For over 40 years, students arrived at Park in the wee hours of an autumn morning to board a bus with classmates and chaperones for a sleepaway trip: Project REASON. REASON stood for Resource and Environmental Awareness through the Study Of Nature. It was a trip that introduced Park students to life in the great outdoors, away from their families, and most importantly, out of their comfort zone. There was little to no indoor space and no showers. Students and staff cooked together in a small kitchen for a group of over 50 people. It was a labor of love from faculty and staff, who prepared for the trip months in advance.
In the late 80s and early 90s, “Project Adventure” and other similar collaboration games were all the rage. Project REASON was born from the push to introduce the outdoor education movement in schools and help young learners to explore. Linda Knight, a physical education teacher and PE department head at Park in the 80s, had a connection to Southern New Hampshire and decided to look in that area for a location to host the group. Linda found the perfect location at Camp Marienfeld in Chesham, NH. Students arrived with a variety of comfort levels for the trip: some had never spent much time outside of a city, while others shared that they camped every summer with their families. Many members of Park’s staff still refer to the trip as their “favorite week of the year” and feel they gained more insight into their students and coworkers.
“I had never been away from my parents like that before and some of my classmates hadn’t either. I helped my friend face his fears of being away from home after dark when we went to sleep in our cabin. We played games and told stories. Helping him overcome his fears made me realize that I could do it too.”Harrison L, Grade 6
As much as Park faculty loved the experience, they also came to recognize that it was a tremendous challenge to put the trip together on top of the rest of their Park responsibilities. With this in mind, Project REASON eventually transitioned to a new program at Merrowvista Campgrounds in Tuftonboro, NH, as Park sought to release staff from sole ownership of the trip planning. Merrowvista offers a full-time knowledgeable team onsite with more activities for students to choose from. With indoor and outdoor facilities, the options are limitless: rain or the rare snowflake have no chance of stopping the fun-filled trip. The program has a summer camp atmosphere, and creates an intentional experience for all students to experience nature, make discoveries and overcome fears. While there are many camps targeted at elementary and high school-aged kids, Merrowvista’s staff understand sixth graders at their core.
Upon arrival, the Merrowvista team whisks the students away for the immediate launch of collaborative, community-building games. Without exception, the sixth graders are captivated, fully locked on to the new faces, as they dive into the tasks. Park faculty are observers, taking note of student engagement. From the very first moment, Park teachers are there to support, and Merrowvista staff (with infinite patience) take the reins. They wait for quiet, even if it takes more time than they hoped. They don’t mind confusion but ensure that it always leads to clarification. They encourage questions. They redirect as necessary and celebrate regularly. They inspire respect and require kindness. Park students and teachers alike benefit from their modeling.
The bulk of the time at Merrowvista is spent in structured activity blocks – high and low ropes courses, group challenge activities, and a spectacular hike. For chaperones, watching the students face these challenges and then find their way to success is one of the many rewarding reasons to go on this trip. It’s a chance to connect one on one with students and get to know them as individuals, outside of Park. Fall foliage is stunning from the peak above the camp, and on a clear day, voices can echo from the mountain back to students in their other activities. The first evening includes a night walk and a campfire. What can they see when it’s dark? How do Lifesavers spark? What is the best way to toast a marshmallow and how might you optimize melted chocolate?
“My favorite experience was our night walk. We didn’t bring any lights and relied on our eyes as they adjusted to the darkness. Our group leader showed us if we rubbed two quartz rocks together we would make them glow. Did you know that pirates wore eye patches so that one eye would be adjusted to the darkness when they went below deck?”Asher B, Grade 6
A highlight for many students is the dishwashing experience, and we swear it’s a highlight for teachers as well. While there may be some groans at the beginning, once the music starts, the fun begins. Those on the outside observe with envy as students sing and laugh with their arms up to elbows in bubbles. One lucky participant gets to use the massive sprayer – neighbors beware! And the dishes get clean!
In the afternoons, the Merrowvista staff takes a well-deserved break, and Park teachers are on duty for low-key games. Students can play cards or board games, read quietly, or take to the soccer field or basketball court. Though their age shows, many teachers jump into the games, much to the students’ delight. This downtime feels as important as all of the structured activities. Students find themselves in games with new friends or trying a new sport. It can be hard to peel them away when it’s time to start setting up for dinner.
The final fire is steeped in tradition, one that becomes automatically inclusive for the students experiencing it for the first time. They enter quietly into a round amphitheater space with a roaring bonfire. They have been asked to prepare reflections based on the Park mission and motto. The first two groups reflect on simplicity and sincerity. Others talk about curiosity, creativity, hard work, and joy, connecting their themes to experiences they’ve had at Merrowvista. The speakers are thoughtful and at times profound, illustrating the growth they’ve shown over two short days. The energy then shifts for the song contest! The groups have prepared a variety of songs ranging from sing-alongs to silly call-and-response songs to top 10 pop hits. This year, not one but TWO groups managed to Rick Roll the crowd. Joy illuminates individual faces, glowing in the firelight. Giggles echo through the space as many voices become one.
“They told us that we are going to do a new thing called PQ.
One person would come up to the front of the cafeteria (they would be chosen to Come up),
Say someone’s name and say things that they did really well
And something that they liked that they did.
It. Feels. Great.
To get your name called in front of everyone in the 6th grade.”Nico G, Grade 6
Merrowvista embodies the next chapter for Project REASON’s goal: to help students connect with nature, their peers, and faculty, to create a community they would bring back to Park. The Grade 6 trip to Merrowvista lays the groundwork for upcoming trips to Washington D.C. in Grade 7, and an international trip in their final year at Park in Grade 8. These trips are the ultimate applied-learning experience and result in a deeper understanding of the world and one’s role in it. Grade 7 students will travel to Washington D.C. in March 2023 and Grade 8 students will explore France, Italy, and Spain in May 2023.
By Liz McColloch, Grade 6 Grade Level Coordinator & French Teacher, and Emma Hobart-Sheran, Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications.