“I like to see the turtles and I’ve seen the beaver dams and footprints,” explained 10-year-old Teslim, a Ward 7 resident who has enjoyed visiting Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens for years. This spring break, Teslim was there for an Urban Adventure Squad day camp. His 11-year-old friend Zo added, “I like the frogs, and seeing the beaver tail print–it’s huge! But I’ve never seen the actual beaver. I like that in the summer there are more flowers.”
In summer 2021, Urban Adventure Squad began partnering with Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens--known for its many ponds filled with water lilies and lotus blossoms, which peak in June and July--to offer a set of programs called Junior Ranger Adventure Squad.
“I almost saw the beaver but kids scared it away, so I only got to see the tail,” Teslim lamented.
“When it’s hotter in the summer, they put sprinklers out so we can run around,” Teslim said. “And when it’s hotter more animals come out,” Zo chimed in. “The reptiles need to get heated,” Teslim explained, “so for them it’s amazing.”
Teslim occasionally comes to the park with his parents, walking along the Anacostia River Trail, but still looks forward to his weeks spent with Urban Adventure Squad. “I need to get outdoors,” he said. “Otherwise I’d be playing Roblox all day,” Zo agreed.
Urban Adventure Squad holds day-long and week-long camps in parks across the District throughout the school year. Typically, three educators work with two dozen children and youth, divided into groups based on age for some activities and working together for others. Campers use tools such as magnifying glasses and portable microscopes to get closer looks at the natural specimens they encounter. The organization also partners with several DC public and public charter schools, applying for grants so educators can bring weekly lessons into outdoor classrooms.
Teslim and Zo shared what they had learned about the park itself and the land on which it is situated. “I didn’t know until this year that this land belonged to the Nacotchtank and Anacostan tribes. It was stolen when the British came,” Teslim said. “We learned that Helen Shaw Fowler helped save the gardens. People were going to destroy it and develop it and she protected it. Now here we are today.”
“Being here feels calming,” Teslim explained. “I can feel the breeze and the sun,” Zo said.
Urban Adventure Squad educators and park partners have ingrained in campers respect for the environment and principles of conservation. “Don’t take anything and don’t leave anything,” Teslim said. “Don’t take the rocks–they could be animals’ homes or help stop erosion. Don’t leave trash or anything that could hurt the environment. Respect the nature and keep your distance.” Except, of course, when they need to study an animal just a little more in-depth. “Yesterday we saw a snapping turtle in that pond,” Teslim noted. “I want to get that net so we can catch the snapping turtle,” Zo added. “But we have to immediately put it back before it attacks us,” Teslim warned. The boys also catch tadpoles, take a quick look, and release them back into the ponds.
Teslim’s younger brother, seven-year-old Ibrahim, sits a few feet away at another picnic table, playing with an origami bird he created after his group went birdwatching in the park and played birding bingo. “I saw a bluejay that I’d never seen before,” Ibrahim said, “And a cardinal.” Campers also create their own comic books based on what they’re seeing and learning about their natural world and incorporating their imaginations. The witness tree is one such example of a comic book theme. Educators help campers identify a tree they’ve seen and estimate its age. Then the young nature writers think about what this 250-year-old tree, that has been around since the 1770s, has witnessed. What animals have lived in and around it? What events have happened nearby? What people climbed up its branches?
The trees in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Rock Creek Park, and the National Arboretum have witnessed a lot of Urban Adventure Squad campers exploring the outdoors, learning about their environment, and spending quality time feeling the sunshine and the breeze.