Before the coronavirus changed the way we live, parents went to work and children went to school. Now, if they’re lucky, parents work from home and children are also expected to work from home on schoolwork issued online from their teachers. It’s a given that you can’t keep younger children with short attention spans working at their computers all day. If you can think like a teacher for a moment, a perfect remedy for the children is a field trip as an ancillary learning tool and an outlet for children’s energy.
We used to think of school field trips as a mixed blessing. When you heard about a trip that involved a ferry ride and time on the beach, it seemed a “fun in the sun” day was hardly a valid exchange for classroom time – more of a stretch as a learning experience – and a day off for the teacher. If you ever go on one of these trips you find out these assumptions are only partly right. When you consider the tremendous responsibility teachers have, taking their students off site, you realize how much work goes into organizing the trip, getting the class on the bus, on the boat and the constant head counts to get the same number you started with and that they are all yours.
A stay-at-home mom, I was always a class mother and went on all the trips. It was surprising to me to see how the ranger tour and seining for specimens of bay inhabitants interested the children. It kept their attention, prompted good questions and was a remarkable learning experience, given the low cost of the teaching tools. If you can see yourself substituting for a ranger or naturalist, now that many of us are home together, sharing space to do our work and schoolwork online, we have to think about substituting a family adventure as a worthwhile challenge for children to take the place of another day at the computer. Even if it is not a fair exchange, maybe it’s just a good idea on a nice day.
The ideal solution to the field trip is to let the professionals do it – the rangers at the Sunken Forest do this every time a school-sponsored field trip arrives from the mainland at the ferry dock. But, if they are still on “pause,” you may want to do it yourself. The Junior Naturalist program at Island Beach State Park as also currently on “pause.”
The 32 foot long barrier beach that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Great South Bay in New York has a lot of similarities to the 10 mile long barrier beach that separates Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean in New Jersey. The Sunken Forest at Sailor’s Haven has similar animal and plant life to the smaller Jersey maritime forest at Island Beach State Park.
Fire Island’s animal population has greater variety and numbers with 32 miles to inhabit. Both islands have deer, rabbit, squirrel and red fox populations. At Island Beach State Park it’s likely that a red fox or two will greet you as you open your car door. They will approach and wait for the car occupants to either feed them or take their pictures. The Fire Island foxes do not meet people at their cars and stay a distance but will take a treat if you bring one. There are signs all over not to feed the foxes but people like to feed them. Fire Island is also home to numerous species of birds.
Both islands are part of the barrier island chain from the Florida Keys to Massachusetts. The vegetation complex varies with the size of the island and ranges from mangrove in the Keys, live oak, red cedar and loblolly pine in maritime forests in the barrier islands of the Carolinas to beech in the northern islands.
Considered the crown jewel of the Fire Island National Seashore, the maritime forest located at Sailor’s Haven is well over 200 years old and is described as “sunken” because it is protected by secondary dunes that allow trees in the forest to grow to a consistent height through “salt spray pruning.” As trees grow taller, reaching up for the sunlight, they get to be the height of the dunes. When the trees are tall enough to be in line with the salt spray that stops their upward growth, the trees then spread out to form a canopy. The canopy gets thicker and thicker as the summer growing season progresses and the path through the forest becomes denser. It is felt that the greater canopy enclosure at the Sunken Forest, compared to others in the Atlantic barrier island system is a result of its unbroken system of primary and secondary dunes.
As more vacationers stay in this country because we are unwelcome tourists in Europe and more people buy boats, having your own boat makes a field trip even easier to do yourself. If you go to Sailor’s Haven on your own boat, the docks are open. Whether by ferry or your own boat, you can check in at the visitor’s center, which is open every day but Monday or Tuesday, and buy a junior ranger book and follow the activities outlined in the book.
You can bring a small seine net. If you don’t have one, Brielle Tackle has them in New Jersey. They sell a 10 x 4 net for $28. In Sayville, Island Fishnet Supply has them or can order the size you want. They sell them for $15 to $25, depending on the size. Dragging the seine net through the shallow part of the bay for silversides, pufferfish, maybe baby crabs and minnows and following the self-guided tours found in the junior ranger book, should provide enough material to keep children busy for hours.
To get the most current information about what is open at Sailor’s Haven you can try calling the Visitor Center at (631) 597-6183. What should be very helpful if you want to do it yourself would be the one- page self-guided tour, a guide that is given out next to the visitor’s center.
The ferry to Sailor’s Haven is located in Sayville at 41 River Road. For ferry prices and running times you can call them at (631) 589-8980.
Normally, by mid-June the Junior Naturalist Outdoor Adventure Series would be filling their openings at Island Beach State Park but they are also on “pause” To get more information about what is or will be available of the Naturalist Outdoor Adventure Series, go to their website at www.islandbeachnatureprograms.org.
What makes learning come alive to children is observing, touching, collecting and sorting out specimens of fish and shellfish and other things they find at the beach. They can see firsthand the effects of the tide, the wind, sun and rain on the land where it has eroded. Children can spend quality time reading about the environment. As important as that is, getting away from the confines of the classroom and books gives them a wider perspective and consolidates concepts learned in their reading. This information as it is discussed with other students, instructors and adults, teaches them how to develop questions of their own and develops good analytical skills.
Whether the rangers and naturalists are back in business working with our kids or we do our own field trips, there’s fun to be had and a lot to be learned right here, close to home.