By Kathryn Coulibaly

On a late spring day, volunteers with Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and Its Tributaries (CU Maurice River) mill around in a field near the river’s watershed, waiting for school buses to deliver more than 200 fourth-graders from area schools. Over the course of two days, more than 400 students will participate in the nature walk at PSE&G’s wetland restoration site and interactive stations at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve. The program aims to build enthusiasm for outdoor exploration and pride in Cumberland County’s natural and cultural history, especially along the Bayshore.

Anthony Klock, a CU Maurice River trustee and volunteer naturalist leads a group of Jennifer Trivellini’s students from Vineland’s Anthony Rossi Elementary School. Klock is an educator and president of the Voorhees Education Association. A volunteer for many years, he has taken a personal day to guide these students through the watershed.

Joining Klock are volunteers and experts in a variety of subject areas including one of the foremost experts on moths and insects in the region, Dr. Dale Schweitzer.

The tour begins with a set of maps that help students identify where in the world they are. Students easily identify the seven continents, the United States and New Jersey, and even Cumberland County, but that’s where it gets a bit confusing. This provides an opportunity to talk about the unique ecosystem they have entered.

Group leaders demonstrate the differing sizes of watersheds, working down from a global to a local scale. While political lines such as national and state borders have been drawn in the sand, ecosystem functions aren’t contained by those human-created boundaries. The exercise promotes a sense of place from a local perspective, while also aiming to instill a sense of connection with the rest of the world.

Klock provides some background on the Lenni-Lenape people who once called the region home. He points out native and invasive species as the walk to the water begins. Along the way, the group stops to examine plants, trees and wildlife. The volunteers have helpfully, and somewhat cheekily, placed stuffed native species along the trail to give students a real-life example of the kinds of animals found in the region.

There are no cellphones out, but there are some binoculars, and they are trained on the birds swooping overhead, which Klock and his fellow volunteers point out and identify for students. One of the most exciting moments of the day is when a bald eagle is spotted and admired by the group.

As they make their way along the path, Klock points out beehives, birds’ nests, webs, warrens and more. Klock is passionate about educating children about their own backyards.

A home to rare and endangered wildlife

According to CU Maurice River, “This region has the highest concentrations of rare and endangered wildlife, coupled with the lowest density of urban development in New Jersey. It is considered of ‘global importance’ with considerable opportunities for conservation.”

“This is a remarkable place to live,” Klock said. “Students need to recognize the importance of where they live and develop an appreciation for it. The people volunteering here today are all looking to conserve what we have, the best we can. And the best way to do that is to engage the kids who live here so they can continue this work into the future.”

Many of these students already participate in “green time,” where they enjoy unstructured outdoor activities, and some are very eager to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for nature during the walk. But others have fewer opportunities, so experiences like this help to get children into nature.

The lack of green time is reaching a critical level, and the negative impact is increasingly apparent.

According to The Nature of Americans National Report, “Parents of children 8 to 12 years old said that their children spend three times as many hours with computers and televisions each week as they do playing outside.”

Research has shown that there are many benefits to replacing screen time with green time. Among them are:

• Better school performance and improved cognitive function.

• More creativity.

• Higher levels of fitness.

• More friends.

• Less depression and hyperactivity.

• Stronger bones, decreased risk of cardiovascular issues, diabetes or other health issues.

• Improved eyesight.

• Better sleep.

• A longer life span and a healthier life.

This region has the highest concentrations of rare and endangered wildlife.

Klock has observed this “nature deficit disorder,” and he believes strongly that activities such as Wild About Cumberland, Maurice River’s Eagle Festival and the Cumberland County Eagle Festival, and Kids About the Bay all help to get children exploring the natural world around them.

“Children really need to be outside,” Klock said. “I’ve been teaching for 30 years. Students want to observe and engage in the natural world. They may not realize that, but this program can help reawaken that.”

Volunteers

It helps that the children are surrounded by grown-ups who are experts in a variety of subjects, and who are eager to share their passion for the environment with the students.

“We have 40 volunteers here today; 30 are from CU Maurice River and 10 work at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve,” said Karla Rossini, program manager with CU Maurice River. (Bivalve is a historic oystering community in Port Norris, Cumberland County.) “Many are either currently employed or retired educators, others include conservation professionals, naturalists, a former game warden, and a lepidopterist [a person who studies butterflies and moths], among others. No matter their background, team members share an appreciation for the region’s outstanding natural and cultural resources coupled with a desire to pass along their knowledge of and passion for the great outdoors to the next generation of stewards.”

“We’re all nature geeks,” Klock said. “So this kind of stuff is just what we do.”

The students can observe the level of excitement and wonder among the grown-ups in their groups as they spot a red maple blooming—an early sign of spring. The excitement is contagious as they listen to the sound of wood frogs croaking in the reeds. The wonder grows they look through an expertly calibrated telescope to spy on waterfowl swimming in the tidal creeks of the Delaware Bayshore’s wetland complex.

“Students who come back to visit me always bring up the times that we took them outside looking for macroinvertebrates, bird-watching or observing a river,” Klock said. “Fourth grade is the perfect year to get them hooked on nature, and it fits in perfectly with the curriculum. Since fourth grade is traditionally the year they learn about New Jersey, we take a lot of time helping them discover their sense of place.”

Volunteers spend considerable time talking about how the ecosystem has changed. Superstorm Sandy changed the landscape of the watershed, and other human-caused environmental factors are having a negative impact on the region.

“We want the students to understand the significant changes that have taken place in the last two years and the potential changes to come,” Klock said. “We need them to be the next generation of advocates, not just for this region but for the entire natural world.”

When the students finish the nature walk portion of the day, they are off to the Bayshore Center at Bivalve to participate in hands-on workstations, which are coordinated by Allison Place, the Shipboard Program coordinator. Other partners also lead workshops. They include Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge, the AmeriCorps New Jersey Watershed Ambassadors Program, Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, the Lenape Tribe and others.

A longstanding favorite program is the live raptor show presented by the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge. For many students, it marks the first time they have ever seen or heard an owl or hawk. When the vulture happens to show off its wingspan, the students’ and teachers’ faces light up with astonishment.

In 2019, OceanFirst Bank was the major corporate sponsor of Wild About Cumberland. The program is also made possible by invaluable assistance from partners such as The Nature Conservancy, as well as further funding from the National Park Service’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, Cumberland County Planning and Development, and CU Maurice River members.

Want to get wild about Cumberland?

CU Maurice River has resources available online to help educators reconnect students with nature. Download its teachers’ guide at cumauriceriver.org. Slide over to “Education” and click on “Teacher’s Guide.”

Area educators can participate in the next Wild About Cumberland, which will be held March 24 and 25, 2020. There are also many other activities offered in the region. For more information or to receive the program packet, email Karla Rossini at Karla.Rossini@CUMauriceRiver.org or call the office at 856-300-5331.

CU Maurice River

Incorporated in 1979, Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and Its Tributaries (CU Maurice River) was pivotal in the designation of the Maurice River as part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. CU Maurice River is dedicated to protecting the Maurice River Watershed’s natural integrity and cultural heritage.

As South Jersey’s leading watershed organization, CU Maurice River engages in fieldwork, advocacy, research and education initiatives generating and contributing to a greater understanding of local environment and wildlife. CU Maurice River’s work is accomplished through an extensive network of naturalists, field experts, citizen scientists and volunteers. To learn more, or to volunteer, go to cumauriceriver.org.

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org.

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