Campers Make The LEAP Into Nature

10-year-old Kaden Wali thought he was on the right track to be a veterinarian — until he ventured out onto a farm, and spotted something big flying out of the corner of his eye. 

“I ain’t playing games!” he cried at a Scarab Beetle that had just taken flight. The beetle gave a disaffected buzz in return, enough to jolt Wali from where he was sitting.

Wali is one of 120 campers at Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership’s (LEAP) summer program, an annual camp for 7-12 year olds that blends LEAP’s mentorship model with traditional summer activities like swimming and gardening. For the second year in a row, that includes a partnership with the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History to teach kids about nature. 

LEAP campers and counselors pair up with the Peabody’s “Outdoor Corps” members, a group of 12 New Haven high schoolers turned science instructors and field guides. For 9-10 year olds, that collaboration culminates in a trip to the Calabresi Farm in Woodbridge, a sprawling, green oasis outside the city. There, they put their green knowledge to use, spending 24 hours in woods, open fields, tents, and a natural stream. 

Many of the campers have never been outside of New Haven, said Peabody Education Coordinator Jim Sirch, who leads the science learning component of the program. It’s an occasion that they prep for, heading to several of the city’s parks in the weeks beforehand for a crash course in nature. At the Peabody, Sirch has been teaching campers plate tectonics and natural succession, reading from Conrad Storad’s Earth's Crust and Alice McLerran’s The Mountain That Loved A Bird. Then he meets them out at the farm, and hands-on learning begins. 

At first, Wali jumped into those activities, crouching down by a stream to examine a small, alien-like crawfish with pink skin and wiry antennae. He spotted a tadpole, turned a waterbug on its back to examine it. He jumped into a game about the natural food chain of waterways, shouting “Buggy buggy, come out and play!” as a kid-turned-trout for a few minutes.

But that ended when he headed down a grassy hill, squatted in the shadow of a large tree, and then spotted a black beetle take flight, growing in size as its wings expanded and spun furiously.     

“I’m done,” he said. Behind him, counselor and aspiring bodybuilder David Harris shook his head. He was done too, he proclaimed. Camping was one thing, but bugs were entirely another, he said.  

But Sirch had other plans. Following the beetle’s flight path, he waited for it to land on a branch, where it brought its wings back into its body. Birch eased it into his left palm, closing his fingers softly around it as not to hurt the beetle. 

“Okay, I have it in this hand,” he told Wali’s group, a cluster of around 12 kids sitting by the tree. Next to Wali, Malachi Burruss and Walter Mills narrowed their eyes, skeptical. 

“You don’t, really,” came a voice from the back of the group. 

“I do,” said Sirch. “Do you want to see it?”

He moved to the outskirts of the circle, urging campers to be careful when he opened his hand. As each finger unfolded, it became clear that the beetle was there, completely still on the soft middle of his palm. Slowly, campers gathered around him, pressing its hard back with their fingertips. Wali was one of the last to approach.

He inspected the beetle, eyes widening as he reached out a small index finger to stroke its hard shell.

“I like it now,” he said, backing away. “At first I thought it was nasty, cause it could fly. But, you know, I’ll have to deal with that when I’m a vet, so it seems kind of interesting. I might even wanna catch one and do research on it.”

He paused for a beat, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Yeah, I’m gonna do that,” he said. 

Around him, a scavenger hunt was unfolding, with fellow campers running towards the woods to spot chipmunks, check off different types of leaves, and taste white pine needles, which are high in Vitamin C. In a small grove, campers Destined Lucky and Walter Mills turned a log over, and shrieked at the flurry of activity below. Ants scurried with their white eggs on their back. A few off-white beetles burrowed into the soil. A butterfly swooped through the patch and flew on. 

Lucky lifted a long, slime-covered worm to show off to the group. Then he ran off, with others fast behind him.