Using the beach to teach: how shoreline visits can boost children’s learning

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Chloe Webster is a childcare provider in Worthing. She completed her Level 3 Diploma for the Children and Young People’s Workforce in 2010 and worked for 6 years in a local nursery and after-school club. She now runs a home-based setting called Pebbles Childcare with another childminder. Here, Chloe looks at the vital importance of Beach School sessions for young children.

In Early Years, there are countless pedagogies and learning styles and practices that we can choose to follow within our provisions. Now there is such significant emphasis on outdoor play and its benefits, Forest Schools and Forest School sessions have become the norm.

But why stop there? Depending on locality, there are other options to consider and other ‘outdoor classrooms’ to access and utilise to give the learning experiences you provide a different perspective.

Mark-making in the sand

What is Beach School?

As with Forest Schools, the Beach School idea originated from Scandinavia and, again, places emphasis upon holistic development as well as the benefits reported on children’s personal and social wellbeing and overall learning.

At Beach School, children are encouraged to explore the natural environment which, with its ever-changing appearance, offerings and possible learning opportunities, shapes the learning experience for the session. Beach School allows children the freedom and inspiration to facilitate and follow their own interests whilst gaining a deeper insight and understanding of the natural world.

Beach School is the perfect example of experiential learning and a phenomenal way to challenge the thought processes and curiosity of children whilst teaching them essential life and survival skills.

The general idea of a Beach School session is not to ‘plan’ or facilitate learning, but to follow the children’s curiosity in their findings of the natural world and meet their learning and developmental needs through the invaluable opportunities and experiences our natural world has to offer.

Beach School has truly captured the inspiration and hearts of the sector and, where geographically possible, is being introduced across schools and early years settings alike, due to the irreplaceable learning opportunities the natural environment provides for children of varying ages.

Boundary setting and understanding safety

Safety is paramount during Beach School sessions due to the unpredictability of the natural world and the sea in particular, but this fact in itself is a valuable learning opportunity and essentially a life and survival skill. When introducing Beach School sessions in any setting, one of the first (and revisited) ‘activities’ is boundary setting and developing an awareness and understanding of the need for safety during the sessions.

Examining items in our “interest pool”

As with Forest School, it is a good idea to set a parameter on where your sessions will be held; allowing the children adequate space and freedom to explore whilst ensuring that they have an understanding of the boundaries and the parameters which they must stay within to ensure their safety. Similarly, a signal can be used which all children will understand, hear and recognise to indicate to them that they must return to your ‘base’ immediately. These lessons are essential to the smooth integration of Beach School sessions into your setting’s routines and should be revisited each time you visit the beach for the first month or so until every child has had adequate practice and fully understands the boundaries in place.

As practitioners, our role at Beach School should be the ‘knowledgeable other’ rather than the ‘leader’; learning and play during Beach School sessions should be led by the children and their curiosity and exploration. We are merely the facilitators of the environment and there to support and develop the children’s learning by introducing new words, skills and understanding, not to lead or attempt to change their play in any way.

A learning experience throughout the year

Also important to mention is that Beach School should not just be a ‘summer’ experience; our natural world changes with the seasons and our children should not only be aware of this and what this looks like and means for the environment, but they should be exposed to it.

Our setting launched our weekly Beach School sessions in January 2018, amidst bitter winds, the biting cold and even snow as the winter progressed. Despite their initial reluctance, the children are now completely confident within their beach environment, have a full understanding of the beach and its varying appearances through the seasons, and ultimately a respect and understanding of the sea and basic life skills when it comes to open water and exploring such risky environments.

Measuring the depth of rock pools

Some settings also choose to limit their Beach School sessions to those children in their pre-school or primary cohort. As a home-based childcare provider, I deem this unnecessary and frankly not conducive to the service and outdoor learning opportunities I promote. In my opinion, no child is ‘too young’ to be exposed to the elements or outdoor play and Beach School is a fine example of this. As a result, in my setting, we now have two-year-olds who can confidently identify whether the tide is coming in or out and differentiate between ‘cuttlefish’ and other sea-based objects; for me that in itself demonstrates the benefits of Beach School sessions for all within the Early Years.

Where your geographical location allows, embark on Beach School training and begin to introduce these sessions into your settings and routines at least once a week. Not only does this promote outdoor learning and risky play, but the learning opportunities, experiences and life skills that children gain from the freedom of nature are truly remarkable and difficult to replicate within the walls of your garden or outdoor play space.

As ‘outdoor classrooms’ go, the beach truly is an invaluable learning resource.

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