to help young people overcome the effects of months of isolation, including social anxiety, emotional volatility and a lack of focus after several school terms spent spacing out on Zoom. Both programs have had to get creative with established practices to help young people through two Covid-infested summers, staffers say, and are learning from those experiences to take on an unpredictable summer ahead.
Old principles, new social and emotional needs
The two organizations, both more than a century old, have well-developed practices to help young people develop the sorts of social and emotional skills that the pandemic appears to have compromised. When they take children out canoeing, for example, they’re working to help children build confidence to confront new experiences. When they design collaborative construction projects or obstacle courses, they’re looking to grease social wheels and encourage teamwork. When they teach kids to tend to vegetable gardens or model farms, they’re working to foster a sense of responsibility. The students’ mere presence in peaceful but unfamiliar outdoor spaces, far removed from their regular lives in urban centers such as Trenton, New York City and Newark, N.J., can help build relationships, says Pam Gregory, president and chief executive officer of the Princeton-Blairstown Center. “When you come together for a week with people who have a shared experience that’s really unique from most of the other people in your life,” she says, “you form a very close bond.”
Such practices can be insufficient in a pandemic, however. Months in isolation without social opportunities have made many young people more reluctant to try new things, program staffers say. Last August in Sunset Park, a diverse, middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., about 30 tots and tweens spent a morning practicing crafts, learning to dance and racing handmade carts on a street blocked off for summer programs by The Fresh Air Fund. Most seemed comfortable enough, but one 10-year-old clung to a counselor, too uncomfortable to approach the others. It was a situation familiar to Jane Li, an area resident whose son faced similar anxieties when he first came to The Fresh Air Fund. “Sometimes in the beginning, he’s a little withdrawn,” Li says of her son. “Maya, the counselor, she talks to him, plays games with him, gets him warmed up and gradually join the small group and then the bigger group.”
Some counselors are even able to use the pandemic to help students deal with deeper traumas. Many students who find their way to the Princeton-Blairstown Center or The Fresh Air Fund have histories of homelessness, domestic abuse or worse. Tabs Alam, a senior environmental education facilitator at the Princeton-Blairstown Center, speaks of group sessions with students where conversations began with talk of the pandemic but ended with discussion of more visceral worries about home, family, friends and poverty. Some students will admit how they find lockdowns especially hard, Alam says, because home has never been safe for them.
“Covid was a vessel to have people think about themselves a little bit more,” she says.
Learning Without Knowing It
There are fewer silver linings when it comes to academics, however. School closures and other pandemic-related disruptions have set students, especially “historically marginalized students,” months behind, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Basic math and English are rarely the central focus of programs like The Fresh Air Fund and the Princeton-Blairstown Center, but they are still working to help students regain the ground they’ve lost.
Both face two major constraints when doing so. For one thing, they can’t really drag children into classrooms and force them to make up for the academics they’ve lost. Research suggests that attendance is a key component of student success, and students are unlikely to want to attend if they’re crammed back into rooms after months spent indoors.
For another, both programs have less time than usual to dedicate to academics. In normal times, the Princeton-Blairstown Center would host its students for at least five days, while The Fresh Air Fund would shuttle campers to nature reserves north of New York City for two weeks. In 2021, after a season spent online, the Princeton-Blairstown Center was able to offer four days of programming in parks and schoolyards in its students' communities and a fifth-day daytrip to Blairstown. The Fresh Air Fund had to move most activities to New York City, cordoning off streets for camp-like activities for two, three-hour sessions a day, four days a week.
Both programs work to meet these twin challenges by doubling down on one of the things they do best: making learning fun. “We like to fold education in without kids knowing that they’re learning,” says Sheila Wilson-Wells, chief program officer of The Fresh Air Fund. The programs feature libraries that staffers encourage students to use and quiet spaces where students can read, reflect and write. They also offer activities such as cooking, architecture and soil and water analysis that help students brush up on science and math. “For a lot of the young people that we serve, it’s the first time that they understand that learning can be fun,” Gregory says. “Because it’s hands-on, not just sitting there doing worksheets or a lecture.”
“Throughout their time with us, they’re learning,” adds Wilson-Wells. “From the time they get off the bus and they don’t even know it.”
Such subtle blends of academics, fun and social and emotional learning are essential in summer programs, say Aaron Dworkin and Broderick Clarke of the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), especially in the wake of a crippling pandemic. “We have to get away from false-choice binary arguments that are a waste of time,” says Dworkin, chief executive officer of the NSLA. “Do kids need academic help or do they need social emotional help? They need both.”
“The best practitioners don't necessarily make that distinction or separation,” adds Clarke, the association’s vice president for programs. “They figure out a way to make the magic happen and to incorporate social and emotional competencies in the course of whatever activities they're presenting.”
O to Struggle Against Great Odds…
Summer programs must make this magic happen while dealing with their own daunting challenges, from staff burnout and fatigue to the limited time they have with their campers. Three characteristics help them do so, say staffers from the two programs: flexibility, partnerships and continuous improvement.
Both programs have had to be nimble to offer children as much programming as the pandemic permits. When the coronavirus shut everything down in 2020, for example, the Princeton-Blairstown Center sent its students “PBC in a Bag,” kits with books, snacks and the materials they needed for daily activities such as building catapults and seeing how far they could shoot projectiles across their rooms. After each activity, counselors led discussions on Zoom and helped students draw lessons from the experience. “It was very challenging for our facilitators,” says Gregory, “but over time they perfected it.”
The following summer, as the relative safety of outdoor gatherings became clearer, the Princeton-Blairstown Center resumed in-person activities. It still couldn’t host people overnight, as most parents were still nervous about children sharing rooms, so it devised its schedule of four days in students’ neighborhoods and one at its Blairstown campus so students could get at least a little taste of nature. It isn’t much, but Richad Hollis, a rising eighth grader from Trenton visiting the center in August, appeared to appreciate it. “In Trenton, it’s just streets and people playing outside,” he said. “Here, it’s a whole creek right over here. It’s just way more stuff that you can do other than just running around in the streets.”
The Fresh Air Fund never stopped in-person programming, but it created a new Summer Spaces program to avoid crowding children into buses or dorms. It blocked traffic on 11 city blocks throughout New York City and opened them up so children could drop in for activities including dancing, sports, STEM projects and arts and crafts. Each site featured two health and safety officers to ensure adherence to pandemic protocols and social workers traveled from site to site to help acclimate children unnerved by the sudden onslaught of social activity.
These adaptations would have been impossible without partnerships, says Wilson-Wells. To find and secure city blocks, staffers worked with communities, city councilmembers and the New York City Department of Transportation. To offer dance lessons, they recruited performers through a partnership with the American Ballet Theatre. To help teach science, they asked for help from Biobus, a New York City-based organization that runs mobile labs for children. To get books, they worked with the Brooklyn and Queens libraries. “There were so many wonderful partners that really pulled together to do comprehensive services,” Wilson-Wells says, “so we can ensure that, even in the pandemic, we were able to impart learning moments.”
There are about 22 million children who receive free or reduced-price lunches in American schools, according to the School Nutrition Association, a trade group for the school-food-service industry. Such partnerships are essential to get those children the services they need, says Aaron Dworkin of the NSLA. “No one program can serve 22 million kids,” he says. “But collectively, we can.”
…To Meet Enemies Undaunted
Both programs are now using these experiences to gear up for an uncertain summer ahead, inching towards traditional programming, keeping what worked during the pandemic and tweaking what did not. The Fresh Air Fund plans to reopen camps for two-week experiences again. But 2022 will include important adjustments to help students and staffers adapt and respond to new realities. The organization will open just four of its six camps and limit capacity to 50 percent. The reduction in size, says Wilson-Wells, should help get campers the extra attention they need, give staffers room to reacquaint themselves with camp life and ensure everyone has enough space to return to social distancing should that become necessary.
To help meet the demand it cannot meet at its condensed camps, The Fresh Air Fund will continue to operate the Summer Spaces program it created during the pandemic. However, as it begins to direct resources back to more traditional programs, it will trim that program from 11 sites to four, focusing on neighborhoods that were hardest hit by the pandemic and where families have expressed the greatest interest.
All experiences, both at the camps and in New York City, will still include the health and safety workers who helped ensure adherence to Covid restrictions during the pandemic. Staffers felt kids could use more social and emotional support, however, so the fund will replace its traveling social workers with support staffers dedicated to each site. “We're hoping that that will allow us to have organic conversations with young people to really hear how we can best serve them,” says Wilson-Wells.
The Princeton-Blairstown Center, meanwhile, is staying flexible. It will begin to host groups for overnight sessions at Blairstown if the parents, schools and organizations that send them are comfortable. But it will keep a pandemic schedule to accommodate students from communities with low vaccination rates, those who may live with vulnerable family members in multigenerational households and those whose regular teachers are too Covid-worn to chaperone them.
Like The Fresh Air Fund, the center is adapting that pandemic schedule based on observations from the last two years. The one, five-hour day at Blairstown seemed rushed in 2021, Gregory says, so the center may expand it to an eight-hour day for children who cannot visit for a whole week. The extra time, says Gregory, would allow children to experience more of the pastoral expanse of the Blairstown campus, learn more about their relationships with nature and form closer bonds with each other. “Dosage matters,” she says. “The amount of time kids spend doing the activities matters a lot.”
The center will also tweak its curriculum to adapt to shifting needs during the pandemic. In 2021, most students read Seedfolks, a book about 13 children of different ethnicities tending a community garden in Cleveland. To spark conversations, counselors asked students which of the book's characters they found most relatable. The book remains the same for 2022, but the discussion will now focus on the plants in the garden and what they could teach campers about sprouting from the ashes of a pandemic. "It's to provide kids with more of an opportunity to talk about how challenging it's been," Gregory says, "and what they need moving forward."
It is unclear whether such careful planning can help children recover from the two years they have lost to the pandemic. Many parents and educators, however, are happy just to see them get out, let loose and have fun again. “They were free to run,” says Alice Lightner, a parent who was chaperoning children in Blairstown in August. “They were free to play, free to explore and engage with their peers.”
“Getting in touch with nature, just a quick walk, you feel so at peace,” adds Samantha Elliott, another parent. “I just saved probably about $500 from the therapist.”
Additional reporting, editing and production work by Jenna Doleh.