Anyone who’s ever seen dozens of kids crowded around the incubator at the Topsfield Fair, transfixed by the little miracle of baby chicks pecking free from their eggs, knows the powerful effect animals and farms have on children. Kids will drop what they’re doing to feed a sheep, to scatter corn among a flock of chickens, or to put their little hands on a bunny’s soft fur.
Things are no different at Appleton Farms in Ipswich and Hamilton, which regularly welcomes kids and families for educational programs that bring them closer to the farm, its people, and its animals.
“I think every step we take on the farm there’s opportunity to learn about what’s under your feet,” says Beth Zschau, program manager at Appleton Farms.
Now, Appleton Farms is allowing kids to really immerse themselves in farm life with the launch of its very first summer day camp that will run in six, one-week sessions for three different age groups. Kids between the ages of 5 and 13 will have a chance to learn about and experience farm life, as well as make the crucial connections about how food ends up on their plates.
The 1,000-acre property, which is owned and managed by The Trustees of Reservations, has been a working farm since 1636, and the camp will allow children to explore and understand the property in a deeply profound way.
“There’s not many farm camps close by so we think we’re really filling a niche for people,” says Chris Ward, general manager at Appleton Farms.
The farm offers a rich landscape for filling that niche. According to Zschau, Appleton Farms grows vegetables on 25 acres for a CSA that supports 650 families. It has one of Massachusetts’ few working dairies and is home to a Jersey herd of very friendly cows that produce rich milk with a very high butter-fat content. It also has a beef herd. Appleton produces its own milk and cheese, as well as meats, which it sells at the on-site farm store; raises hens for eggs; and makes its own maple syrup. In addition to the farm itself, Appleton is home to vast woodlands, with miles of carriage paths and trails, and hundreds of acres of woods that are filled with meadowlarks and bluebirds, owls and hawks, foxes, coyotes and white-tailed deer. There’s even a pond filled with geese, frogs, a beaver dam, and more.
All of these landscapes and experiences will be part of Appleton Farms’ summer camp.
“Our real focus is to get them involved in hands-on work,” Zschau says. “This is not going to be a show and tell.”
She says the campers will be caring for and tending animals, working in gardens, and visiting the cheese cave and cheesemaker. They’ll learn about compost, sustainability, carbon footprints, and irrigation, and build a rainwater collection system. Every activity will be infused with learning.
“We’re trying to build well-rounded experiences,” Ward echoes. The kids are “not just going to be holding chickens or petting calves. It’s really seeing what life is like on a full farm.”
On a bigger level, Zschau and Ward want the children to learn that food complex: It’s tough to grow and not disposable. People have to work hard to grow it and make it, and later, prepare it for our tables.
“We know through educational philosophy that exposing children to things when they’re young really sticks with them,” Ward says. “You’re building into them the imprint early on about the important things.”
In addition to working on the farm and getting their chance to help with barnyard chores, kids will have their choice of elective activities, like making floral bouquets and visiting the farm’s dairy store. They’ll also play fun games, like “Farm Olympics,” relay races, boot toss, and tug of war.
Although this is the Appleton Farms’ first summer camp, it’s not the first camp for The Trustees of Reservations, which also operates SummerQuest at the Crane Estate and other camps at its Weir River Farm and World’s End property in Hingham. Exposing kids to such rich experiences with the land is part of The Trustees’ mission as a land conservation organization: The camps aim to create young stewards of the land, with the hope that they will carry that stewardship with them throughout their lives and into adulthood.
“Those conversations with kids wind up sparking larger conversations with their families and their friends,” Ward says. “We hope that those conversations happen and as they get older.”
And even if kids don’t participate in the summer camp, both Zschau and Ward say there are plenty of single-day programs for kids and families to get involved, explore, learn about, and become invested in these special places.
“Everything we do is meant to connect people to our mission and to our properties,” Zschau says. “These families that are engaged in these programs are connecting with us…forming those memories and connections through their life.”