Since its launch on International Mud Day in June last year, Beach School has provided the children from Woodland House Nursery, Bristol, with a huge list of memorable learning experiences, such as finding a message in a bottle - a real one, from a group of students reflecting on their first year at university. Once back at the setting, the children replied to the senders and have since kept up a correspondence with letter's authors.
The Beach School won the Enabling Environments category at this year's Nursery World Awards and is part of the transformation of what was an underachieving nursery when it changed ownership in 2009. Fittingly, its tagline is 'Our memories of the beach will linger on, long after our footprints in the sand are gone!'
Bristol City Council early years adviser Smi Pearce, who has supported Woodland House, says, 'The learning environment needs to be inspirational and offer cross-curricular opportunities and this has been the case in Woodland House following the introduction of Beach School.
'Effective planning should always take children's needs and interests into account, and through Beach School the practitioners have been able to tune in to children's lines of enquiry and plan sessions that are both appropriate and meaningful.'
The idea of setting up the school came from nursery director Rebecca Clevett, who had taken her son to nearby Severn Beach on numerous occasions. She says, 'I was always amazed at how much he thrived on the visits and was keen to go back.'
Up to 20 children head for the beach at any one time for a weekly session that takes place all year round, regardless of the weather. To get there, the children travel by train, with under-fives travelling for free. Currently, the two-hour sessions fit around the train timetable, although the nursery is planning to build up the length of the sessions, particularly during the warmer months.
Mud, stones and shingle, rather than golden sand, are the main features of the beach, but it still provides a great learning environment. 'The beach is completely different every time,' says nursery manager Emma Base. 'Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it's out and there's always lots to explore. The children are completely free to take their own line of direction.'
As part of the nursery's preparation for launching Beach School, staff undertook a risk assessment of both the journey and the beach and established links with a cafe between the beach and train station to use as a 'safe haven' if necessary.
Leading the sessions is the nursery's Beach School co-ordinator Christine James, who received some funding from Bristol City Council to complete a Level 3 Beach Schools Practical Skills and Environmental Management qualification through Archimedes Training.
Ms James says, 'The course content was invaluable, although I had to remind myself that our beach site would not be the same as a golden sandy beach in Devon!'
The nursery plans blocks of eight sessions then changes the day to ensure all the children aged two-and-a-half and above have the chance to attend. Ahead of the visit, the children always talk about what they have done the previous week and set out some plans for the coming day.
Then staff load up a haversack of equipment for the trip, such as buckets, spades and magnifying glasses, as well as any other resources that the children may have requested.
Once on the beach, the children head for their base camp, which can vary depending on the tides. The adults scan the area for any hazards, such as glass, then start the session with a reminder of the health and safety rules and finally - the most important rule of the day - to have fun.
Activities during each session include making a fire, water play, a treasure hunt, games and an activity of the children's choice. Among the many activities that the children naturally engage in are:
- making mud pies and sandcastles
- throwing stones
- making marks in the mud and sand
- making dens from shoreline materials
- collecting and counting pebbles
- gathering driftwood and other natural materials, and
- running free.
'The highlight of each session is the preparation and lighting of a campfire,' says Ms Base. 'The children work as a team to collect the large stones to make the circle and use buckets and spades with the shingle to make a fire pit.
'Once lit, the children sing songs, toast marshmallows and heat up hot chocolate using a Kelly Kettle. They also reflect on what they have been investigating during the session.'
Beach School provides a generous supply of cross-curricular activities, but as to its many benefits Ms Base points in particular to the confidence that children gain from the experience. 'We have one boy who is quite quiet but on the beach he is a different child,' she says.
'Children also thrive on being free,' she explains, while the natural materials on the beach fire their imaginations. 'They find dinosaur bones and pirate ships and imagine all sorts,' she adds.
The learning opportunities aren't confined to the beach. 'The train ride in itself is an exciting experience for the children,' explains Ms Base. 'The children walk to the station and once on the train look for familiar landmarks, including wind turbines and the docks.
'We look for signs, numbers and letters that we may have in our names and count any passing trucks. All the children are given their train ticket, which they hand back to the instructor on the way home.
'The learning continues back in the nursery, with follow-up activities that extend children's learning on the beach. Once, we found a coconut, so we talked about how it arrived at the beach. We then went to the shop to buy our own one for the children to taste and explore.
'The children have found crabs and squid, then come back to nursery to find out more about them and their habitats. They've made their own maps, which we then used to find treasure the following week.
'They often collect driftwood to take back to nursery and our maintenance man also helps them to join materials together to make sculptures and frames for their paintings and photographs.'
The practitioners also link the day's activities to storybooks and rhymes, while the children revisit them through their role play.
The staff are as enthusiastic about Beach School as the children. 'The staff love it and (co-ordinator) Christine is so passionate about ensuring each child achieves their full potential while participating,' says Ms Base. 'We have a rota so everyone has a chance to go, even staff from the baby room. Everyone is keen to experience Beach School.'
Parents are equally supportive. Asked to comment on the initiative after a parents' evening earlier in the year, one mother said, 'Beach school has been wonderful for our son. We've noticed a definite improvement in his social skills and general confidence. He asks us every morning if it's a Beach School day!'
'Parents have also expressed a keen interest to participate,' explains Ms Base. 'So we arranged a Saturday Play Day and 80 people attended despite the unpredictable weather. We worked as a team to make a huge fire circle and also a large den to shelter from the rain. It was such a success and will definitely be a regular event on our nursery calendar for our parents.'
The Beach School is constantly evolving. 'It is part of our long-term plan to swap practitioner skills with our sister nursery, Archfield House Nursery, which regularly carries out Forest School on its own site,' says Ms Clevett.
'As for Beach School, we are keen to spread the word that although you don't associate Bristol with having a beach, there is a world of opportunity right on our doorstep.'