The Happiest Summer Camper

You may know her as the voice behind Marty the Moose, the hand puppet and captain of quips you often meet at the Academy’s special story times. When she’s not talking your ear off as Marty, she transforms into Miss Chris. And if anyone can compete with Marty’s sidesplitting act, it’s Miss Chris in full summer camp mode—camp shirt, sleeves rolled up, hair pulled back, and ready for anything.

See the famous Marty the Moose and his staff sidekicks at the Academy of Natural Sciences' story time!As camp coordinator, Miss Chris (or Christine Danowsky, as her colleagues know her) is determined to make your kids love science as much as she does. That takes more than just showing up on weekdays in July and August. Planning summer camp is a yearlong operation behind the scenes. She develops themes based on topics that will be exciting and up-and-coming for kids, arranges field trips where kids can dig for fossils or meet live animals, and figures out how to make the activities suitable for all learning styles and personalities.

“It’s summer, so you have to make sure everyone’s having fun all the time,” she says. “We are making memories that I hope will last a lifetime.”

Academy of Natural Sciences summer campers search for fossils in a stream.Danowsky came to the museum as a Girl Scout for overnights, and she grins as she tells me about sleeping next to the Tiger diorama. She knows how to create memorable experiences both for kids who are obsessed with all things science and for children who aren’t sure how they feel about science. She used to be part of the latter group.

“At school, we did science from a textbook,” she says. “I got interested because my mom was really into doing experiments with us at home. As a teacher, I want to make sure kids have real-life experiences they can use every day.”

Danowsky became head of summer camp at the Academy five years ago after being an Academy camp group leader since the program started in 2009. In addition to summer camp, she’s in charge of spring  and teen programs, Tiny Tot Explorers, overnights, and birthday parties. She has taught toddlers and watched them grow into teens, and she has worked with just about every learning ability and style.

That includes kids who aren’t sure they are ready to be away from home (even for day camp) and kids who are shy and reserved. While bringing all the kids out of their shells with dinosaur jokes and dance breaks, she also encourages kids to write letters home to share what they’ve learned each day.

Danowsky checks in regularly with the quiet observers in the group, asking them what they noticed about experiments to encourage participation. She and her camp counselors also are trained to work with children with autism and other learning challenges.

After a few hours or days, most kids forget about their worries and get wrapped up in the excitement of science adventures such as behind-the-scenes experiments and off-site field trips. Campers have  discovered mosasaur teeth and sea urchins while digging for fossils, and a few have even met stingrays at a local aquarium.

Academy Science Campers hike through the woodsBack at the museum, Danowsky emboldens kids to move around, call out answers to questions, and get their hands dirty during experiments. With her encouragement, kids regularly share their opinions and guide their own learning, making connections between science and their everyday experiences. By the end of a camp week, she will, without a doubt, have inspired a few future scientists.

“Kids often ask me why scientists have called newly discovered species by certain names,” she says. “When I explain where a scientific name came from, kids think it’s awesome, because they realize they can do the same thing.”

Academy Explorers Camp invites campers, ages 5-12 years old, to learn about natural science in a safe, fun, and engaging way. Each week of camp explores an exciting new theme and features an off-site field trip! From fossils to our extreme earth to amazing animals, check out our camp themes to find the best fit for your child’s interests.

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This article was adapted from the Spring 2016 issue of Academy Frontiers.

By Mary Alice Hartsock, Photos by Mike Servedio

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