Readers of this magazine know that the Chesapeake is a fascinating place. But how many children know this? How many kids appreciate the Bay’s beauty, bounty, and mystery? How many realize that the marine environment accounts for 90% of the earth’s living space; that life began in the seas; that millions of undiscovered species still lurk in the watery depths; that the oceans govern the earth’s climate? How many children have considered how barnacles eat, how starfish walk, how clams burrow, how crabs molt, or how lobsters swim?
Sadly, too many young people, too dependent on electronic devices, have too little appreciation for the natural world.
You can do something about that. You can share with a child the wonders of Chesapeake Bay. The child could be your son or daughter; a grandchild, niece, or nephew; or a young friend. You could even volunteer to help chaperone a youth group on an excursion to the shore. Doing so will open up a new world for them — and likely for you as well.
You may be thinking: I’m not a teacher, I know little about the marine environment, the kids won’t be interested in what I have to say. Dismiss those thoughts. Kids are naturally curious. You’ll learn together.
Here’s a short checklist to help you prepare:
•Decide where you’ll go: beach, marsh, rocky shore, sheltered cove? It’s wise to visit only one habitat at a time and to know in advance what you might find there.
• Spend a few minutes with your child to discuss the trip and the ground rules for your excursion (these include safety procedures and respect for the environment).
• Check the weather — and tides — in advance.
• Dress appropriately: footwear that can get wet and muddy, shorts or bathing suit, hat to block the sun. And bring a change of clothes and rain gear — in case.
• Pack water, snacks or picnic lunch, towels, sunblock, insect repellent, and a small first aid kit for possible scratches and scrapes.
• For observations and collections bring a hand-held lens, Ziploc bags, bucket, notebook and pencils, and face mask for peering below the water’s surface.
• Take a field guide. Among the best for children are the classic Golden Nature Guides including “Seashores,” “Fishes” and “Seashells of the World.” Decades old but still available, these books are nicely illustrated and easy to understand. The comprehensive Peterson “Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore” is a great choice for teenagers and adults.
At the shore
On arrival, review the ground rules with your child, including that no living animals should be collected (it’s OK to gather sea shells, inanimate objects, and bits of seaweed). Marine life is best observed in its natural habitat. If an object is moved — even a rock — it should be put back in place.
Children will appreciate using the field guides to identify the species and to learn something about their habits. Encourage taking notes and pictures.
It’s not necessary to go deep. Much of interest can be found in ankle-high water, in tide pools, or on the dry shore. Point out things that may not be obvious: the feathery appendages of barnacles sweeping the water for food; the calcareous etchings on rocks that signify the homes of tube worms; suction-cups on the undersurfaces of starfish that allow them to grip hard surfaces; the single claw of a male hermit crab protruding from its borrowed shell-home; the flotation-aiding air bladders of seaweeds. Watch for shorebirds and jumping fish. And remind your child that some important sea life (like plankton) is not readily visible.
Take breaks for snacks and discussion. Encourage questions. If you don’t know the answer (and often you won’t), research it together, later.
After the trip
Post-trip activities can strengthen the learning experience and deepen the child’s curiosity. These include discussions of observations, closer scrutiny of collected objects, research to fill in gaps, writing about the experience, a trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and planning for the next seashore adventure.
Remember that this will be a learning experience for both you and the child. What’s most important is the kindling of curiosity. Things may not go exactly according to plan — what adventure does? But often it’s the unexpected that leads to the most memorable and satisfying outcomes.
Henry (“Hank”) Parker is a scientist and writer who previously lived in Annapolis but now lives in Vermont.
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