World of wonder by the shore
I can close the front door of my house on the Dingle Peninsula and be on my nearest beach within five minutes. Fewer if I walk quickly.
It is not the longest stretch of sand and, depending on the tides and time of year, it can sometimes be covered in seaweed so stinky we can smell it from our house. But it is a tremendous resource for us to have on our doorstep.
Sharon Ni Chonchuir and son Milo pictured on a West Kerry Beach. Picture: Domnick Walsh
Especially for my three-year-old Milo. He loves making sandcastles with his bucket and spade. He keeps a constant eye out for unusual pebbles and shells to add to his collection. He hides in the reeds that grow alongside the river that runs into the sea at one end of the beach, laughing at the sound the wind makes as it whistles overhead. And he is also full of questions about the fish we see jumping in the river, the birds that gather by the seashore, and the dead dolphins, seals, and porpoises that occasionally get washed in by the tide.
Child development experts believe such outdoor environments are important for children. Avril McMonagle was part of the team that developed Aistear, the early childhood curriculum, and is now the lead consultant for Meantóir, a support service for early childhood educators and childcare service providers.
The beach offers endless opportunities for exploring and learning. Picture: Domnick Walsh
“The natural beach environment offers endless opportunities to explore and learn through seeing and doing,” she says. “Children can discover and develop an understanding of the natural world around them as well as enjoy sensory experiences, physical activities, constructive play with sand and water, and so much more.
Former secondary school teacher Ollwyn Moran is founder of CogniKids, which offers a range of products to support babies’ natural development. The beach, she says, has so much to offer children, rain or shine.
Walking on the beach is great for developing balance. “Whether it’s pebbly or sandy, there is no solid foothold and children have to work hard to stay upright,” says Moran. “This builds up muscles in their core and legs. It’s even better if they walk barefoot as the soles of the feet have the most nerve endings of any part of the body and children need that feedback to learn how their feet and toes work.”
The beach engages all of the senses. “Sensory exploration comes naturally to young children and is crucial to brain development,” says McMonagle. “In a world of plastic toys, sensory outdoor experiences are vital.”
Moran used to recreate the seashore in her suburban garden so that her children could enjoy that sensory experience. “I filled shallow trays with pebbles, coarse sand, fine sand, and water and they would walk through them,” she says. “Feeling the different textures on bare feet is such a strong sensory experience, and people who live near the beach can have that every day.”
Sensory play involves more than just touch. It also stimulates smell, taste, sight, and hearing.
Moran encourages parents to draw their children’s attention to their senses. “Have them listen to the waves,” she says. “Or fill buckets with pebbles, shells, and stones and shake them about, asking the children if they sound the same. Bring the smell of the seaweed to their attention too and ask questions about why they think it smells so strong.”
Sensory play is an important part of a child’s development. Picture: Domnick Walsh
Look around you when you are on the beach. “These days, even children as young as six months are watching screens and being on the beach is a chance for them to focus on the horizon rather than up close,” says Moran. “Play ‘I Spy’ with them. Spend time looking at the clouds. Or point out people fishing or boats in the distance.”
For McMonagle, the hands-on nature of beach learning is part of what makes it so valuable and adults can support this in all sorts of ways. For example, there are so many things to count and compare in terms of number, size, shape, texture, and pattern on the beach.
Patterns can be seen and created. Children can build and construct, sort and group.
Children can even develop life skills such as tenacity and confidence while at the beach. “Through doing things like jumping and climbing rocks, they learn to overcome fears, deal with failure and develop confidence in taking risks,” says McMonagle.
McMonagle and Moran have convinced me to make even more of my trips to the beach with Milo. I have just ordered Let’s Look on the Seashore by Caz Buckingham. This is a book we will bring to the beach with us to help us identify plants and animals. It also features ideas for sensory activities and has stickers that will allow us to create our own seashore scene at home.
A trip to the beach is a wonderful way to make memories. Picture: Domnick Walsh
But mostly we are just going to play. Moran sounds almost envious of the fun we have in store. “For a three-year-old, the world is a wonderful place with so much to explore,” she says.
“I have fond memories of building sandcastles on the beach with my dad. So, remember that what you are doing is building relationships and making memories. Be present with your children and while you may be tempted to do so, do not hurry them up. There is a whole world to discover on the beach and it is such a great way for them to learn.”