Embracing Animal Allies: Nurturing Nature Connection in Children

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Going bird watching is a classic outdoor learning activity. An easy lesson in local species and diversity, it plays a role in citizen science, often with a bit of maths thrown in to boot. However, wild birds (apart from our ubiquitous herring gulls) can be quite an illusive bunch, especially when they’re faced with a large bunch of effervescent small humans.

I’ve recently been on a personal journey to rekindle ‘play’ throughout my practice, in the fundamental belief it is the best way (the only way?) to fully engage small humans. We know that play is the way that children learn to interact with the world around them. Connecting children to the nature is seen as the key to positive environmental values and behaviours in adulthood.

Our role as educators is bond children with the natural world while making learning more intriguing. However, most young children already feel an playful empathy with wild and domestic animals. Their first impulse with some animals is to pick them up, hold them close, take care of them, become them, play with them. So I have started to reflect on my practice through this new playful lens. Is getting children to sit quietly and count birds really engaging for them? Is it going to create that meaningful connection? Is it joyful? Is it playful? Is it even developmentally appropriate?


My search for a more playful approach to outdoor learning led me to David Sobel. In his book ‘Children in Nature: Design Principles for Education’, Sobel believes that we risk future relationships with nature by focusing too heavily on classroom-based taxonomy of animals. He believes the goal, even through ages nine and ten, should be to foster close allegiances between children and animals. This means playing at being animals, interacting with animals, and taking care of animals.

Sobel talks about building on a child’s natural tendency to be an ‘animal ally’. He believes that children have strong feelings towards animals in the early and middle childhood and that these feelings are indicative of our evolutionary heritage, that relationships with flora and fauna are an integral part of feeling bonded to the matrix of the earth. Ultimately, we do not need to connect young children to nature, it is already intrinsic within them. We just have to ensure that we do not break that bond with a style of education that is not engaging for them.

Sobel also believes that we shouldn’t fear anthropomorphism. Projecting feelings and human characteristics onto animals can actually facilitate relationships, rather than distort them. It makes animals and people part of one larger family, with relationships and rules for sharing and taking care of each other. We can build on this in education as it is an incredible opportunity to create empathy, a feeling for other creatures that can develop into a willingness to care for other creatures.

Ultimately Sobel is calling on us to stop with the spotting, naming and counting and to inspire children on a deeper level through being and feeling, “in our environmental wars, the emphasis has been on saving species, not becoming them. If we aspire to developmentally appropriate science education, the first task is to become animals, to understand them from the inside out, before asking children to study them or save them.”

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

So rather than birdwatching, for example, what could we do instead to build relationships with the natural world? We focusing on what actually appeals to children about a creature. In the case of birds – children are often mainly fascinated that birds can fly. So at Beach School, to make ourselves Animal Allies of we all built our own simple wings – build simply from cardboard and found feathers – at the end of term we had multiple seabirds taking flight around the White Cliffs.


Becoming a bird through creative play requires the child to engage with the species with empathy and with joy. The correct names and taxonomy of birds and animals are important and will come, there is more time in life for facts and figures. But if you engage with children at their developmental level of fascination, you can spark that natural empathy through feeling just like a bird.

Other ways to incorporate becoming an animal ally include:

  • Building homes and nests – either a real life home for the creature, like a bug hotel, or something where the children can imagine being the creature, like making a giant nest.
  • Opportunities for animal role play – through props like wings or masks, or through games that that involve being the animal through movement.
  • Activities that nurture the animal, like building feeders etc.

What is key is to come from a place of playful empathy. “What gets lost when we focus on facts are the initiation experiences. the moments of transcendence when the borders between the natural world and ourselves break down….John Burroughs puts it simply when he says, ‘Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.'”

You can ignite a lifelong relationship, you can help them become an animal ally. Cognitive learning will follow, naturally.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

The Magic of Loose Parts – How to incorporate Loose Parts play in to everyday learning

Ever got frustrated that your child was more interested in the box than the Christmas present that was contained inside it? It’s because children have the most amazing unhindered imaginations. They are creative people that are able to make that simple box in to absolutely anything and everything. This is what we mean when we talk about ‘open ended play’ and the same is true when we talk about ‘Loose Parts’.

Loose Parts play simply refers to the use of loose objects, small or big, to enrich play. Objects can be based around a theme or can be sourced from the natural environment around the child. The Theory of Loose Parts was developed by a British Architect, Simon Nicholson in 1971, who saw that children would use any object to play with. Though the approach also reflects the philosophies of child-led and open-ended play advocated by Montessori and Loris Malaguzzi (the founder of Reggio Emilia).

Simon Nicolson said, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and variables in it.” In other words, children like to play in settings where there are lots of things to do, lots of things to move and lots of things to create with.

Loose Parts themselves are the materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. The idea of ‘Loose Parts’ uses materials to empower a creative imagination. The more materials and individuals involved, the more ingenuity takes place. Exactly what happens when children use a box and packing in their play, rather than the box’s contents.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Loose Parts can be:

Twigs and sticks, pine cones and fathers, pebbles and shells, the clean contents of your recycling bin, sheets, tyres, leaves, milk crates, guttering, feathers, dolly pegs, driftwood, pots and pans… The list in endless. Most of them can be found for free: try asking your families or community. Maybe you have access to a local scrapstore? I also pick up resources for pennies in charity shops.

Loose Parts should:

  • Have no defined use and play facilitators must support the children when they decide to change the shape or use of them.
  • Be accessible physically and stored where they can be reached by children without them having to ask for them. The children should know that they can use them whenever and however they wish.
  • Be regularly replenished, changed, and added to.
  • They can be used indoors or outdoors, wherever play takes place.

Loose Parts do not just facilitate smaller-scale creative play. Abundant loose parts for children to play with are central to the adventure playground ethos going back to the famous ‘junk playgrounds’ (known as ‘skrammellegeplad’ or ‘byggelegeplad’) first created in Denmark in 1943. If you have access to an outdoor area, you can incorporate this use of larger loose parts in to your setting, by setting larger pieces out to encourage open-ended play.

Importantly Loose Parts are open-ended and stimulate creativity and keen be used as an antidote to the rise of structured and formal learning in childhood. On the Beach and in the Forest, we are endlessly lucky as natural Loose Parts are abundant.


The Educator’s Role in Loose Parts Play

Wherever you are educating, be it outdoors or indoors, when children pick up ‘loose parts’ it can be anything they imagine it to be. This allows the children to have fun, experiment, discover, and invent new things. During the time the children are exploring loose parts, the adult’s role is to be an observer and researcher as well as to provide language. Loose parts play is a wonderful time to observe and assess what the children are playing with and how they are playing.

I have used Loose Parts throughout both my Beach and Forest School programmes. But I always start the programme with slightly more structured ideas and more signposting and the parts get ‘looser’ and more open-ended as the programmes go on – reflecting the growth in confidence in both the children and, particularly, their accompanying adults, in the child-led nature of the Forest School Process.


There are multiple ways you can link Loose Parts play to the Early Years Curriculum:

  • Problem Solving
  • Engineering
  • Creativity
  • Concentration
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Fine motor development
  • Gross motor development
  • Language and vocabulary building
  • Mathematical thinking
  • Scientific thinking
  • Literacy
  • Personal/ Social/emotional development

As with all new activities and materials, you will need to risk assess your Loose Parts:

  • Risk assess your resources as part of your daily checks
  • Model moving and carrying resources that are large and heavy
  • Add Loose Parts to your risk assessments, especially if you work with any oral learners. I have a risk assessment that covers this type of play with natural materials.

Many educators and parents worry about is managing loose parts. Like much of the best learning, things can look kind of messy and I appreciate not everyone works outside. Loose part management tips from Fairydust Teaching are:

  • Start small – offer limited materials to begin with and slowly add throughout the year
  • Modeling – show and practice how to get the materials out and how to put them away
  • Labeling – clearly label where all your loose parts live.


I have found Loose Parts play to be very liberating in both my parenting and my educational practice. It has given me a new found appreciation for ‘just playing with the box’. If you would like to know more, please check out the following:

Inspiring Scotland’s Loose Parts Play https://www.inspiringscotland.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Loose-Parts-Play-web.pdf

The Wide School’s The Theory of Loose Parts –  http://www.thewideschool.com/the-theory-of-loose-parts/

Under 5s Beach School dates – Spring/Summer 2020

We’re looking forward to waking the Beach School up from hibernation. If you are looking forward to it as much as we are, here are our dates for the Spring and Summer:

Lenten Moon Term (March)

Friday 13th March and Friday 27th March 2020 (all 10am to Midday)

Booking opens Monday 3rd February 2020

Mothers Moon Term (May)

Friday 1st May and Friday 15th May 2020 (all 10am to Midday)

Booking opens Monday 30th March 2020

Rose Moon Term (June & July)

Friday 12th June, Friday 26th June and Friday 10th July 2020 (all 10am to Midday)

Booking opens Monday 18th May 2020

The terms names are taken from the medieval names for the Full Moon during those months.

We hope you can join us! Find more information about our Beach School groups here

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Have a Brew for 22q – 22q11 Deletion Syndrome and Forest School

22q11 Deletion Syndrome is a genetic condition that affects the lives of thousands of people. An estimated 35,000 people live with with 22q11 in the UK. It is one of the most common genetic conditions, after Downs Syndrome, but it is frequently misdiagnosed.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

One of our longest serving Beach Schoolers, ‘A’ was born with 22q11 and, with the permission of his parents,  on the 22nd November we will be joining Max Appeal’s ‘Have a Brew for 22’ raise awareness of this genetic condition.

22q11 is a disorder caused by a small piece of chromosome 22 missing.  However, the effects this missing piece of chromosome has is unique to every individual. 22q11 can cause heart defects, immune deficiency and anything from severe learning difficulties and developmental delay to mild behavioural problems. It can cause speech and language issues and swallowing problems. There are 180 anomalies caused by the deletion, and each individual could be affected by many of the anomalies (but not all of them) or just a few anomalies or actually have no discernible problems at all.

As 22q11 is a spectrum of disorders, as educators, we need to differentiate learning experiences for each individual with the condition. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.  ‘A’ first joined Little Gulls aged 4 – At the time he was going through the EHC Plan assessment process and he had also recently been diagnosed as visually impaired. So I worked with his parents and used information from Appendix 1 of his EHCP application to write him an individual Risk Benefit Assessment for taking part in Beach and Forest School sessions.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Thing we have put in place to support ‘A’s Beach and Forest School Experience have included:

  • Use of high contrast flags and bunting to clearly define the Beach and Forest School site boundaries;
  • Giving ‘A’ the option to join sessions early to give him time to familiarise himself with the surroundings and the Beach and Forest School rules before the session starts;
  • Ensuring there is support for ‘A’ during snack times and that he had adequate facilities and support for toileting;
  • Differentiating activities for ‘A’s more limited fine and gross motor skills.

Going forward, we may also work on inclusion and empathy skills with his peers, to ensure ‘A’ continues to have positive social experiences at our sessions. We may also consult his parents about how we can support his confidence and behaviour management. We will also continue to regularly review his individual Risk Benefit Assessment to ensure his needs are fully supported.

‘A’ is an incredible kinaesthetic and sensory learner and he absolutely thrives in the Beach and Forest School environments. It’s an absolute joy to have him attend our sessions and I, personally, have learnt so much from him. Hopefully, by raising awareness of 22q11, Max Appeal and we can continue to work together to remove barriers for people with this condition. Hope you can join us and Have a Brew for 22q.

*This post has been written with the full support and in consultation with ‘A’s parents. Thank you for the additional photographs.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset


September at the Beach School

There was only one session of Beach School this September as I headed off to West Wales to have my own personal coastal adventure. However, we fully embraced our time on the beach with rockpooling, printing, kite making, homemade ‘telescopes’ and endless rounds of salt dough pizza.

Enjoy the slideshow of our September adventures:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Celebrating October – The Mighty Conker

D7C54C4A-B2E6-4792-9035-6250C863B86AGoodness me, I love a conker. I love their glowing colour, their shiny skin. I love it when they have half of their casing still attached, wearing it proudly like a spiky helmet. I love to gather them and then, mindfully roll one around my palm, grateful for the beauty of the Autumn.

And I love a conker at work too – in the last couple of years we have drilled them, painted them, fashioned them legs out of clay, strung them up, wove around them, squished them and raced them down hills. At home I want to try using them to make a laundry soap, an ethical alternative to soapnuts. I’m also told they are magic enough to frighten away spiders, but I have no time for that. I love a spider. But I do so so love a conker

I’ve gather a basketful to take to Beach School on Friday – where our participants will be able to drill them and thread them to their hearts content. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they create. Last year I presented the conkers pre-drilled, but I think our current crop of Beach Schoolers are up for a challenge. And what an incredible way to interact with nature and hone those developing fine motor skills.

However, as widely reported in the news – our conkers, our horse chestnut trees are under threat from a number of diseases. You may have seen some where the leaves have turned brown early or have under developed conkers. So it’s probably best not to gather conkers more conkers than we need or to gather them from places where they have the chance to grow in to new trees.

So I gather conkers from the following places:

  • (Safely!) from pavements and roads, anywhere where they are likely to get squashed.
  • From trees in managed parks where the Council is likely to just gather and throw away the conkers or heavily mown areas where any saplings would have no chance of survival

I do not gather conkers from woodlands. I’m also keen to support our horse chestnut population, by taking part Conker Tree Science’s citizen science project. They have some brilliant resources for teachers and educators too.

In the meantime, I’m going to gaze lovingly at my basket of conkers. Grateful for the Autumn, grateful for the seasons and grateful for magic nature brings us.


This is an extract from my monthly newsletter. If you enjoyed it, you can subscribe here.

Social & Emotional Learning at Beach School

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
The Under 5s Beach Schoolers at St Margaret’s Bay

When I was a home-educator*, the most frequently asked question was about how my child would socialise. It felt like a bit of a preoccupation with any form of slightly alternative education. A holistic school or nursery setting can provide many social opportunities for children. However, it is really not the only way children can learn to socialise.

At the Beach School we encourage our participants to play independently together. Our natural setting, provides a calm environment where children can play without the distractions of noise and other stressors that they may encounter indoors or in other settings. It can be tricky because the relationships between young children often don’t look like adult ones – our idea of socialising isn’t often one that’s developmentally appropriate to them. Here’s how Beach School supports their social & emotional development:

  • They have the opportunity to wait turns, share, negotiate and to deal with anger and frustration. And we respect and support them with this learning process.
  • Through clear boundaries and lots of free play – the children can develop a separate sense of self and their own individuality, in their own way. Between 2 and 5 is a prime age for this.
  • We have mixed-age groups – our current bunch of beach schools range from 18months to 7 years old (plus some babe-in-arms siblings). With their different developmental stages, the younger children learn from watching the older children and the older children learn to emphasise with the younger ones. Our trained Beach School practitioners model empathy.

Because we provide free play opportunities, we have no preconceived notions of how the children should play. We understand that it can take years for small children to learn how to successfully engage with another child for more than a minute or two. We also have neuro-diverse participants who feel more comfortable socialising in different ways.

Inspired by Janet Lansbury, we nurture this learning process by offering our children opportunities for experimentation, we trust them as much as possible, and resist our urge to over-intervene, because that can hinder their developing self-confidence. Our Beach School participants have ownership and control of their sessions. They are encouraged to challenge themselves, but also have free choice of which activities they take part in. They have control, which supports their self-esteem and emotional development. They learn to socialise in a way that is entirely developmentally appropriate. We believe in nurturing social skills that are personal and individual. We don’t believe there is one way to socialise and that’s what our Beach Schoolers learn.

If you’d like to read more about how we learn at the Beach School, you can find all the posts in the ‘Beach Schooled’ series here.

*We no longer home educate.



The Importance of Names

”One of my students told me that every time she learns the name of a plant, she feels as if she is meeting someone new. Giving a name to something is a way of knowing it” – Richard Louv .

Using Beach School resources to identify a shell

Names are important. It’s an integral part of identity, but also essential in cultivating connection. The philosopher AJ Ayer believes that unless we have a word for something, we are unable to fully conceive of it, and that there is a direct relationship between our imagination, our ability to have ideas about things, and our vocabulary.

Species identification in outdoor learning can be a contentious subject. Many people feel that it can distract from deep-level learning and the creation of real connections with nature. However, it can be argued that the identification of flora and fauna can be essential.

At the Beach School we teach names, not by rote, but through discovery. We learn ‘anemone’ because we meet one while exploring. We learn ‘cat shark’ because we find their egg cases on the tideline. Often (too often!) we find something that I don’t know the name of, so we learn it together. Young children can often absorb new language with ease. Synthetic phonics systems are useless without learning and using vocabulary in context. We really get to know these creatures and that aids future language development, models lifelong learning skills, as well as the building crucial foundations of connection with the natural world.

In outdoor learning, a good knowledge of flora and fauna aids an educator’s ability to expect and anticipate the natural environment as a resource for further discovery. If a learner’s interest is more stimulated by their senses or by the habits of fauna, then having a good knowledge can help you shape their learning. For example, encouraging them to consider what the plants smell like? What does this texture feel like? What do you think this creature eats? By supporting an interest and respect for nature, this can grow in to a life long desire to learn about ecology and an understanding of the importance of sustainability.

Whether you are rockpooling, or just going on an autumnal minibeast hunt – rather than asking learners the names, try talking to them more deeply about what they have met:

  • Is it a plant or an animal?
  • What colour is it?
  • What part of a plant is it?
  • How many legs does it have?
  • What part of the animal left this mark?
  • Where do you think it lives?
  • Does it live high up or low down in the woodland?
  • Does it need to eat? What does it eat?
  • Does it move fast or slow?

If you are unsure about the names of flora and fauna you may encounter, carry a ID book, download an app. I have to look up species on an incredibly regular basis (especially insects!) but it’s so good for children to see that’s it is absolutely okay not to know all the answers. We need to promote natural literacy, but as a skill that is developed over a lifetime. It’s hands on literacy alongside building real relationships. We all deserve to have these amazing creatures in our lexicon. Because we will only protect what we know and it’s difficult to care about something that you don’t know the name of.


If you’d like to read more about how we learn at the Beach School, you can find all the posts in the ‘Beach Schooled’ series here.


Beach School meets Montessori

“Let the children be free; encourage them, let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and; when the grass of the meadow is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet” – Maria Montessori

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Washing rocks at the Beach School

At first glance Montessori and Beach School may seem like an unlikely combination. The majority of what we do is influence by the Forest School philosophy. But I firmly believe that there is no place for purism in child-led education – to ‘follow the child’ we need to draw on inspiration from a vast array of educational philosophies. Dr Montessori was a huge advocate for outdoor learning, which was pioneering in her time. At Beach School we don’t only advocate outdoor exploration, we also present learning experiences to our participants in a Montessori-inspired way.

Here is how:

  • We observe the children, constantly, so we can prepare activities that are the right level for them.
  • We ensure the children have a safe environment to be able to explore freely. We have enough rules to keep us safe, but not so many rules that our participants want to push for more freedom and independence.
  • We prepare activities for children to discover with their hands – encouraging active learning.
  • We use, wherever possible, natural and environmentally- friendly materials, because they are kinder to our Earth but also provide a better sensory experience for our young learner.
  • We strive to present our activities in a manner that is simple and beautiful – building wonder and a love of learning.
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
‘Painting’ the seawall

I think Montessori and Beach School are a very good pair. If you are interested in Montessori practice with young children, I highly recommend ‘The Montessori Toddler’ by Simone Davies

Which learning theories influence your families or your practice? I’d love to know.

This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to buy the book recommended from Amazon, you will also be supporting the Beach School. Win, win!

Beach Schooled: Sand Play

We don’t have a lot of sand on the beaches we use for Beach School here in East Kent. But when it appears with the ebbing tide it is always a huge draw for our participants. And rightly so – sand is an absolutely glorious learning material. No preparation required, just get stuck in.

Playing with sand is completely open-ended – the child determines the direction and path of their own play. There is no right way to use it, so sand invites participation, collaboration and provokes the imagination. Sand play promotes physical development – gross muscle skills can develop through digging, pouring, sifting and scooping. Eye-hand coordination and small muscle control can develop as children learn to manipulate the sand with hands or with tools (at Beach School we just use steel kitchen utensils and spades from the our local RNLI shop, nothing expensive or fancy). It can also provide a soothing sensory experience for many, try letting it slowly trickle through your fingers. .

We’re exceptionally lucky to have a setting where our sand play area is completely provided by nature. We celebrate the excavators, architects, engineers and builders it effortlessly creates. But sand play can be incorporated almost anywhere. I have so much gratitude for its limitless potential for learning.

If you are interested in how we learn at Beach School, you can read the whole Beach Schooled series here.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Sand Play: a small child in a white t shirt and dark shorts crouches on the beach and digs in wet beach sand with their hands.