During a week when augmented reality gadget games swept across the nation, kids at Key West Art & Historical Society’s ArtCamp! were outside discovering island life as it was in the 1500s, building forts, throwing spears, and drinking from mud holes with life straws.
The camp, in operation for over thirty years, aims to inspire a greater sense of place and historical understanding about our island home. This week’s theme was dedicated to the craftsmanship and traditions of Native American culture—in this case, the Calusa Indian. Led by commercial fisherman Lee Starling, campers learned how the Calusa controlled their tribes and their extensive trade areas, and were given countless hands-on learning opportunities based on the evolution of primitive stone age tools— compass navigation, hurricane survival techniques like water filtration, archery, atlatl throwing, and how to make fire using flint and a ferro rod.
“I don’t think I’ll be teaching that skill next year,” jokes Starling nervously.
But Starling, who grew up in South Carolina with grandparents who didn’t have electricity until 1972, knows the value of these techniques.
“When we went to their house, you stepped back in time,” he says. “You pumped water and found arrowheads. That tiny piece of stone would catapult you into learning as much as you could about an area. And I watched my elders and how they did things. They weren’t native American but they used old-time techniques.”
“The kids were amazing and totally engrossed,” he adds. “They spent hours twisting fibers made of yucca and cabbage palm stalks into rope for their forts, and built solar stills out of trash.”
Their favorite activity?
“Throwing the atlatl. It’s something you can start doing well in a short period of time. Any time a kid throws a 6-foot-long spear down range and it goes a hundred feet, it sparks something in them.”
With a seven-year-old daughter who delights in collecting insect carcasses and helping haul lobster traps, Starling knows a thing or two about that sort of spark, and is convinced much of it happens while being outside.
“I think your perspective on life is completely different if you were raised before a/c,” he says. “You didn’t think it was a big deal to be hot, so you just went out and played in it.”
Starling offered most of his outdoor activities in the earlier morning, bringing campers in during high sun for activities like making water bottles out of gourds. Other times, they simply stayed inside the giant fort they’d made.
“We taught the kids skills that they can apply in all kinds of situations,” says Starling. “Most of them don’t really cost anything—just a little initiative. Half of those kids were like, “I’m going home and building a fort!” What kid doesn’t want a fort?”
While registration for the 9-week program is now full, ArtCamp! continues throughout the school year with sessions scheduled for professional development days and other school breaks. Sessions run the creative gamut to touch upon a variety of art, culture, and the humanities to get children thinking, moving, and making, and are led by a team of instructors made up of talented artists, teachers, and historians with extensive experience working with children. Campers also explore Fort East Martello, an enclosed Civil War-era fort and museum stewarded by Key West Art & Historical Society that is the location for the weekly camp sessions. To learn more about ArtCamp! and future sessions, visit KWAHS.ORG/LEARN or call Adele Williams, Director of Education at 305.295.6616 extension 115. Your museums. Your community. It takes an island.