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At Adventures in Cardboard camp, kids can let their imaginations run wild

A pair of warriors guard the gate to the Wyvern Town at Adventures in Cardboard camp at the Carl W. Kroening Interpretive Center at the North Mississippi Regional Park in Minneapolis on Friday, June 29, 2018. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)1 / 2
A fierce Ronnie Dixon, 11, Minneapolis, looks for someone to fight at Adventures in Cardboard camp at the Carl W. Kroening Interpretive Center at the North Mississippi Regional Park in Minneapolis on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS — As he created a sword out of cardboard, bamboo and tape, 11-year-old Severin Nilsen considered how it felt to be offline on this summer's day spent at Adventures in Cardboard in the wilds of North Mississippi Regional Park in Minneapolis.

"It feels awesome," says Severin. "I'm doing something good with my life, helping my brain. I definitely want to come back next year."

The Minneapolis boy is doing other awesome things with his life this summer, including Boy Scout camp and a lot of reading, but there's nothing else quite like Adventures in Cardboard.

If we had to put it in a box, we'd describe this day camp as a mashup of maker station, fantasy role-playing game and neighborhood game of tag. The official mission of Adventures in Cardboard is "to inspire creative and imaginative play, both theatrical and tactically competitive, in beautiful wild places" and to "seek to re-inspire community-oriented and creative outdoor play."

"I tell every parent I can about this camp," says Jeanne Mettner of Minneapolis, whose son, Max, has attended the camp for several years. "It really is brilliant and magical."

Although, to those who haven't heard of it, it can be confusing: "You describe it and there can be an eyebrow-lifting thing: 'You're spending money on cardboard?'" says Mettner with a laugh.

A lot of parents are spending money on cardboard this summer: This day camp, which began several years ago at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, has now expanded to multiple locations and dozens of sessions throughout the metro — including a growing number of sessions in the east and south metro. Demand, though, is still greater than the supply as word of mouth spreads among parents and kids. Still, says founder Julian McFaul: "We're at capacity."

A version of this day camp began about six summers and 10,000 boxes ago, led by McFaul with Shelley Chinander — his life partner, main collaborator and, currently, the nonprofit's administrative director.

"We started in 2012 in Powderhorn Park," McFaul says. "We had taken several programs that we had developed in other summer day camp programs like Leonardo's Basement and ArtStart and I designed a castle-building class. We'd build a giant castle in the morning and the afternoon class built armor and played some games in the castle. Of course, then the builders felt left out, seeing kids playing in it after, so we decided that this 'Building Castle' and 'Playing Castle' needed to be together."

A proper castle comes with land, too.

"While both Shelley and I love Powderhorn, it's a little small," McFaul says. "We thought it would be fun to have more room to spread out to run and play games. Minnesota has such beautiful, accessible metro-area parks."

The camp initially expanded from its urban location to include the suburban spot of Bryant Lake Regional Park in Eden Prairie.

"It was so great," McFaul says. "Games suddenly found life and could breathe in that expansive land. Now I couldn't imagine doing a camp without several miles of trails and fields."

The camp, which is more well established with more wait lists in the west metro, is now also at locations on this side of the metro — including Ramsey County's Battle Creek Regional Park and Tony Schmidt Regional Park, Caponi Art Park in Eagan and Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis.

"We look for large green spaces with interesting terrain," McFaul says. "It confuses parks sometimes to talk about a collaboration, so we just ask to rent a shelter or a patch of land for a tent and group project and tell them about our program and how we like to use trails for games and theater. Most parks are way into it."

That includes Ramsey County, which has welcomed the adventure for a few summers. It's a much different vibe than yoga in the park or kayak lessons, that's for sure.

"To see kids running around like knights in cardboard armor, it's a riot to watch," says Jon Oyanagi, department director.

Reese Dawson, a 13-year-old from St. Louis Park, signed up with friends to attend cardboard camp for the first time this year.

"We built a potion shop out of cardboard," she says.

This summer, Reese is also working on her tennis skills — but this camp taught her other useful life skills.

"I got to use an X-Acto knife," she says. "I did papier-mâché. I obviously did building. I drilled."

Her mom knows one thing she didn't do.

"What I really loved about it," says Melanie Dawson, "is that the kids put their phones down for the week and literally spent the entire day in nature — they're running through the woods, playing capture the flag and they're working together, making new friends and using their hands and their imaginations. I love that it's a whole fantasy world that they worked together to build — that it's this amazing adventure that they created on their own."