Summer: when kids learn to love the bay

Summer is nearly here, and during those hot-weather months, kids across the Mid-Atlantic will explore their local rivers or the Chesapeake Bay for the first time. They'll find lush riparian zones, herons stalking shallow-water prey, crayfish hiding in cool creeks, and silky marsh mud squishing between their toes.

During the year, kids spend a lot of time indoors — in classrooms and in front of the television or computer. With school out and long days to fill, summer is the time for youths to touch, see, feel and hear the watershed that surrounds them. If kids find adventure along shorelines, they'll begin to care about preserving natural areas and keeping our waters clean and clear. These experiences will help color their decisions green and help them learn how their actions make a difference.

Such summertime play is serious business: If kids do not make a personal connection to this natural treasure now, when will they?

Some will make these discoveries just outside their door or neighborhood; others will gain an introduction through one of the hundreds of Chesapeake-area camps that get kids outdoors in an organized fashion — with canoeing, hiking, fishing, wildlife-spotting and more.

The environmental educators who work around the bay and on the rivers will be teaching youths to seine, identify birds and plant underwater grasses. As they splash, fish and paddle, kids will find reasons why it's important to them personally to help protect our waters.

I know, because I was once one of those kids — my first real outing on the bay was a two-week program with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that got me interested in all things environmental. For two weeks, I camped, canoed and hiked along the Patuxent River and the main part of the bay, all the while learning about oysters, mucking through marshes, catching crabs and exploring tidelines. I was 14, and I was hooked.

We toured a sewage treatment plant and volunteered on a farm, among other unique Chesapeake-related experiences. I loved the sun glittering off the water, the sandy shores, the quiet of dusk, and the sounds of songbirds in the morning. When I got home, I stuck "Use less water" stickers above my shower faucet and wore my Save the Bay T-shirt. I chided my parents for using fertilizer on the lawn. My school presentations focused on why oyster populations are diminishing and how excess nutrients contribute to algae blooms.

Years later, as a summer camp counselor, I shared the wonders of the bay with groups of middle-schoolers. We camped out, canoed, learned to fly fish, donned waders to seine, planted native shoreline grasses and watched a storm roll in over the bay.

Informal, unstructured watershed exploration is just as valuable. Letting kids discover creeks and riverbanks and woods on their own will teach them curiosity and how the outside world works. Such experiences are available across the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

This season, do your part to get kids away from the virtual worlds of web surfing, television and video gaming and take them out into the watershed's hundreds of parks and preserves. Enroll them in nature programs where they can hear a great horned owl, marvel at the Milky Way, or uncover macro-invertebrates such as stoneflies or crayfish that are sensitive to water quality. If you get a chance to help out at one of the programs, all the better — you'll feel like a camper yourself. Or, find your own way to support local camps and summer programs that are teaching kids to care.

If we encourage youngsters to get off the couch and explore a local creek or woods, they'll grow up with a wider worldview. They'll be more aware of our rich, complex natural world that's both beautiful and intrinsically valuable — and they'll be more likely to keep local streams and the bay in mind.

Carrie Madren, a resident of Olney, writes about environmental issues, Chesapeake Bay life and sustainable living. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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