At Phalen Regional Park, five children lean against a dock railing, legs anxiously bouncing along with the fishing bobbers floating in front of them.
Five more little bodies sit on the dock, trying to pierce “squiggly” worms with fish hooks.
Every once in a while, there’s an “I-got-one!” squeal, followed by praise from Michelle Kelly, an education specialist for a fishing and aquatic education program called MinnAqua, run by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Kelly sits on the dock, calmly helping children untangle their fishing lines with no apparent worries about the activities of a throng of 9-year-olds.
She isn’t worried because she trained them all for at least 45 minutes on how to cast safely. And she taught them how to take their fish off the hooks.
About an acre from the dock stands a group of children crowding around ice cube trays. The trays hold tiny organisms. The children point to the organisms and name them: water striders, snails, flatheaded mayflies.
The children are at a free weeklong day camp as part of a “Connecting Children to Nature” initiative by the city of St. Paul. The camp pools 98 kindergarten through seventh-grade children from the East Side YMCA, the St. Paul Salvation Army and the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center. This is the first year the camp has been made available at Lake Phalen.
All of the children come from families who qualify for free summer lunches through St. Paul Public Schools.
“Our goal was to show them that to enjoy the outdoors, you don’t have to go to the Boundary Waters,” said Niall Murton, YMCA camp and outreach director. “You can do it right here in the city.”
In addition to fishing and identifying invertebrate species in the water, the children learn how to test water quality, climb a rock wall, take nature hikes, build forts, tackle community service projects and roast marshmallows. They can also sit at picnic tables and make bracelets, play camp games like Wiffle ball or scream as loud as they can for the length of a breath: something the kids call “the yelling game.”
The camp employs 14 counselors through grants given to the YMCA. Permit fees from the city were waived, Murton said.
The camp will move to Hidden Falls Regional Park, also in St. Paul, during the week of Aug. 6; 120 children are already registered. This will be the second year the camp will be held at Hidden Falls.
Murton said the goal is to facilitate a year-round relationship with the children, so they can learn how to enjoy nature even in the winter. Joan Schimml, senior director of communications and marketing for the YMCA, estimates that 40 to 50 percent of the campers come from first-generation immigrant families. And when families aren’t used to Minnesota winters, it can be difficult for the children to find things to do out in the cold.
Murton, who moved to Minnesota from England, is passionate about helping the campers create childhood memories in Minnesota — especially the campers who come from outside the country.
“It wasn’t until I connected to fishing and the outdoors that I became a Minnesotan,” Murton said.
Schimml said the camp is about getting the kids away from television, computer and cellphone screens, helping them learn outside of school and keeping them active. But it’s not a camp that takes screens away by force. Counselors haven’t spoken about phones or made any rules about putting them away.
“You don’t see a single phone out,” Schimml said. “It’s just not an issue.”