Florida is probably best known for its beaches. But for some residents who live far from the coast, a day at the beach is not a common event. So there’s a program in Southwest Florida to make sure children growing up inland learn the value of the state’s coastal environment.
A yellow bus filled with elementary school kids from Hendry County arrives on Sanibel Island. Their teacher Nan Akin says it’s about an hour and a half drive.
"It is hard to get out here so I think most of them have been to the beach but it's probably once or twice a year," says Akin.
So Akin brings her students to the Sanibel Sea School to get hands-on lessons about marine life. Lia Hulsinger, in fifth grade, says these field trips are fun.
"Cause you get to go in the water and go to the beach. I mean who doesn't like the beach?" says Hulsinger.
The children follow Carley Todd with the Sanibel Sea School into the clear blue water. She guides the kids through a netting exercise. They drag a huge net through the shore, scooping up Gulf Coast critters.
Then they lift the net out of the water, walk it over to dry sand, and lay it down to observe what animals they dug up. On this first try, the kids found a puffer fish.
But for some of these children, it’s not just about learning facts. It’s about facing fears. Kristin Abreau says her daughter Bethany, in second grade, was afraid of water. She says Bethany does not go to the beach much because they live inland. So Kristin says these school field trips to the coast have helped Bethany get more comfortable with water.
"She's been more apt to get in the swimming pool in the community," she says. "And before she would just kinda cling to the edge and now she's kinda getting out there a little bit more."
Bethany says she likes Sanibel because...
"It's really fun... I look at fish and I catch ‘em," she says.
Bruce Neill, executive director of the Sanibel Sea School, calls them "land locked kids." He created this initiative.
"We engage with kids that otherwise don’t have the opportunity to experience the ocean," he says. "Being able to open their world to something that is literally right in their backyard is pretty amazing."
Because of Florida’s water quality issues, Neill hopes these field trips will inspire inland children to advocate for clean water when they get older... Like third grader Nicholas Kirkwood who says he wants to “change the world” when he grows up.
"I want them to stop littering in the waters because we were catching some fish and most of them were dead but we found some alive ones," says Kirkwood. "And I would just like it if everybody stopped doing that."
These students will make their way back to the coast in February. And the Sanibel Sea School hopes to expand, reaching more of Southwest Florida’s “landlocked kids.”