Regular readers know I’m a massive advocate of outdoor learning and nature connection for both children and adults.
In fact, the main philosophy of Kids of the Wild (from my very first post back in 2016 about choosing nature over pre-school) is to encourage and inspire all of us to actively incorporate nature, outdoor time and family adventure into our everyday lives, even in the tiniest of ways.
Nature Connection at School
Nearly twenty years ago I helped set up an early Forest School with Worcestershire Council and I now have a certificate in outdoor learning though for various reasons I’ve never become a fully qualified leader. (You can learn how to become forest or beach school trained in my forest school leader article)
Caroline and I have attended forest schools since she was 3 but we’ve not had the chance to try beach learning before.
Last Easter I spent an exhilarating day in nature, at school on the beach observing two inspiring and energetic instructors, Bridie and Helen, from Mudlarks Beach School (more info below) along with the fantastic pupils and teachers from Embleton Vincent Edwards C of E Primary School in Northumberland.
A Year of School at the Beach!
They were celebrating a whole year of outdoor beach learning.
Yes! That’s: –
- the entire school
- spending all day at the beach
- once a week
- EVERY week
- whatever the weather
- All. Year. Round!
Hard core, huh?!
If only beach school had been a thing when I was in education!
Embleton school’s stunning AONB beach location in Northumberland
Experiencing a fully fledged beach school in action was an uplifting experience and has doubly fuelled my firm belief in the benefits of outdoor learning and nature connection for all concerned – pupils, teachers and even parents. Others are moving forwards too – this year The Wildlife Trusts are advocating a daily outdoor hour for every primary school child in the UK (I think it should include Secondary pupils too!) (More info below)
Beach School for Wild Kids
Beach or coast schools have gained popularity via the forest school movement, for coastal-based educators and parents wanting to incorporate outdoor learning into their pedagogy.
The irreplaceable beach trolley, for transporting equipment, drinks & snacks (and keeping teachers fit!)
As with forest schools, coast and beach schools usually focus predominantly on outdoor skills such as firelighting and tool use, as well as teaching some curriculum work in innovative ways e.g. counting shells for maths etc.
A Ground-breaking Outdoor Environment
Embleton’s pioneering headteacher Nicola Threlfall has imagineered a beach school that is ground-breaking in that, not only does the entire school attend for a full day once every week, but the educational focus is almost completely on national curriculum subjects – I’d personally like to see them doing more non-curriculum, outdoor skills but you know what? This beach school works, and it works brilliantly, just how it is.
Kathryn Thompson, the teacher now in charge of beach school, says that spending every Friday outdoors helps consolidate the previous week’s work, plus the children get fresh air, exercise and a whole other perspective on learning and out-of-the-box thinking that adds immense value to their everyday schoolwork.
Life enriching for everyone, don’t you think?
Many schools feel that they lose ‘core curriculum’ time by going outdoors whereas Embleton’s philosophy proves that most schools could easily take on a much larger proportion of learning outdoors, simply by doing it outside!
Mrs Threlfall comments to this effect, “As a school committing 20% of our curriculum time it was a big decision but we knew that there was so much learning that we could use our environment for and we really wanted our children to experience how amazing their local area was. It is a decision that we have not regretted – we all love our Beach School Days!”
I won’t go into my own feelings on national curriculum here, suffice to say that if a curriculum has to be followed then, come on policymakers; take Embleton’s lead and get the kids outdoors more.
A Day with The School by the Beach
I observed Embleton school in 2019 on their first anniversary ‘party day,’ with lots of added fun, games, circus skills and even chocolate.
Nevertheless, they still managed to include a meaningful ‘worship by the waves’ to start the day, drama (Beowulf I believe), environmental art with items collected on a litter pick, writing in their gorgeous leather-bound journals and poetry.
The overwhelming atmosphere of the day was of freedom and fun, (as are most things done outdoors in my opinion!)
Embleton’s beach school day involves two miles of walking (one mile each way) just to get onto the sand! With all the ensuing activity once there, the children can clock up 5 or 6 kilometres of movement on some days! Impressive in our sedentary world of screens and TV and especially considering that these children range from as young as 3 up to age 11.
Older children are partnered with the tots for the journey, engendering a camaraderie between all the age groups and a sense of responsibility for the older children.
Worship by the Waves
The day usually starts with a whole school assembly poetically dubbed ‘worship by the waves’ (they even held a moving Remembrance service at the beach last year) with schoolwork throughout the day split into year or key stage groups on different areas of the beach or dunes.
Lunch is eaten in a room at the local golf club and beach school activities include PE, cross country in the dunes (rather them than me!), walks to a bird hide, weather reports, beach cleaning, and free play on ‘The wall’, a particularly high and steep sand dune.
Art, drama, creative writing and poetry work well outdoors, with the coastal environment providing novelty and ever-changing inspiration for that all-important out of the box thinking and descriptive work.
Outdoors Whatever the Weather
And yes, the children attend in (almost) every weather, only retreating back to school in extreme cold, wet or hot conditions. Warm drinks are provided through the winter months and the occasional ice cream has been known in summer!
Parents are fully on board, sending children to school in full waterproofs, wellies and thermals during winter with added sun cream and beach hats in summer!
Outdoor Education for all UK children
I fundamentally believe that every school in the UK should have access to regular outdoor learning whether that’s in woodland, at the beach, in a school garden or simply a space in the corner of the playground.
The benefits of being outdoors and in nature cannot be overestimated. I’ve previously explained many of the reasons, all based in science, here.
Of course Embleton has the advantage of being a tiny village school with 42 pupils, handily situated within walking distance of a glorious beach. The indomitable Mrs Threlfall grasped that opportunity with both hands and ran with it where others might have shied away – it’s no mean feat taking a whole school to the beach every week!
The school’s location means Embleton doesn’t incur travel costs, and the teachers themselves now run the entire beach education programme, after the initial year working, and in consultation, with Mudlarks.
DBS checked parent and Governor volunteers also help out as required, making for a real community enterprise enjoyed by all.
Tiring stuff, this outdoor learning!
After a year setting up the beach school project and training Embleton teachers to take over the reins, it was time for Bridie and Helen to say farewell. There were gifts, cards, photos and tears but most of all laughter and huge grins as the joy that outdoor schooling creates was visible on every face.
The infectiously enthusiastic Helen & Bridie from Mudlarks
The Legacy of Outdoor Learning
What a legacy the Mudlarks ladies have left at Embleton, and what a legacy this small village school and it’s inspiring teachers is leaving on this lucky group of young people.
Time for educators everywhere to take note!
Farewell Embleton! Bridie & Helen’s leaving gift to the children of The School by the Beach
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More About Mudlarks
If you’re a parent or teacher looking to provide outdoor beach education for children in Northumberland check out Mudlarks’ website. Bridie Melkerts is a Qualified level 3 Beach Schools Leader, with a BSc in Marine Biology and MSc in Environmental Management and Helen Ellis is a fully Qualified Primary teacher with 20+ years of education experience.
One Hour a Day at School Outside!
I was thrilled to learn in January that The Wildlife Trusts recently commissioned a full study by UCL’s Institute of Education on the effects of outdoor time on primary school children. The results were overwhelmingly in favour of an hour in nature/the wild EVERY DAY! At school! Here’s the research summary.
Don’t forget Kids of the Wild’s take on the benefits of being outside, with the science included too!
And here’s more research on outdoor learning benefits from Kings College London.
Wild wishes for finding a beach or forest school near you!
If not, find something cool on Kids of the Wild to try at home – your kids will love you forever!
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