Experiential Learning in the Lowcountry with Kids in Kayaks

Heading out for a paddle
Heading out for a paddle Susan Dee
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For many of us who love the outdoors, the affair began at an early age. It was that first hike through a quiet forest, paddle stroke on a calm morning, or wave caught in the churning surf. And the joy from those formative experiences launched us on a path of outdoor adoration.

Kids in Kayaks in Hilton Head is betting on that very path to encourage new outdoor enthusiasts and advocates by making sure every student in Beaufort County has the chance to get on the water. Organized by The Outside Foundation—a non-profit started by the folks at Outside Hilton Head, the Kids in Kayaks program connects children with the outdoors.

Jean Fruh is the Outside Foundation’s executive director. A retired professor from a small liberal arts college in West Virginia, Fruh moved to the island with her husband in 2005 and began working at Outside Hilton Head’s retail location. While working retail and kayak guiding with Outside Hilton Head, Fruh also became involved with the store's fledgling Kids in Kayaks program. Fruh realized the potential, and, in October of 2014, she established the Outside Foundation in concert with Outside Hilton Head’s CEO Mike Overton. The goal was to extend the environmental efforts the store had been pursuing as well as bolster their involvement with kids' programs.

“Mike has always been committed to getting kids outdoors,” says Fruh.

One of the first goals of the foundation was to adopt Kids in Kayaks, then get it organized and fully operational. The store had provided kayaks and their marinas to the program in the past, but now they wanted to see it go large scale.

Up until its adoption by The Outside Foundation, the Kids in Kayaks program was holding on due to the dedication of the people who saw the value in the program. One of those people was Susan Dee, an Environmental Science teacher at McCracken Middle School and the former director of Kids in Kayaks. Another was the program’s founder Lois Lewis, also a middle school science teacher. She and Dee worked together on the program, and instituted it on a small scale in their respective schools.

“Kids need to be in nature to study nature,” says Dee who is also a kayak guide for Outside Hilton Head. Dee loved the program because it got kids out on the water. “Most of the students who live here haven’t even been on the water, can’t even tell you where the rivers are.” Fruh agrees, “the average tourist has a better chance of getting on the water than the kids who live here. Very few have had an opportunity to be in a kayak before.”

The educational value was another driving force—experiential education is irreplaceable says Dee. “When kids learn about the spartina grass and the oysters first hand they come away from the experience with an appreciation of our salt marsh and how unique it is.”

Now, under the leadership of Jean Fruh and The Outside Foundation, Kids in Kayaks is finally coming of age.

“When I was in sixth grade, everybody went to this overnight camp for a weekend. Every sixth grade student had that opportunity, we learned a lot and it’s a great memory," Fruh says. "I see Kids in Kayaks falling in line with this same idea. It’s a shared experience.” With that in mind, Fruh and Dee developed a curriculum around the Kids in Kayaks program that aligned with state seventh grade science requirements for South Carolina.  Now every seventh grade student in Beaufort County schools has the opportunity to take part the program, and at least one teach from every county school is trained in the Kids in Kayaks curriculum.

“My goal is to change the way they see the salt marsh forever. I’m an optimist—I believe that one experience can change a child,” says Fruh, whose dream of a shared experience is becoming reality.

In the last year alone the Outside Foundation received $50,000 in grants, most of them local, in support of Kids in Kayaks. This allows the program to have enough kayaks for large student groups, and also provides scholarship money for students whose families can’t afford the fee of the trip.

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