Life

Beach Schools NI takes learning to the seaside this summer

Jenny Lee chats to Antrim mum-of-two Maggie Finlay, who launches the north's first beach school programme this summer

Maggie Finlay, founder of Beach Schools NI with her three-year-old son Joshua get set to do some exploring

THIS sunny summer more than others, many of us having been heading to the beach – but one Antrim mum is encouraging children, and their parents, to go beyond building sandcastles and to "open their eyes to explore the shore".

Beach Schools NI is the brainchild of Maggie Finlay who discovered the benefits of beach schools when her then two-year-old son Joshua was gaining through all sorts of sensory beach activities during a year spent living in the south of England.

"These activities supported his development and the physical exercise and fresh air helped him to sleep at night, which was a bonus," says Maggie, now also mum to six-month old Noah.

A former geography teacher, Maggie is passionate about outdoor learning and wants her boys, and all children, to "grow up with an enthusiasm and love for the outdoors"; hence she saw the potential for setting a beach-school business in Northern Ireland.

Before moving back to Doagh, Maggie gained an accreditation as a beach schools practitioner and will launch a number of summer classes this summer on the north coast.

"Forest schools are taking off here but beach schools are very new. I'm excited to bring the concept here and change the story of how our children learn by getting outdoors, being active and having lots of fun," says Maggie, who in the future plans to partner with preschool and primary schools offering fun outdoor activities that link into the school curriculum, as well as facilitating coastal fieldwork for GCSE and A-level students.

The summer sessions will run from July 23 to August 22 on selected dates for two-to-four-year-olds and five-to-seven-year-olds. Each programme will comprise three one-hour sessions held over three days at Portrush West Strand, Portrush White Rocks, Portstewart (Edgewater) and Portballintrae Salmon Rock Beach.

Like their forest equivalent, beach schools give children space to be adventurous, creative, mucky and simply to be children. With so much worries about safety in today's world, Maggie is passionate about inspiring kids to have the confidence to engage with all their senses and investigate and discover what's in their environment.

"Of course I will research tides and assess risks, but the ethos of beach schools is benefit analysis, rather than risk assessment. Sadly a lot of schools no longer can take children outdoors and on trips because of bureaucracy.

"What I plan to do is make our beaches and coast life come alive. With the two-to-four-year-olds it's more about exploring and the sensory elements of the beach environment. With the older group we will be learning about tides and basic geography."

There will be sand, water, pebbles, oozing mud and all sorts of wild habitats involved in beach school. Activities planned include foraging, beach arts and crafts, making sculptures from driftwood, pirate quests, treasure mapping, fishing in rock pools, storytelling and teaching children about beach safety and how to protect marine life.

It's educational and fun – Maggie is passionate about the advantages of education "without walls" and away from screens in particular.

"Playing outdoors, and at beaches in particular, is good for children's physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Children naturally love to get 'hands on' with the sand and it creates memories that last. Even when I chat to older pupils I have taught, they always recall their geography field trips, rather than what they learnt in the classroom."

Another principal of beach schools is to promote environmental awareness and encourage sustainability. Both the children, and their parents who stay at the sessions, are encouraged to be aware of conservation issues – each session will end with a litter pick.

"Plastics is a massive issue and I will incorporate environmentally friendly teaching into my sessions, showing children how what we throw away can end up on our oceans and harm our marine life," Maggie says.

:: For further information on Beach Schools NI visit them on Facebook, see Beachschoolsni.com or email beachschoolsni@yahoo.com

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