Having fun while learning to do the right thing

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Standing up for those who cannot defend themselves. Caring for the environment. Respecting differences between people. Can those values be taught in five days?

The Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture believes so.

The society held its first ever one-week day camp last week with the goal of teaching those values to its students.

“For us, ethics-based camp is a chance for the kids to take that week, have a lot of fun, but also learn about what is their power to make change in the world,” society leader Jone Johnson Lewis said. The time also served as a chance to share some of the issues they should be concerned with and do something about, and how they can make a difference.

The camp also was a way to bring more children and families the society, Lewis said, after realizing over the past there were not enough children getting involved.

The ethics camp was the brainchild of Jackie Davis, the camp’s director and a society member. Davis, who is a mother of two, said some parents would like to have something for their children to do in the waning weeks of summer before schools start, like herself. She wanted to include a component that included caring for the Earth.

“I felt frustration that not enough people feel an urgency about protecting the planet,” Davis said. “The planet is in trouble, and we need all hands on deck, and I believe in arts-inspired activism. So, I thought, ‘How could I get people to pay attention and to think this fun but also critical?’”

Using the society’s outdoor areas and indoor rooms as a backdrop, students learned how to distinguish different trees, discussed how to be a caring people, work through differences, and how to stand up for themselves and others who are being treated unfairly.

One of the highlights were students writing letters to elected officials to help save the bees.

“The thought that there was someone smaller than them and needed protection, I think it resonated for them,” Davis said. “No one likes to be bullied, and to think that animals or creatures not having a voice in their world, I think that struck a chord with them. So, they wrote letters to Bill de Blasio. They wrote letters to chemical companies saying we need to protect the bees.”

Students also had a chance to earn their superhero stripes. After completing a series of environmental projects, students earned a part of their superhero costumes — capes and gloves by mid-week, and finally their names to their capes for their full costume at the end of the week.

Liz Collier, the society’s community outreach director, said she expected a half-dozen kids between 4 and 8 in the camp. Instead, she got 16.

Ethics and science

The mix of civic engagement, ethics, environmental learning mixed in with science camp was a hit with students and parents.

“They get to do the thing that they don’t do much of in regular school, which is a lot of outside time,” said Erich Schneiderman, whose 5-year-old daughter Abigail is in the day camp. “A lot of scientific investigation-type work outside involved with biology and botany and stuff like that. And, they’re learning technical terms for it.”

‘Such a blessing’

“The camp is such a blessing,” said parent Kelly McLane, whose 6-year-old son Malcolm is a student. “They’re incorporating environmental issues and talking about feelings. I couldn’t be happier.”

Olivia Tepelus, 6, said when she found a cicada shell while on one of the camp’s outings, she placed it in a small jar to show the class later. Cicadas are insects that develop on the roots of trees and shrubs.

Since one her classmates did not find anything during that outing, Tepelus decided to show the cicada shell together so her friend would not feel left out.

“I like it,” Tepelus said of the camp. “We’re learning to be kind.”

Bee awareness

Devon Slotnick, 9, said her favorite part of the week was writing to the mayor asking him to do more in protecting bee colonies.

“I like helping animals because I love animals, and I want the Earth to be less polluted,” she said.

Davis and Lewis hope the lessons camp-goers learned over the week remain with them, planting the seeds for future civic engagement.

It looks like those seeds are sprouting.

Slotnick already wants to keep the area outside of her school, P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil, neat and tidy.

“I’m pretty sure I‘m going to talk to my mom and ask her if I could start a group” of her own, Slotnick said.

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