Cardboard crazy!

Drums pound in the distance. A trumpet signals a charge. Suddenly a hoard of warriors — decked out with helms and axes — charges toward the castle, attempting to break down the gates. 

The defenders inside, whose armor all shares a symbol of a boar upon it, ready their swords and shields and quietly reaffirm their planned strategy to repel the attackers. Their archers take aim. 

Sound like something straight out of Lord of the Rings rather than a Twin Cities summer camp? 

Well, obviously this isn’t just any camp. 

This is Castle Adventure Camp, the brainchild of Julian McFaul, a Twin Cities teacher and theater set designer.

McFaul’s popular Adventures in Cardboard camps blend the physical activity of a sports camp with the creativity of an arts-and-crafts camp — and a dash of role-playing to boot. 

The result appears to be pure fun for both boys and girls ages 8 and up.

McFaul, who supervises and serves alongside a team of artist counselors, created Adventures in Cardboard  camps five years ago to draw kids away from digital media and back into imaginative outdoor play. 

In the U.S., the average child between 6 and 11 years of age spends about 28 hours a week in front of the TV, according to data from the Neilson Company, which found TV viewing among kids to be at an eight-year high back in 2009.

Yes, that’s just TV — not screen time overall — replacing valuable time needed for playing with friends, physical activity, fresh air and imaginative play, according to the study. 

McFaul, however, isn’t just getting kids outside and away from electronic screens, he’s taking them to some of the Twin Cities’ best parks, including Historic Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, Bryant Lake Regional Park in Eden Prairie and Tony Schmidt Regional Park in Arden Hills, to name a few.

After designing similar camps for other arts groups in recent years — including Leonardo’s Basement in Minneapolis and ArtStart in St. Paul — McFaul incorporated Adventures in Cardboard in 2011 and started bringing camps to regional parks.

And it’s really catching on. 

“We’ve added two more weeks this year and brought in more staff to meet the increase in demand,” said McFaul, whose wife, visual artist Shelley Chinander, also serves as one of the many artist counselors. “My wife and I come home physically tired to the bone, but smiling and with our spirits filled.”

Outdoor spaces are an important element in fostering creative play, according to McFaul, who explains on his website: “We know that natural spaces open the imagination, and, in turn, the imagination can open new respect and longing for the natural world. From the work of Richard Louv and others describing ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ we know children are smarter, healthier and happier when they have time for semi-structured play in natural places.”

Inspired by childhood

Why cardboard? 

“My dad would come home with a refrigerator box, and it would turn into a million things,” McFaul said. “It was a spaceship; it was a castle. It became all sorts of different things until it was finally nothing but a flat piece of busted cardboard that you could slide down the hill on.” 

Recreating those memorable times from his own childhood motivates McFaul to offer that same kind of experience to today’s youth. Cardboard can be made into anything, especially by campers given enough time and motivation. And it’s easy to work with, even for kids with no previous construction experience, McFaul said.

McFaul is a pro when it comes to cardboard. He’s used the medium in theatrical design many times. 

In 2002, he even won critical acclaim for his design of a spaceship interior that rotated around the entire audience as part of the Bedlam Theatre production Terminus.

Castles, mazes, catapults

At Castle Adventure Camp, construction workshops involve glue by the gallon, rolls and rolls of tape, markers, staples, a bit of wood, cutting tools and tons of cardboard. 

Counselors share their knowledge in the safest and most effective techniques for molding ordinary pieces of cardboard into a myriad of play props. Campers make wizarding wands and staffs, magical amulets and enchanted creatures to guard them. They create exotic swords, axes, maces, pikes, bows, suits of armor, helmets, castles, forts and catapults. 

When it comes to cardboard, kids are limited only by their imaginations. Last summer, for example, one group of kids created a landshark battering ram!

Each week campers are also encouraged to choose elective projects such as maze building, giant monster creation, bows and arrows, siege engines, advanced tactical maneuvers, clan history development, character creation and role-playing.

“We rely mainly on the different terrain each park has to offer to inspire elective projects,” McFaul said. 

Though each camp includes about 75 kids, most activities happen in smaller groups of about 15. Campers — split into six “houses” for a bit of excitement and healthy rivalry — come together in larger games and battles. 

Creating a character

Once scenes and accessories are constructed, campers are encouraged to create a story and a character or persona for themselves. (This is where the camp’s role-playing element comes into play.)

Some campers choose their characters based on personalities that already exist in the mainstream media: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Percy Jackson franchises rank high among the most popular choices. 

Other kids model their personas after people from specific cultures or time periods such as the Middle Ages. Still others play as humanoid mythical creatures such as orcs, golems or fairies. Even a dragon may pop up, McFaul said. 

Next campers can chose their professions — warriors, sorceresses, messengers, merchants, thieves, archers, spies, bards, wizards and an array of other roles within the camp’s community. 

A merchant may sell his arrows to the archer in exchange for gold coins; a spy may infiltrate her rival’s territory to discover battle plans; and warriors may defend the castle wall or lead a charge. A wizard may attempt to negotiate alliances for his king. A sorceress may find herself on a quest to collect dragon teeth.

This type of make-believe and role-playing — imaginative play — is, according to Psychology Today, “a vital component to normal child development.”

Safety, fair play

Before any serious games can begin, the counselors instruct campers in the art of safe cardboard combat and fair play.  

“Safe sword tag is actually just as safe as any sport when played with integrity,” McFaul said. “So our biggest goal in keeping play safe is teaching our kids to respect the rules.” 

That means helping the campers remember to tag someone out rather than use any unneeded force — and to graciously accept when they’re “out.” Accepting a loss gracefully is the greatest challenge of the week for some campers, an important skill at camp, but also in real life, McFaul said. 

The camp’s philosophy of “be the kid you’d want to play with” stresses taking pride in being a good sport in both victory and in defeat as well as personal accountability for following the spirit of the rules.

Games, battles, cooling off

Once campers have been walked through the safe way to play — and have been observed in a few short practice matches — the bigger games can begin. 

Each camp’s natural settings come alive with several different activities. Games cater to the many different roles and interests of the campers. Those who love the thrill of battle do so. Those who would rather take more peaceful measures can avoid conflict. 

Games include capture the flag — which pits the houses against each other in order to acquire the land and loyalties of their rivals through strategy and battle — as well as epic quests to rescue a royal family or to retrieve supernatural artifacts hidden within the forest. 

On the final day of camp comes a highly anticipated event — the  “Campers vs. Counselors” battle, in which parents are invited to attend as spectators. 

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well for the counselors. 

McFaul loves watching kids make believe in the woods.

“There is something so uplifting about pretend-living the mysteries of the great fairy traditions we’ve inherited,” he said. “There is also something fascinating for girls and boys about trying on ‘power’ in these stories … with apparently so little power in their lives, to strap a sword to their waist and strike off on a trail, a master of their own destiny — if only for a moment in their own mind — capable of brokering mortal decisions.”

Of course, it’s not just field games and battles. 

Because the camps come during some of the warmest months of the year, the counselors always make time for swimming breaks (with lifeguard-certified waterfront staff) as well as lunch, between all the creating, constructing and playing.

But when the beat of the drum starts and the blast of the trumpet sounds, girls and boys are quick to don their armor, strap their sword or staff to their backs and rejoin the adventure created from a bit of cardboard and their imaginations. 

Amy Sutton is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Minnesota Parent.