Summer's Call of the wild at Marsh Sanctuary
By JOYCE CORRIGAN | July 25, 2022
They don’t call the little ones “preschoolers” at the Rewilding School Wild Summer program at Marsh Sanctuary; they’re known as “wildlings,” ages 3 to 5, and they’re considered full-fledged, if not yet full-grown, members of the animal kingdom: curious, capable, courageous and primed to connect with other living things whether flora, fauna, fish or reptile.
Now in its fourth year at the 156-acre Marsh Sanctuary, considered one of Westchester’s wildest preserves, Wild Summer is holding weekly sessions now through Aug. 20 for grades kindergarten through six. Each session is led by a team of skilled naturalists and outdoor educators, with roughly 14 children in each group.
With weekly themes like School of Wizardry, Nature Art, and Forest Craft, this is not your typical summer camp with canoeing, swimming and s’mores; at Rewilding Wild Summer they go off-trail to explore native habitats, master survival skills and learn ancient crafts. Wild Summer puts the “fun” in fungi — and anything else the children happen upon. And the word is out: Wild Summer was recently named by one magazine as Westchester’s best kids nature program of 2022.
“What’s so outstanding — and even the kids appreciate it — is the uniqueness of the setting,” said Eric Stone, founder and director of the Rewilding School. “Marsh Sanctuary has so many distinct habitats within a five-minute walk: forest, meadow, stream, native garden and ponds. Between the landscapes, wildlife and plant life, there is literally never a dull moment.”
Mr. Stone runs all the Rewilding School’s year-round programs with his wife, Megan Cohen, who handles the business operations.
It’s been said that it’s not what you do for your children that leads to productive lives, but what you’ve taught them to do for themselves. Mr. Stone recounted a recent conversation with a mother about an experience at the dinner table after a day at Wild Summer. Her twin boys in the Wildings group seemed particularly finicky when she announced what she had prepared for dinner. “They begged to be able to go outside and forage for some edible plants for salad, just as they’d done with us at Marsh that week,” recalled Mr. Stone. “And that’s exactly what the whole family did.” During the Hunter Gatherers session, the children learn to live off the land the way their ancestors did, gathering food and medicinal herbs from the woods, vegetable gardens and catching fish and cooking meals over an open fire.
No word on whether the twins also announced to mom that they wanted to dine from bowls they made from clay harvested from the Hudson River, as they learned to do during Nature Art week.
“We like to say we do dangerous things with the utmost safety,” acknowledged Mr. Stone. “We carve with knives, forage wild edible plants and cook over open fires” — with each task modified as needed by age group, he stressed.
Being completely outdoors begs the question, How does Wild Summer work during a heat wave or heavy rain? “There’s never bad weather, just bad planning!” Mr. Stone declared. “If it’s really hot, our staff knows to provide extra bottles of cold water and tailor activities toward the shade,” he said. Rain is not a problem, either. “We make summer showers fun,” he said. “We erect tarp shelters, gather rainwater to make herbal tea, and even make campfires in the rain.”
Mr. Stone founded the Rewilding School in 2016 as a year-round, all-outdoor nature experience where, with the changing seasons, young people would learn everything from foraging to shelter building to animal tracking and ice fishing. There is probably no group more excited by the first snow than Rewilding kids, who race outside to find tracks from wild animals’ nocturnal hunts.
In addition to Winter Camp and Wild Summer, the Rewilding School also offers a homeschool and afterschool series, as well as a Saturday program for adults.
The immersive Rewilding experience echoes a larger concept, even a movement, which has been sweeping the country. Originally applied to habitats, “rewilding” refers to human efforts to restore areas of land to their natural, uncultivated state, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. The term also refers to the reintroduction of species of wild animals that have been driven out or exterminated in a particular location.
When it pertains to people, rewilding describes the process of reverting to an untamed state of being and detaching from lifestyles that are over-reliant on technology, domestication and “virtual everything.” “It’s important to recognize that for 95% of human history we were using primitive tools,” observed Mr. Stone. “While technology is the dominant force in our lives, it’s very recent; our brains are still wired to the natural world. We need to reconnect.”
Mr. Stone’s Rewilding brand is very much an extension of his own idyllic childhood growing up in Shrub Oak. “When most of my friends were sweating it out doing repetitive drills in lacrosse camp or glued to their video games, I was fishing in the pond in my backyard or tracking animals,” he recalled. “In summer, I was in the woods all day.” Not only were his parents thrilled he wasn’t gravitating toward video games, “they also saw how nature grounded me,” he said. “They signed me up for nature programs everywhere. I worked for five summers at Cranberry Lake in the Adirondacks.”
Graduating with a degree in natural history interpretation from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Mr. Stone worked for eight years as an environmental educator, including starting a naturalist-in-training program at Muscoot Farm, which sowed the seeds for his Rewilding School project.
“I always wanted to bring the breadth and depth of my education to the Hudson Valley where I grew up,” he said, “When I first saw Marsh Sanctuary, I knew there could be no better location.”
Marsh Sanctuary is thrilled to enlighten budding naturalists about the importance of maintaining this precious gem. “We are literally in walking distance from Mount Kisco and a stone’s throw from Bedford, and yet we’re a priceless nature preserve,” remarked Anne Niemann, co-president of Marsh Sanctuary’s board of directors, along with Tim Ghriskey. Ms. Niemann, who grew up in Bedford, remembers that the Sanctuary — at the time, private land owned by the Cook family — was “my giant laboratory,” she recalled. “My brother and I and other neighborhood kids were always roaming the fields, meadows and woods, riding the miles of trails on horseback, catching tadpoles and frogs in the pond and skating on it in the winter. It was an idyllic Bedford childhood.”
Anita Stockbridge, Marsh Sanctuary’s board vice president and treasurer, recently enrolled her 6-year-old grandson in a week of Wild Summer. “We wanted George to learn more about all the things he can do outside without any artificial tools or stimulants,” explained Ms. Stockbridge. The session will teach him “how to forage and make shelters, to appreciate the wildlife that surrounds us and to use his imagination to create a world he would love to live in,” she said.
Mr. Stone believes that if you give children choices, they’ll make smart ones. “We’re focused on building character and curiosity, but we also understand kids,” he explained. He pointed out that Wild Summer staffers came up with Forest Craft week — a play on the “free-roaming” Minecraft, which, at 238 million copies sold, is the best-selling video game of all time. “Instead of exploring and building in a 3D world with a virtually infinite terrain, our kids create with real materials. We build forts and craft tools and survive the elements using real-life skills,” explained Mr. Stone, adding, “It’s Minecraft come alive in the woods!”
And why on earth would anyone want to wander in a virtual free-roaming world when you can roam the real thing during Marsh Sanctuary’s Wild Summer?
For more information, visit rewildingschool.com/wild-summer-2022.