If the children can’t go to the ocean, the ocean will come to the children.
Tuesday and Wednesday, students at Chesterbrook Elementary School had the chance to get up close and personal with several varieties of snails, fish and other aquatic life forms, courtesy of the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center from Virginia Beach.
The traveling aquarium presentation, called “Oceans in Motion,” consists of an assembly and a touch tank presentation inside the school, complete with a Miss Estuary beauty contest, a quiz show and a musical lesson on the food chain. After that, students walk through a mobile aquarium that houses four tanks, each representing a different habitat for marine life.
The two women who put on the demonstrations, Sarah Robbins and Candyce Boykin, travel mostly throughout Virginia but sometimes go to West Virginia or as far south as North Carolina, telling elementary school children about brackish water, invertebrates and mollusks.
“We travel a lot during the school year and do festivals in the summer,” Boykin said. “Working with the kids is fun. It’s a good balance between being a teacher and getting to travel.”
The morning started out with a rainstorm, made by the students, in the school’s gymnasium. Boykin, playing a character named P.T. Phylum, had the children clap their hands and snap their fingers at different intervals and in different patterns, with the sound progressing from a sprinkle of rain to a downpour and back into a gentle shower.
Boykin and Robbins entertained the students with several skits, including one that taught the food web through a rap that featured two teachers chanting “decompose, decompose, decompose.”
STUDENTS HELD UP photos of sea life ranging from phytoplankton and anchovies to pelicans, people and whales, showing how each larger animal feeds on smaller creatures.
“If one link in the food web is lost, the whole thing will be thrown off,” Boykin said. “Over-fishing things like bass and crabs are a threat to the species, which is a threat to the whole chain.”
The touch tank contained two types of snails, a marine hermit crab, a sea star, a sea urchin and a tiny mussel, which the children were allowed to touch and examine.
Outside, students were taken through the mobile aquarium by Robbins, who told them there were four main environments found in the Chesapeake Watershed, which begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains and continues through all the streams, rivers and ponds across Virginia into the bay itself.
“Sometimes teachers will walk their classes through in a hurry, sometimes they mill around in here for a while,” Robbins said.
Going to schools where children haven’t seen the ocean in person are her favorites, she said. “They’re just bowled over. It’s great,” she said.
“We get everything from ‘This is awesome,’ to ‘Is this it?’ from the truck,” she said. “One kid asked me if I was the commotion in the ocean once, and I wasn’t sure what to say.”
Sometimes she needs to tell the students that there’s a difference between fish in the sea and fish in films, like “Finding Nemo.” “A lot of kids think fish are more friendly than they are, they think they’re more like mammals and work together and help each other out. Fish are really kind of dumb,” she said.
THE ONLY KIND of small sea life that can’t be included in the mobile aquarium are sea horses, she said, because they can’t survive the jostling motion of travel.
The students in Amy Vallath’s fourth-grade class enjoyed their aquatic activities of the morning.
“I liked the truck because of all the cool fish in there,” said Pranoi Brabhu.
“We both want to be marine biologists, so it was really interesting to find out all those things about the fish,” said Annie Lord and her friend.
“The play was interesting, and so was learning about how pollution effects the environment,” said Gene Gonzalez. “The touch tank was interesting. I never knew what a snail felt like. I loved the truck and the different environments.”
Kimere Navunisaravi said she never knew that “sea stars can grow an extra leg if they lose one” or that “snails make their own shells. They can be really huge,” she said.
“The whole morning was great. It brought the ocean to us,” said Vallath. “What they showed us goes along with the geography lesson at the end of the year, and we like to do hands-on learning instead of just reading from books.”