Advaita Swaminathan examines the bark of a birch tree during a hike Jan. 30.

Advaita Swaminathan examines the bark of a birch tree during a hike Jan. 30.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Fifth grade winter camp gives kids team-building skills, lifelong memories in Novi

By: Charity Meier | Novi Note | Published February 9, 2023

 Walled Lake Outdoor Education Center facilitator Jen DeVooght talks with Novi fifth graders during a hike Jan. 30.

Walled Lake Outdoor Education Center facilitator Jen DeVooght talks with Novi fifth graders during a hike Jan. 30.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 In a team building session, Novi fifth graders form a circle inside the rope during winter camp Jan. 30. They all had to cross over the rope one at a time without letting the rope fall to the ground.

In a team building session, Novi fifth graders form a circle inside the rope during winter camp Jan. 30. They all had to cross over the rope one at a time without letting the rope fall to the ground.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

NOVI — Fifth grade is a very memorable year for students in the Novi Community School District.

It is where all five Novi elementaries merge and form one graduating class at Novi Meadows. It is also the year they learn team-building exercises and have the opportunity to form lifelong friendships during winter camp.   

“It is unique in Novi that it bottlenecks in fifth grade and stays that way through 12th. So, it’s a nice way to get them comfortable with each other, and they do. They truly love it,” said fifth grade teacher and winter camp coordinator Karen Duthie.

The annual fifth grade winter camp has been taking place at the Walled Lake Outdoor Education Center, next to Proud Lake Recreation Area, since 1978. Each of the 10 fifth grade classes takes a week from December through January to spend three days and two nights at the center. While at camp, students take six classes that range from art to science from the staff at the center, and the teachers take on the role of supervising the kids both day and night, and participate in the courses with the kids.

Every kid will rotate through all six classes, which include team-building, which provides the students with skills to work together as a group and communication skills; pond life and the water cycle, which teaches the kids about the different organisms that live in pond water; a hiking class, which teaches the kids about the different ecosystems and animal tracks; nature creations, which is an arts and crafts class; wildlife and survival skills, which teaches the kids how to survive in the wild; and night creatures, which teaches the kids about birds of prey at night and allows them the opportunity to dissect an owl pellet to see what the owl ate.

“We’ve got classes for everybody,” said Duthie. “We tell the kids that some of the classes you’re not going to like, and that’s OK. But somebody else is going to love that class that you don’t like. … We do them all to make you a well-rounded person.”

According to Duthie, the camp provides the kids with team-building skills and a sense of independence, and it is a way for the district to incorporate the science curriculum with nature.  She said for many of the students, the camp is their first time spending the night away from their parents, and some of them have never been sledding. She said that everything is designed for the kids to learn from, even the meals, which are served family style.

“(The best part of the trip is) watching the kids become a truly close-knit team,” said Duthie. “I chaperone the (Washington), D.C., trip as well, and this year I had kids that were in my fifth grade class and became really good friends at fifth grade camp, and they were still best of friends three years later. So that was really awesome for me to see. Because I was like, ‘Oh, you guys met in my classroom, and you guys are still best friends. I love it.’”

The camp is considered part of the school, she said. Although it is not a requirement, the district highly encourages kids to participate. According to Duthie, the majority of students do attend the camp, and students who don’t have to attend traditional school with another class for those days. This year, she said, the district had 92% of the fifth grade class participate in the camp, with 45 of 438 fifth graders choosing not to attend camp. Duthie said they have always held the trip in the winter because there is generally not a whole lot of extracurricular activities or trips going on that would compete with camp.

The camp costs $220 per student, which covers the around-the-clock supervision, food and all six of the courses provided by the Walled Lake Outdoor Education Staff. Scholarships are available. Duthie said the district often has parents who pay double to provide the experience for another student whose parents might not be able to afford the trip.  She said the staff also works with parents to accommodate students who have another obligation during the trip, such as a sporting event.

“We really work with every situation to try and get every kid to be able to come to camp,” said Duthie.  “It’s a big deal.”

Duthie said that many students will remember the trip for years to come. She said it is often discussed at the senior all-night party. She pointed out that current teacher Ashley Fox remembers her fifth grade trip vividly.

“It’s always been part of the (NCSD) culture, and so the families really look forward to it,” said Duthie, who describes the camp as a “hidden gem.”   

Kate Bassett, a senior at Novi High School, recalls playing a lot of fun games at the camp. She particularly recalled some of the skills she learned through games during the wilderness survival class, such as how to build a hut with materials found in the woods, and having to find a stuffed toy that was hidden in the woods. She said the best thing that she got out of camp was building new relationships with people.

“It was also a great opportunity to get to know other people in your class that you weren’t necessarily friends with, because we were put into groups and we didn’t get to choose who we were with,” said Bassett. “I just felt like that was a great opportunity to make friends. I remember learning new card games with other people, and it was really nice.”

“It was honestly one of my best memories from Novi, just because I had all my close friends in that class, and getting to spend the night somewhere with them was just a lot of fun,” said NHS senior Sam Ryba.

Ryba said it was her first overnight camping experience. She said she had gone to sleepover parties prior to camp but had never spent the night with her friends at a place that was not another friend’s home. She said her favorite memory at camp is drawing the landscape she saw when she walked across a bridge, as she has always loved art.

“At a young age, technology is not as important, but it is still creeping up and being part of everybody’s everyday lives. So, it was more fun to be in nature and see you can still have fun, obviously, without technology,” said Ryba.

Mia Roos, 10, a student of Duthie’s who attended the camp Jan. 30 through Feb. 1, said that she went to camp just expecting to learn about the pond. However, she said her favorite class was wilderness survival, where she learned to make a tepee. Still, she said the best part was sleeping over with all her friends.

“That was a lot of fun,” said Roos.

Axcel Lopez-Miranda, 10, went on the trip this year expecting to learn about trees. He said he was able to learn about what trees produce and all the different kinds of trees. He said there are even more kinds of trees than he had imagined.

Lopez-Miranda said that he particularly enjoyed learning about an oak tree dubbed “George” in Proud Lake State Park. The tree is named after George Washington, as it was planted when Washington was president of the United States.

The kids were shown the tree during their hiking expedition course. The tree is marked with a sign that indicates the year it was planted. Lopez-Miranda said that they all hugged the tree to see how many kids it would take to circle the tree. The answer, he said, was five.

Roos and Lopez-Miranda both said they met some new friends via the camp experience. Roos said she got to know a girl who is new to the school, and Lopez-Miranda said that he was introduced to a boy in his class who he otherwise might not have known via a collaborative project at camp. He said they were paired up in the wilderness survival class and made a fort together.

Lopez-Miranda said his advice to future campers is to “just have fun.”