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

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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.
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‘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.

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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.

August at the Beach School

August is the month that most people in the UK associate with going to the beach. Peak summer holiday season – sandcastles, picnics, chips in paper. I love it all. However, at our August sessions of Family Beach Explorers, I wanted to people to experience a different side to the coast – to really connect with it, not just be tourists. I love our Beach Explorer sessions because it gives us a chance to meet families that can’t come during term time. Enjoy the slideshow to get a taste of our wonderful multi-sensory Beach School.

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Celebrating September – Seas and Seeds

I truly love September. Maybe it’s because I am a perpetual academic, but it feels like a real new year – a fresh page and full of promise. It’s also a time of warmth, energy, abundance, growth and fruitfulness. It’s a really wonderful time on our coast. Here’s what we’ll be celebrating this month at Beach School:

Warm Seas


By September, the Summer sun has been busy warming the seas and this is warmest our shallow Channel is all year round – perfect for paddling or, if you are feeling brave, taking a dip. However, if you are going in please make sure you are on a safe beach and  be sure to check the following:

At the Beach School, we’ll be offering our participants the opportunity to paddle (up to their knees – Beach School rules!) and go rockpooling in these deliciously warmer seas. The sea is amazing, but please only go in with respect for the water.

Seaside Seeds

One of September’s many gifts is the harvest. You may have noticed all the coastal plants losing their vibrant colours and turning to seed. However, did you know that many of them are edible? We’ll be looking for the rich berries of shrubs like sea buckthorn and, and brambles. But we’ll also be looking for the seeds of wild fennel and Alexanders:

The fennel that grows wild here in East Kent is a different variety to the bulbs that you can buy in the supermarket. Foraging legend Richard Mabey believes fennel was introduced to Britain by the Romans because of its many medicinal and culinary uses. The whole plant is edible. The seeds can be gathered between September and October and will smell stronger as it dries. It is particularly tasty with fish or a tea and is renowned as being a natural remedy for wind (!)

Alexanders is another herb that was introduced by the Romans, but now grows abundantly by the sea due to its tolerance to salt. Alexanders seeds can be used to add flavour and can be ground like pepper. It is believed its name is derived from being the ‘pepper of Alexandria’. The seeds contains an essential oil, cuminal, which is reminiscent of cumin and myrrh.

If you fancy a forage, please use a good field guide, only take what you can positively identify and follow the foraging etiquette. We’re looking forward to exploring these coastal seeds and berries at Beach School this month through using many of our senses – sight, touch, smell and maybe even taste. I look forward to sharing what we get up to.

At the Beach School, we want to help people of all ages connect with the coastal environment. This is an excerpt from our monthly newsletter, if you’d like to subscribe please follow this link.


Making an Everyday Difference

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I was very honoured to have been invited by East Kent-based Creative Business Coach, Ruth Poundwhite, to join a group of creative entrepreneurs to talk about how they are intentionally making a difference with their businesses – to the world around them and also to themselves. I make no secret about starting the Beach School being my dream job. Here’s the story behind it and why I run the Beach School like I do…

I’m Rachel and I’m the Founder of Little Gulls Beach & Forest School, a pioneering forest school practice in the Dover area of the East Kent Coast. We provide holistic outdoor learning opportunities for young children and their families. Unlike most forest schools, we’re not in a woodland, we’re on the beach.

Little Gulls is the convergence of two life-long ambitions – the unwavering need to connect people with their local natural environment and the search for a way to make a living hanging out on the beach. I’ve always wanted to work with the natural environment and I’ve described myself as an environmentalist since I was a child.

I spent over a decade working on environmental policies and managing community and infrastructure projects and found it incredibly difficult to make the difference I’d always dreamed of making. Doing the kind of job that I’d been funnelled in to through university, that had good prospects and a nice pension, not something that filled my heart. By the time I left Local Government, I was completely lost and disillusioned. I discovered forest school when my son was a baby, when I was recovering from post natal depression, and quickly realised that it provided a place for both us to learn and connect with the natural world. It lit a fire (excuse the pun) and changed my life.

I completely retrained to work educating people outdoors and as an Early Year Practitioner. I adore young children, they are incredible authentic human beings. I am unwaveringly passionate about what outdoor learning and the Forest School process can do for all types of learners. Forest School is driven by the learners – no matter of age. A true Forest School programme is shaped by the participants and learner-centred education is the key to empowering people to be involved in their own learning for life. I want to provide learning experiences that truly enrich peoples lives.

Little Gulls was born out my love for the coast and my love for humans and I pour that love in to every part of the business: I carefully consider the education content of our sessions, balancing the needs of all our participants. We use ocean-friendly natural materials wherever possible. We offer pay-what-you-can places to marginalised families. We have accessibility statements for all our Beach School sites to support our participants with physical disabilities and those with neurodiversity. Unlike a vast proportion of the early years sector – I pay my employees a living wage. Dover is an area of multiple deprivation in a fragile coastal environment. All these things really matter here.

My background means I have unique insights and skills to bring to educating about the environment – I not only fully understand (and love) natural habitats and processes, I also have a truly holistic view about what the environment means to people and how to enhance their learning experience within it. It’s my superpower (my other superpower is paperwork, which is complimentary!)

I have to acknowledge that being able to sacrifice the safe career path to follow a heart-filled dream is loaded with privilege. Being a business owner, after suffering from mental illness and an introverted background in the public sector, has been a huge learning curve. I have to work on my mindset around money and putting myself out there every single day. Sometimes it is really hard, but it is well worth the work. The impact of changing my life in this way is immeasurable. And I get to play on the beach for a living. It doesn’t get much better than that.



Creatures of the Deep: Training to be a Marine Mammal Surveyor

img_1904The first place I saw a seal was here, off Deal Pier. The Channel’s Grey Seals, with their proud long noses are often mistaken for swimming dogs, just ask my sea-swimming husband, who was once asked why he had left his Labrador in the water. However, this was no land mammal. No dog could swim with such confidence, no dog could dive (and dive and dive) like that. It was definitely a seal, and a grey one at that.

The Grey Seal is our most observed sea mammal at the Beach School. They often hunt on the surface, close to the shore and can be very inquisitive. At Walmer Beach one spent a good ten minutes swimming close by and watching our paddling Under 5s. But seals aren’t the only sea mammal we could see from our beaches – the English Channel is also home to many porpoises, dolphins and even the occasional humpback whale.

I adore sea mammals. For want of a better phrase, it blows my mind that so many of them are out there, in our seemingly un-exotic Channel, in the busiest shipping lane in the world. They are our mammalian cousins, birthing and milk feeding live young, yet they are so otherworldly, living their lives in an entirely different medium to us. And the fact they are out there – largely out of our sight, yet always there, enveloped in the big blue…

I needed to know more about them, I just need to see them more, to get more of a taste of their world. So last month, I undertook Marine Mammal Surveyor training with the wonderful ORCA. On the day-long course, I learnt how to spot the signs of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and other marine mammals. But also how to record the sitings, so they can be used by ORCA to monitor marine mammal populations around Europe. ORCA’s volunteer surveyors board ferries and cruise ships leaving ports across the UK to conduct scientific surveys to record the species seen, where they are and what they are doing. So this Summer, I hope to be up on the bridge (on the bridge! Like the actual Captain!!) of our cross-channel ferries, looking for whales, dolphins and seals and recording data for this incredible and important work. I’ll update the blog when I have been on my first survey.

In the meantime, whenever I am on our shore, I shall be looking out to sea carefully. Is that object a dorsal fin of a dolphin? Was that ripple from a diving porpoise? Is that a brave dog swimming close to shore or is it actually a seal? Because these creatures of the deep are out there and they’re not as illusive as you might think.


If you’d like to know more about marine mammals of the English Channel – we have a free educational resource, which you can download and keep here. Happy spotting!

Mammals of the English Channel

Wonderful things to do in February

img_8761February is often thought of as a cold and dark month, but it actually marks the awakening the first signs of Spring – crocuses and snowdrops are sprouting and trees are budding. The daylight is returning too, with mornings and evenings getting gradually lighter, and by the end of the month the day will be two hours longer. And with half term approaching, here are 5 natural things to celebrate this month:

1 – Play in the snow
Here in the UK, February is the month when it is most likely to snow. When it falls, rush out to be the first one to make footprints, catch snowflakes on your tongue or build a snowman. If you wrap up warm and don your waterproofs, you can make snow angels by lying down in the snow and moving your legs up and down. Get up carefully and look at the pattern you have left behind.

2 –  Eat forced rhubarb
Slender and the brightest of pinks, this British speciality is ‘forced’ to grow in the dark sheds of Yorkshire’s mysterious sounding rhubarb triangle and it is in season now. Try it simply stewed with yoghurt or (my favourite) in a crumble. Pass me the custard.

3 – Go spring flower hunting.
Daffodils, Snowdrops and crocuses will start appearing this month – Wrap up warm and go hunting for them growing in the ground. You won’t have to go too far – roadside verges are often full of the nodding heads of daffodils. While snowdrops and crocuses can often turn up in urban nature sanctuaries, like churchyards and parks.

4 – Embrace the dark and go stargazing
The nights are shortening towards March’s Spring Equinox. Make the most of the dark by looking up to the heavens and seeing which constellations you can spot. You might also spot the International Space Station passing by…

5 – Feed the birds
The RSPB say that feeding birds during cold spells can save lives. Bird cake and food bars are very good because of their high-fat content, as are peanuts. Bird seed mixtures are also high in oils. You can also feed kitchen scraps, such as fat and suet, mild grated cheese, cooked potatoes, pastry and dried fruit. If you don’t have a garden, the birds in your local park would love some food too. Here’s a great way to make a bird feeder and recycle a plastic bottle to boot.

Plus a bonus, if you are on the coast: Go egg case hunting


Out on the beach you might find a lot of these unusual objects washed up on the tideline this month. They’re not “brains” (as some of the beach schoolers call them) but clusters of whelk egg cases. Whelks spawn in November and December and, once the young have hatched, the egg cases wash up on our shore.

If you’d like to know more about the egg cases and learn more about our amazing sea dwellers, head to the Shark Trust and join their Great Egg Hunt.

If you try any of these ideas, please share them with us over on Facebook or Instagram and have a wonderful February!

Why the beach? The importance of the nature on your doorstep

IMG_6957Why the focus on the beach and not a woodland for your forest school? I get asked this a lot. Firstly, I must say I love the woods and I love working in them – they provide an incredible learning environment. Home to such depth and diversity – the opportunities for learning are endless. They also provide somewhere that is away from the norm, away from the traditional classroom environment. But so does the beach.

The intertidal zone is possibly the most diverse natural habitat in the world – the rockpools give us a glimpse of the marine world not normally accessible to us terrestrial mammals. The beach is also home to dynamic planetary forces playing out before your eyes, just by watching the ebb and flow of the tide. And being by the sea, in sight of the sea is simply good for you.

Here on the East Kent coast, we don’t have many trees – but we have beaches – miles and miles of them. Shingle, sand, jaw-dropping cliffs, awe-inspiring rockpools – you name it. It’s here. And I strongly (strongly!) believe that the most important job I can do as a Forest School Leader, as an educator, is to connect people with the environment that’s right on their own doorstep. Which is why I run Beach School – to bring people to the coastal environment that’s such a short distance from their homes. To build their confidence in this environment, so they can access it on their own terms. To build a positive relationship with the coast that may last a lifetime.

Which is also why Little Gulls is spreading its wings and diversifying. We don’t all live here on the coast – Beach School isn’t accessible to everyone. But just bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing and is possible in so many places, even urban ones.

Because being outside, learning outside, loving nature shouldn’t be just for those who can get to the woods, or get to the beach. There is so much right on all our doorsteps. Let’s get out there and explore it together.

Beach Schooled: I’m not the Teacher

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetWhat’s the first thing you think of when I say ‘learning’ to you? Books? Classrooms? Pupils and teachers? Probably not playing on the beach.

At Little Gulls, our approach to learning is inspired by the Forest School ethos. We’re not a traditional learning establishment, we don’t deliver education in the traditional manner. But we do provide education, we provide learning, inspiration… it just looks a little different from the norm.

The Forest School approach, that we use at Beach School is playful. Playing is learning and by providing a safe, but inspiring environment for play, we allow our Beach School participants to have the time and space to make their own choices. It also plants the seeds of creativity. So approach to learning is learner-led (or child-led). My role as the Beach School’s Forest School Leader, is not to teach – it is to facilitate learning. There are no prescriptive learning activities at Beach School – I set up activities, but these are completely open to interpretation by the participants. Our learner-centred approach means that participants may also enjoy and learn from something that isn’t on my session plan. They may (and often do) not do anything that is on the session plan at all. My job is to observe and record what they did enjoy doing and use this to inform my planning for future sessions  – so we build upon the tasks and experiences participants enjoyed – not just what was in the session plan.

It’s vitally important that we support participants by providing a safe environment. Not just through our rigorous risk assessment process, but ensuring participants feel mentally emotionally safe. We only use appropriate dialogue and non-violent communication. Everyone is treated equally and fairly, with respect and understanding, regardless of age, individual personalities, culture, interests, needs and abilities. There is no teacher/pupil dynamic to enable building an environment of trust, which allows participants to have a truly free choice. They have autonomy and they are respected.

Just because Beach School does not look like a classroom or a traditional learning environment doesn’t mean our participants are not learning. In this blog series, I hope to share with you what education is actually taking place, how our experiences are enabling crucial early development and most importantly how the Under 5s, naturally, are facilitating their own learning.