Peak Growth

Like so many activities throughout Summer Quest, Robyn Hartley’s gardening camp offers a keener, gentler way of seeing the world. 
In the dappled shade of the Lower School garden, tucked below Reynolds Hall, young Summer Quest campers are searching for life within the flowers. The campers, bending toward a patch of marigolds, are keeping an eye out for the praying mantis they spotted the day before. One camper finds the mantis perched on a petal and carefully places her finger beside the bug, encouraging it to take a ride. The mantis does, in its thoughtfully delicate way, and the student says with excitement, “Look, its wings are starting to show. I can’t believe it!”

Collegiate groundskeeper and horticulturist Robyn Hartley, the counselor of this particular Summer Quest camp, left another group of campers watering the vegetable garden to counsel the students with the mantis. “Those wings are actually his arms. He uses them to catch critters like beetles and crickets. And look,” Hartley says, picking up a thin film of exoskeleton she spots in the grass, “this was his old jacket that he shed recently. A praying mantis will shed its skin when it needs to grow.” 

At Collegiate, the summer months offer Richmond-area students of all ages these types of experiences. And, because so many of the camps available are taught by Collegiate faculty and staff, campers and their families not enrolled at Collegiate have a chance to experience the School’s approach to education. The games played on Grover Jones Field. The engineering and robotics instruction. The trips taken within the expansive worlds of books and those long sails down the James River. All of it is part of Collegiate’s Summer Quest, which, this year, offered 220 camps during the summer, each catered toward discovery. 

More excitement follows the praying mantis. Hartley then brings out a dobsonfly, a big-winged insect with menacing-looking jaws, to show the campers. They’re all thrilled, giddily observing the papery wings through the container Hartley caught it with. Although intimidating, the insect is virtually harmless, Hartley tells the students, and their excitement rises at the occasion of this new experience. This is something they’ve never seen before. 

“I love this camp!” one student exclaims, moving closer to Hartley to have a better look at the dobsonfly. “Mrs. Hartley lets us see all these cool bugs up close.” Later, once back inside, the campers write in their gardening journals, drawing pictures of the bugs they saw, detailing their explorations. 

Like so many activities throughout Summer Quest, Hartley’s camp offers a keener, gentler way of seeing the world. “There’s a lot of world in a little flower,” Hartley says. “And I just want to introduce that world to students. By feeling closer to the world around them, it helps them hopefully become more empathetic and understanding.” And that’s what learning is all about, really: broadening your sense of things, in this case by looking closely. 

Earlier that day, the campers enjoyed a close look at one- and two-day old chicks that groundskeeper Andrew Stanley incubated and hatched. Ten cute bundles of chirping feathers, hopping around a classroom, making little clucks as the students hold them. “When they’re squeaking like that they’re telling you something,” one student says. Hartley recommends water — maybe the chick is thirsty. This is about hands-on education, and, with the student’s hands cupped gently around the chick’s belly, hands-on doesn’t get much closer than that. Hartley passes the student a little bottle cap filled with water to offer up. She’s absorbed in the moment, stroking the chick’s head. “This is just so amazing,” she says, smiling.