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Jeanne Pirtle says it was different when she was a child.

Children had plenty of opportunity to explore the outdoors and play on their own without adults hovering over them, directing their every move. Summers, especially, with no school responsibilities, were a time of freedom.

“We used to run around outside until dark,” said Pirtle, education director at Sotterley Plantation in Hollywood. “Who gets to do that anymore?”

Pirtle kept all that in mind as she was considering three years ago how to create a summer camp for children at Sotterley, a National Historic Landmark that is better known for the local history represented by the site’s 1703 plantation house, 1830s restored slave cabin and Colonial Revival gardens.

She noted that Sotterley only has a limited amount of indoor space that would be appropriate for children’s camp activities. But on the plus side, Sotterley’s nearly 95 acres of waterfront grounds are ideal for exploring and outdoor activities. “We have gorgeous landscapes, gorgeous views and lots of really nice trails we’re going to take advantage of,” Pirtle said.

Pirtle combined her belief in the value of free play and Sotterley’s beautiful grounds, and came up with Camp Skipping Stone Summer Camp, billed as a camp where children learn and play the “old-fashioned way.”

Monday was the first day of Camp Skipping Stone Summer Camp, now in its third year. Jennifer Goddard of Piney Point dropped off her son, Drake Goddard, 9, at the camp. “It was different from a lot of what is around here,” Goddard said. Drake is interested in history, which is a subject impossible to escape at Sotterley. And Goddard noted that she used to catch crabs with chicken necks on a string when she was a child herself; that’s one of the activities advertised in camp literature.

Tyler Rose, 10, of Mechanicsville was a returning camper from last year. “The slip and slide and the crabbing ... It was just all fun,” he said explaining why he came back.

The camp also features bird watching, sketching or painting, gardening, lawn and table games, cooking and crafts.

On Monday the camp started with a 15-minute hike on a newly created wood-chip trail through the woods. Pirtle stopped every now and then to point out the Patuxent River and Calvert County beyond, a patch of heritage Maryland tobacco, an archaeology station, blackberry bushes, a rabbit.

After reaching Brinks, a cottage near the Sotterley pier, Pirtle set the campers loose. “I’m going to let you explore,” she said. “Stay in this general area. Pick your activity.”

She laughed as they scattered. “They can’t wait to get out on their own,” she said.

The six boys initially ran to a tetherball court, while two of the five girls checked out the view of the Patuxent and three others clambered over a ring of large hay bales, leaping from one to another. Eventually, most of the campers took turns running across the top of the hay bales. Laughing and yelling “I’m down!” when they stepped into the gaps.

The afternoon included lunch and the start of a project, as each camper began building a birdhouse.

“When I grew up, you made your own fun. You made your own games,” Pirtle said. “That discovery, the old-fashioned kind of play ... Studies have actually shown that that is the best way to learn.”

Pirtle said she had a variety of activities planned for the three-day camp, which ran from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. But she said that the schedule wasn’t set in stone and there is room for changes due to weather or the campers’ own preferences.

Pirtle said she tweaks the camp each year. For instance, she is going to try to extend camp hours next year and have the camp run for a full five days, and she plans to broaden the range of ages that can participate. This week’s camp was designed for campers in third- through fifth-grade.

So there may be some changes for next year, but Pirtle said she thinks the main idea behind the camp works. She noted that at least five of the 11 participants in this week’s camp are returning campers from last year.

She recounted a conversation a mother had with her daughter, who was a camper last year. The mother asked her daughter, “How was camp?”

“I sure had fun,” the daughter said.

“What did you do?”

“I don’t know ... just kid stuff.”

scraton@somdnews.com