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Pioneer Kids: Learning Through Play

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Science does not get to have all the fun! History can also be taught through hands on learning experiences disguised as play. That was the vision of Jennifer Reed, Executive Director of the Cass County Historical Society (CCHS), when developing the first Pioneer Kids Day Camps. What better way to teach kids about early pioneer life than by exposing them to hands-on activities that pioneers did on a regular basis just to survive?

After receiving a Major Grant from the Missouri Humanities, CCHS was able to expand the camps both in the number of camps and the number of spots open at each camp. More than 180 kids (ages 8-15) from Cass County and the surrounding region attended the camps in 2023. CCHS partnered with Red Barn Ranch in Harrisonville, MO to open up a wide range of learning activities for the campers. Each camp focused on a theme: Civil War Camp, Fields & Yields Camp, Farm Life Camp, and Pioneer Cooking Camp. The camps were further divided by age groups. Friday camps were for 8-12 year olds and Saturday camps were for 13-15 year olds.

The campers learned troop drills and how to set up a Civil War era soldier tent at the Civil War Camp. They also heard about the various hardships that soldiers faced and had an opportunity to step into the shoes of a Civil War soldier and write a journal entry about their daily life. At the Fields & Yields Camp, Red Barn Ranch owner Matt Moreland walked the kids through the history of agriculture from the horse and plow to the modern use of drones to spray fields with several hands-on activities and demonstrations. The campers also learned about herb planting and went home with herb seed starters for a continued agricultural experience at home. The Farm Life Camp was also held at Red Barn Ranch. Mr. Moreland showed the kids how much work goes into raising farm animals like chickens, goats, sheep, and cows. The campers were given a sheep shearing demonstration and then got to witness the step-by-step process of taking the wool off the animal to spinning it into yarn for making clothing. This camp brought in an art element and the kids were guided through a painting project where they could create a portrait of a cow or a goat. The Pioneer Cooking Camp was the most popular based on attendance. The campers were taught the types of foods that pioneers in the Midwest grew to support their families. Using those foods, campers peeled and chopped and seasoned their very own campfire meals. They learned how to make cornbread in cast-iron pans over the open fire. The kids also got to see the amount of time and work that went into preparing jam over an open fire. Each camper went home with a jar of jam that they helped make from chopping the fruit to watching the mixture boil and thicken over the fire.

Every single one of these camps was based on work that pioneers did to survive and thrive in the great Midwest, but the kids, who are now so far removed from that type of grueling work, had a blast doing the activities. One of the questions posed to the kids at the end of the camps was, “Did you have fun?” After a hearty chorus of yes, the next question was “Would it still be fun if you had to do this everyday for the rest of your life?” A yes or two still rang out, but often this was the moment when the difficultness of pioneer life started to sink in. This was also the moment that kids realized just how far society has advanced due to the hard work of our ancestors and how fortunate they are to live lives of relative ease compared to the pioneers. At the same time, the campers were able to experience the joy of creating something with their own hands, the fruits of their own labors. These hands-on experiences hopefully reiterated, in a fun way, the value of hard work that will serve them well in their lives.

How do you measure the level of success in a program like this? As parents were picking up kids at the end of the day, the kids would ask if we would be doing something like this next year. Some campers attended more than one camp and the parents would share that their child would not stop talking about all the fun they had at the previous camp. Adults who did special demonstrations and activities at the camps asked to be included in next year’s schedule of activities. This across-the-board eagerness to participate next year is a very reliable measure of success.

CCHS is very grateful to the Missouri Humanities for supporting this type of educational programing. By investing in the education of children about the past, we are planting the seeds of success for the future.

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