These Nature Center Kids Feel Right at Home
“From acorn to oak” is an oft-heard phrase at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, as staff use it to describe programs and activities they offer that appeal to people from birth through adulthood.
The Nature Center has always prided itself on providing programming for babies and toddlers, children, teens, and adults. Since 1946, the center has been bringing people into the woods and fields to learn about and appreciate the natural world. For nearly as many decades, its Summer Nature Camp has introduced children to the joys of the outdoors. And since 2006, its Nature Preschool has given toddlers the chance to stretch their imaginations as they scramble over rocks and stomp through puddles.
Preschool students are now Camp Councelors
This year at Summer Nature Camp, four of the counselors embody the “acorn to oak” mantra, as they are Nature Preschool graduates. Of course, their relationship with the Nature Center didn’t stop when they left for kindergarten — all four attended programs and Summer Camp over most or all of the years in between preschool and today.
For two of them — Una Schaffer and Fisher Macklin — it’s not much of a stretch to say they were practically born at the Center, as their mothers, Executive Director Davnet Conway Schaffer and Director of Education Kim Hargrave, have worked there for many years and they both carried them from birth in backpacks as they taught programs and hikes.
Schaffer, 18, and Macklin, 16, join Asher St. George-Crouch, also 16, and 17-year-old Natalie Kohrs-Monroe in this year’s category of Nature Preschool Graduates/Summer Camp Counselors. All took a couple minutes out of camp counseling recently to chat about their lifelong connections to the Center.
Not surprisingly, all four have preschool memories of “getting dirty.” They remember playing in the stream by Counsel Rock, building fairy houses in the woods, fashioning fishing poles out of sticks and skunk cabbage, and “just being outdoors all the time, having freedom.”
Natalie has a distinct memory of a purple dress that her mother told her was too nice to wear to preschool. But Natalie eventually prevailed, and came home from school that day with mud so embedded in the dress that it was deemed “the Nature Center dress” and she got to wear it to school often after that.
Fisher and his family left for California for a few years and returned a couple of years ago. “That was hard for me, moving away from this place,” he said. “This is like a second home to me. I know all of the trails and everything there is to know. The Nature Center means almost everything to me.”
For Asher, one of the best parts about the Nature Center, where he has also attended camps and volunteered before starting as a counselor this year, is that “I know everything about it here but I still learn new things every time I come. I love it so much that there is always something new for me to learn.”
Una, a 2020 graduate of Stonington High who will attend University of Rhode Island in the fall, also thinks of the Nature Center as her “second home.” Her mother, Davnet Conway Schaffer, founded the preschool in 2006 and has been executive director since July 2019.
“The Nature Center is my favorite place on the planet,” Una said. “And I absolutely love getting to work with the children. Sometimes I actually tear up when I watch them play, the magical innocence of children playing and using their imaginations. And I love seeing them from when they are Ducklings (3-year-olds) to when they are older campers, it’s amazing to see their growth.”
“I’ve always been a nature kid,” said Natalie, whose mother also worked as an educator at the Nature Center during her childhood. “I feel like I grew up here. And because of that, I can relate to the campers because I’ve been exactly where they are. I know how important certain things can be. Like, last week, my group was way out by Coogan Farm, and we were getting ready to hike back, and one boy said, ‘I can’t find my stick.’ And I was busy with another kid so I said ‘It’s fine, get another one’ but then I looked at him, and I could tell he was almost ready to cry. And it brought me right back to when I was a camper, and so I switched gears really quick and said ‘OK, let’s find your stick.’ And luckily, we found it. Because it was his stick, he’d had it for a couple of days, and it was important to him.”