In the late 1990‘s two local middle school environmental science teachers, Lois Lewis and Susan Dee, had a bold idea: to allow their students “to learn about nature in nature.” Their idea was to take their classrooms outside to allow their students to experience the surrounding ecosystem first hand - to kayak the beautiful tidal creeks and salt marshes, to immerse their hands in the glorious “pluff mud,” and to observe, examine, and discuss the abundant marine life. Through the efforts of these teachers, along with a few local kayak companies, as well as the non-profit “The Friends of the Rivers,” the “Kids in Kayaks” program was created. When The Outside Foundation (TOF) was formed in 2014 providing leadership, structure, and financial support to the “Kids in Kayaks” program quickly became a top priority.
The goal of the “Kids in Kayaks” program is to expose as many Beaufort County 7th grade students as possible to the local salt marshes and tidal rivers. This exposure is accomplished by allowing students, during a regular school day, an opportunity to kayak and participate in interactive dockside stations under the direct supervision of trained interpretive naturalists. The challenges are clear - children are spending much less time outside and up to 7 hours a day connected to electronic devices. The program is offered to both public and private middle schools. The cost of the program per student is $20 and this fee goes directly to cover the cost of the kayak outfitter company. Unfortunately this $20 program cost prohibits some children from participating (60% of BCSD students come from families who qualify for reduced price or free lunch). Through scholarship support, TOF is committed to ensuring that every 7th grade student in Beaufort County who wants to participate can participate. This program creates a unique opportunity for students to “learn about the environment in the environment,” and provides an opportunity for our youngest residents to connect with their local environment. Multiple research studies have shown that children who are exposed to nature early in life are much more likely to develop a sense of environmental stewardship, and are also healthier children. Creating a sense of environmental stewardship within this generation is vital if we wish to continue to protect and preserve our local environment.
A typical “Kids in Kayaks” program day involves up to 50 students, two teachers, and several chaperones. Local kayak outfitters partner with TOF to provide kayaks, kayaking equipment, a launch site, and two professional kayak guides. Volunteer Master Naturalists, as well as staff from the Beaufort Conservation District and Carolina Clean Stormwater Consortium, are recruited to supervise the dockside learning stations. Students, teachers, and chaperones generally arrive at the designated marina or launch site around 9:00 am. The group is divided in two - while half of the students go kayaking, the other half rotates through dockside interactive learning stations (dock fowling, salt marsh food web, touch tank, water testing, watershed model). Following lunch, the groups switch - each session lasts two hours.
The on-water kayaking experience begins with a paddle clinic where students receive instruction on safety and basic paddle strokes. Students are partnered and loaded into tandem kayaks. The kayak tour is led by a minimum of two professional kayak guides trained in interpretive naturalism. The time on the water is spent observing and discussing the oyster bed habitat, examining the interrelationships between oysters and spartina grass, observing and identifying wildlife, interpreting the color of the water, and discussing the salt marsh food web. The dockside stations are designed for “hands on” learning about the sessile community of organisms under the docks (dock fowling), the food web of the salt marsh (touch tank), the Port Royal Sound Watershed and stormwater runoffs concerns (Enviroscape), and water quality testing (Secchi disc, refractometer, dissolved oxygen, etc). The curriculum created for the program was developed in alignment with current SC State 7th grade environmental science learning objectives.
In 2018 The Outside Foundation hosted 900 students for “Kids in Kayaks” providing each student with an opportunity to kayak the tidal waters closest to his or her home. For almost half these students it was the first time they had put on a life jacket, held a paddle, and hopped into a kayak. In fact, the average tourist visiting Hilton Head Island has a much better chance to go kayaking than a child born here. Soon, we hope to offer middle schools “North of the Broad” the option to participate in the program from the Port Royal Sound Foundation. By 2020 The Outside Foundation hopes to accomplish a very bold milestone: that participation in the “Kids in Kayaks” program will have become a “shared experience” for every graduating senior from all Beaufort County Schools.
Jean Fruh is the executive director of the Outside Foundation.