Enabling Environments: Let's explore ... Boats

A very versatile vehicle can be the focus of activities across all areas of learning. Try some of these suggestions from Diana Lawton.

Many early years settings have several open projects running simultaneously, rather than one particular theme that lasts for a couple of weeks or a term. This approach allows for a balance of activities and experiences that can be related to individual children's interests, or those of a group. Introducing boats as a focus of interest can be a starting point.

Adult-initiated experiences should promote children's natural curiosity, encouraging them to stop, look, touch, talk, think and question. Use a book, a rhyme or an interactive display, or add specific resources to continuous provision to start the ball rolling.

As with other interests, having a box of related resources at hand allows the focus to be revisited and added to. In this way, what children know can be reinforced and new learning becomes more relevant and meaningful.


There's lots to talk about in the lovely picture book I Love Boats by Flora McDonnell (Walker Books), with its large illustrations and plenty of detail. Take time to share the book with interested children. What experience have individual children had of boats and what can they recall? Has anyone been on a car ferry? Encourage the children to share their memories.

Through discussion, the children will soon show what aspects of boats particularly catch their interest. This will often coincide with previous observations of a child's schemas or patterns of behaviour in other areas and at home. For example, a child who is absorbed with the idea of circularity and circular movement may be drawn to the portholes, lifebuoys and steering wheels. Children pursuing an interest in trajectories and verticality may want to know more about fishing, towing and the dredger crane scooping up the mud.

A child who has been observed using large equipment and resources to make enclosures will perhaps show an interest in the cars being loaded on to the ferry, the cargo taking crates on board and the trawlers bringing home the fish.

The Leuven Scale of ways to enhance well-being and involvement recommends that practitioners 'observe children, discover their interests and find activities that meet these orientations' (Action point 4). When children are highly involved and absorbed in their play, it can often be identified as schematic. Observing how the interest is manifesting itself in other areas and at home will clarify this. In his paper 'Quality in Early Childhood Education', Laevers talks about 'looking at the world through the eyes of children, identifying what is really meaningful to them and offering activities that have that ingredient.' By tuning in to these underlying concerns, practitioners can plan further experiences to take children on in their development.


  • Have a copy of I Love Boats available to share with children.
  • Make sure that your continuous provision includes a good supply of crates, boxes, planks and tyres. Include a collection of ropes, seaside spades to improvise as oars, netting for catching fish, steering wheels, cut-off ladders and the role-play prop box.
  • Have a selection of other boat-themed storybooks and 'finding-out' books available.
  • Ask interested children to help you to choose a boat to construct from the book using the materials available.
  • Encourage them to use their own ideas and interpretations.
  • Have clipboards and mark-making materials available, along with examples of seafaring maps.
  • If possible, leave the boats to return to another day, when they could be developed further or changed. Put up a sign, such as 'The Harbour' or 'The Sea.' Help children to create a dredger, ferry, submarine, house boat.

Using the boats

  • Make a rowing boat and introduce the rhyme, 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' Children will enjoy singing this repetitive song as they row.
  • Introduce a clapping game for two children, facing each other in one of the boats. Show children how to make up clapping patterns to:
'My father went to sea, sea, sea,
To see what he could see, see, see.
But all that he could see, see, see,
Was the bottom of the deep blue SEA, SEA, SEA.'
  • Learn the song 'The big ship sails on the alley, alley, o' and play along to it as a circle game.
  • Make up actions for 'The captain said it would never, never do' (shake finger), 'The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea' (all sink down to the ground), 'We all dip our hands in the deep blue sea' (dip hands in imaginary sea).

Learning opportunities

PD Developing large motor skills
M Problem solving, estimating, measuring
M Using the language of size, shape and fit
PSED Continuing to be excited, interested and motivated to learn
PSED Co-operating and collaborating
PSED Working as part of a group
PSED Displaying high levels of involvement
EAD Representing ideas and acting out roles such as fishermen, a captain
on a liner, living on a house boat
C&L Singing and acting out rhymes and enjoying games
- Knowing that information can be obtained from books
C&L Using language to recreate roles and experiences
C&L Talking about what they are doing at the time
UW Investigating a range of different materials as they build
UW Asking questions about why and how things happen

Adult role

  • Plan plenty of time for sharing the 'finding out' books.
  •  Support the children as they construct their boats, introducing descriptive and mathematical language when appropriate.
  • Observe and extend children's ideas.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Document experiences to demonstrate learning and for the purpose of revisiting.


Share Mr Gumpy's Outing by John Burningham (Red Fox) with individual and small groups. Once the children are familiar with it, help them to act out the story using the construction resources. Read the book to help everyone take their turn to climb on the boat for a trip along the river, before the boat rocks and everyone is tipped into the water!

Some stories in particular lend themselves to dramatic and imaginative play. Bringing books to life in this way supports children in becoming readers. Playing with a story builds confidence as children become familiar with the language and characters, as well as offering opportunities for learning across the curriculum.

The schema content of this story includes: enclosing as everyone boards the boat; trajectories as Mr Gumpy uses his pole to push the boat along the river; and enveloping as everyone is covered with water. The schema content in a story will often draw in children who may not otherwise show an interest in books.

Introduce other stories that can be acted out - for example, The Night Pirates and Who Sank the Boat (see Book Box).


Set up a story table near the water area based on Mr Gumpy's Outing. Provide a tray of water, a large boat and small-world Duplo figures and animals. Include a pole for Mr Gumpy.

Once children are familiar with the story, they will enjoy playing it out on their own or with a friend. Reinforcing familiar books in this way is an effective way of encouraging a life-time love of books.

Using a rhyme

Present a laminated copy of a rhyme or song, such as 'I Saw Three Ships', and appropriate props on a low table in the area.

'I saw three ships go sailing by,
go sailing by, go sailing by.
I saw three ships go sailing by,
One sunny day in the morning.'
'And what was in the ships all three,
those ships all three, those ships all three?
And what was in those ships all three?
One sunny day in the morning?'

Provide three boats and a basket of things in threes that could be matched to the boats. Continue the song with 'Three (item) were in those ships'. Vary the number of boats from time to time.


Introduce the following song to the tune of 'The Farmer's in His Den' (adapted from The Three Singing Pigs - Making music with traditional tales by Kaye Umansky). Provide a large boat and a basket of creatures in pairs.

'Noah built an ark, Noah built an ark,
He took a saw and hammer
And went and built an ark.'
'They came in two by two,
they came in two by two
All the different creatures,
They came in two by two.'

Share the rhyme and help the children to find the pairs to board the ark, then move the Ark and sing

'They drifted on the sea,
They drifted on the sea,
All around was water
As they drifted on the sea.'
Complete the journey by singing
'They're back on land again,
They're back on land again,
Noah and the creatures are back on land again.'

Replace the creatures in their pairs back in the basket. (This song can also be enacted outside with children taking on the roles of creatures, making appropriate noises).

Learning opportunities

PSED Working as part of a group
PSED Displaying high levels of involvement
C&L Enjoying listening to stories and joining in with rhymes
C&L Using language to recreate well-known stories
C&L Retelling and creating stories using props
M Using the language of size, shape and position
M Counting, sorting and classifying
C&L Using imagination to enact stories
C&L Enjoying songs and rhymes

Adult role

  • Introduce stories and rhymes initially.
  • Support children as they explore the resources.
  • Share favourite stories often.
  • Observe and extend children's ideas if appropriate.
  • Ask open-ended questions that encourage the use of imaginative and descriptive language.


  • Add a selection of found materials to improvise as boats and a good selection of small-world boats. Include a collection of wind-up boats, and offer these in a tray of water on a focus table nearby.
  • Play alongside the children exploring the collections. Encourage discussion about the different types of boats, using non-fiction books to find out more. Compare the different shapes and how well each one floats.
  • Investigate the found materials. Which work well as 'boats' and which fail? Experiment with adding small items such as pebbles, corks and polystyrene pieces into the small-world boats and improvised boats. How many can be added to each before they sink?


Set up waterways using pieces of guttering or the commercially produced canal systems. Provide a collection of toy and improvised boats and encourage interested children to investigate ways of moving the boats down and along the waterways. Add small-world figures, natural and found materials to extend the play ideas.

Learning opportunities

PD Developing motor skills
M Problem solving, estimating, measuring, using the language of size, shape and space
PSED Co-operating and collaborating
PSED Representing ideas
C&L Asking questions and talking for a variety of purposes
 UW Exploring properties of materials, talking about what is happening

Adult role

  • Ensure there is a challenging variety of resources available.
  • Help the children to work out solutions to practical problems, for example, 'How can we make the waterway longer?'
  • Introduce the mathematical language of size, shape and space.
  • Observe, listen, and if appropriate, encourage discussion by 'reflecting back' (putting into words what a child is doing). Wonder aloud (for example, 'I wonder why your paper boat has sunk'), recall an experience (either talking about your own experience or helping the child to remember a previous one).
  • Use the books and images to introduce vocabulary and inform and instigate ideas.


Gather together resources that can be drawn on throughout the year, and that can be used in a variety of ways:

  • Fiction and non-fiction books (see Book Box, page 22)
  • Rhymes and games relating to boats
  • A collection of boats, including submarines, cargo carriers, fishing boats and yachts (seaside shops are a good source)
  • A collection of wind-up boats
  • Found materials that can be improvised for boats, for example, plastic/foil/polystyrene trays, lids and wood offcuts
  • Props for story tables, such as for Noah's Ark and Mr Gumpy's Outing
  • Images of different types of boats and parts of boats
  • Role-play props such as headscarves and eye patches, a treasure box, telescopes, a compass for pirate play, seafaring maps/treasure maps, sou'westers, raincoats and boots, improvised fishing rods and nets. The Aqua Box from Galt (£45) includes a lock, harbour and ferry station.


My Boat by Kay Davies, Wendy Oldfield and Fiona Pragoff (A&C Black)
I Love Boats by Flora McDonnell (Walker Books)

Row, Row, Row Your Boat by Pippa Goodhart and Stephen Lambert (Mammoth)

Row, Row, Row Your Boat by Annie Kubler (Child's Play)

Who Sank The Boat? by Pamela Allen (Picture Puffin)
Mr Gumpy's Outing by John Burningham (Red Fox)

The Other Ark by Lynley Dodd (Puffin Books)

Oliver Who Was Small But Mighty by Mara Bergman and Nick Maland (Hodder Children's Books)

The Owl and the Pussy Cat by Edward Lear, illustrated by Ian Beck (Corgi)

Class 3 All At Sea by Julia Jarman and Lynne Chapman (Hodder Children's Books)

The Night Pirates by Peter Harris and Deborah Allwright (Egmont)

Port Side Pirates by Oscar Seaworthy and Debbi Harter (Barefoot Books)

Professional titles

Threads of Thinking by Cathy Nutbrown (Sage Publications)

Quality in Early Childhood Education (Paper by Professor Ferre Laevers)

Leuven Centre for Experiential Education - ferre.laevers@ped.kuleuven.be

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £119 per year


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £119 per year


© MA Education 2020. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved