Bringing the classroom onto the beach in Hornsea Nursery School

This article, which first appeared in Teach Early Years magazine (February 2016 edition)

Teach Early Years Article (Hornsea)

Chris Williams, Early Language Consultant, describes a ‘beach school’ programme making waves in East Yorkshire.

The resources available to nurseries and early years settings always extend beyond the walls of the building, whatever the weather. Following on from the successful and powerful impact of an ongoing forest school project, Hornsea Nursery School has developed a ‘beach school’ programme of activities.

The nursery is located in Hornsea, a small Yorkshire coastal town and seaside resort. Recent government strategies have targeted coastal towns as coastal schools are also more likely to serve groups of youngsters associated with lower achievement and there are issues in the town that reflect this concern.

The headteacher of the nursery, Claire White, strives to provide her pupils a rich and varied range of experiences to support physical, social and emotional development alongside communication and language.

Teacher, Claire Hegarty, having worked extensively on the nursery’s own forest school project, has been heavily involved with the ‘beach school’ concept. The philosophy and ethos behind the beach school is to maximise the impact of the local environment with a focus on creativity, exploration and discovery.

It is interesting to note that sometimes the best opportunities for learning and engagement are on our doorstep but are sometimes easily overlooked. There are children who attend the nursery, and live a stone’s throw from the beach, who have never visited the beach so the project is providing rich opportunities for them to enjoy what is a fantastic natural resource. As parents and carers also attend the beach school sessions they are also coming away with lots of ideas that make regular visits to the beach an exciting free local outing.

Risk assessments and supervision requirements recognise the changing nature of the weather, the tide and the environment but all the necessary work and planning is carried out in advance of the beach school activities. Being prepared for the children to use the beach as a learning resource is not a barrier and a common sense approach ensures the health and safety of the children is assured without the removal of such powerfully enriching activities such as paddling in the sea in wellingtons or balancing a tower made from rocks.

A beach school session involves the children taking the short walk to the pebbly beach with nursery staff, volunteers and parents and carers. Once there, the natural boundaries of the shoreline, the sectioned beach and the concrete promenade provide a large space for them to explore and immerse themselves in. The sounds of the North Sea waves lapping against the shore, the calling gulls, the coastal breeze and the click and grind of the pebbles underfoot immediately provide a stress free natural environment with countless things to excite and engage young minds. Transferring the philosophy of the forest school to the beach school is seamless. There is an environment to explore, there are things to touch and sort and move, there are holes to dig, towers to make and sounds to hear. Even lying down on a beach, listening to the sea, gazing at the clouds and touching the sand and pebbles can be a completely immersive and powerful experience of engagement with completely natural surroundings.

Once on the beach, staff do of course have supervisory duties but they also model activities, join in with things the children are doing and add spoken contributions where appropriate. Often these activities are photographed and recorded as part of a reflection exercise, made possible through the nursery’s use of a language learning process called chatta, which uses audiovisual technology to help children accelerate their early language skills. The nursery staff use a chatta app on their tablet computers to take photos of the children’s activities on the beach which is then used as the focus of a discussion between the child and the staff member which is recorded and attached to the image.

These audio visual recordings are called ‘chats’. These chats are then used in reflection sessions back at the nursery, prompting the children to describe their beach experiences. The approach reflects chatta‘s philosophy that speech is a vital bridge between thinking and writing in early years. There is a natural canvas for creative expression on the beach. Children make patterns with stones or shapes they have drawn in the sand. They dig holes, make towers and form collections of precious things they’ve found. Seaweed, driftwood, shells, shiny stones, heavy rocks, sand with grains of different sizes (that when you look really closely resemble flakes of gold), even washed up plastic bottles. The treasures of the beach never run out.

Around the World Chatta Project copy
Using ‘chats’ to reflect on the children’s experiences

One project Claire Hegarty has felt made a big impact on the children and the beach school experience was influenced by the natural art of artist Andy Goldsworthy. Natural materials can so easily form shapes, patterns and structures that provide absorbing, immersive and creative experiences. The engagement with the wider community has also been significant with regular attendance and involvement from parents and carers, including dads who have taken part in sandcastle competitions and treasure hunts.

But it is the beach itself that provides most of the activities, without need for direction and structure. Often just modelling an activity such as making a pattern from pebbles will help children with ideas, although the most creative activities come from the children. Being on the beach gives children permission to take risks because the restrictions of walls and fences just aren’t there. When children are given time they sit, listen, play, build, run and explore. They are allowed to tinker with things and learn through seeing what happens. They learn to respect their surroundings and their community.

Adults are able to observe, stand back and follow the children’s interests. As teachers, both Claire White and Claire Hegarty recognise a distinct and notable difference in the children who have started to accept the beach as their learning environment. These include a calmness, a more respectful approach to people and objects, creativity, imagination and a strengthened ability to describe and explain what they do and why. The activities of beach school provides a long lasting impact and it is not unusual to see local families together on the beach exploring and engaging with its natural assets, and leaving the plastic of the buckets and the spades on the shelves of the seafront gift shop.

For more information about the chatta approach used in Hornsea Nursery School’s beach school activity programme go to

10 beach school activities

Remember that a beach isn’t a necessity. A park garden wooded area or any outdoor space can be used and all activities can be adapted to the surroundings.

1. Sit and listen to the sounds. Try to work out which direction sounds are coming from.

2. Collect objects such as shells and pebbles, sort them according to size, shape or which one is your favourite.

3. Touch different surfaces, stone, rock, seaweed, shell, water. Notice the differences.

4. Make a pattern from things found on the beach, or build a tower.

5. Create a sculpture or artwork from natural materials.

6. Make sounds from natural materials, tapping stones or sticks together can provide perfect percussion performances.

7. Throw pebbles into water, listen to the splashes, watch the ripples.

8. Find a space to lie down and look at the sky, follow the shapes and patterns of the clouds and the flights of the birds.

9. Use sticks or stones to draw patterns in the sand.

10. Make footprints and follow trails of footprints.

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