The convoy of tiny children clomps through Cotham in their wellies. They barely reach the waists of the staff from Woodland House Nursery who hold their hands and shepherd them across the roads. We all stop, look and listen, and politely chorus “Thank you!” to the bemused van drivers who watch the matching, waterproof-clad children marching past.
We file into Clifton Down Station, count ourselves and practice telling the time to see how long it will take before the train arrives. There are so many skills being put into practice that it’s hard to keep up, but the children waiting on the quiet platform are blissfully unaware that they are learning vital things that they’ll use in later life.
The train pulls in and the adults lift each tiny pre-schooler over the gap and into the carriage. The greenery rushes by as we pass the stations on the Severn Beach branch line, and the children all stare out of the windows, waiting to see the windmills of Avonmouth that signify we’re almost there. The teachers pass out laminated cards with pictures of activities on them – from making sculptures from driftwood, to hunting for bugs with magnifying glasses – for them to choose to do when we arrive for our Beach School session.
“There’s no plan as such – we follow the kids’ interests,” says Cassie Holland, Beach School Co-ordinator. “We try to plan in the moment, led by what they want to do. It tends to work really well, just letting them run around and roam freely, and when we’re in a space like this, without boundaries, they tend to be content not to break the rules. We bring basic resources, like buckets and spades, paper and chalk, but honestly, their imagination is far better than anything we could bring with us.”
The Beach School programme is 6-8 weeks long, with the young people travelling to the beach once a week to do new activities and creative projects. Currently, it’s only available to the children who attend Archfield House Nursery, Cotham, and its sister nursery Woodland House, Clifton, but Cassie and fellow Beach School practitioner Christine want to offer it to a wider range of children and their families.
The train pulls into the little station at Severn Beach, and we walk through the quiet streets to the expanse of water, flanked by the pillars of the Second Severn Crossing and the cranes of Avonmouth. As the children run towards the sea wall, Cassie asks them if they think the tide will be in or out. They see the rocks and mud on the shoreline, and shout excitedly that the tide is out – evidence that they’re learning a huge amount just by being out of their usual nursery environment.
“It’s a dinosaur tooth!” shouts three-year-old Blythe, pouncing on the shoreline and triumphantly holding aloft a small white pebble. After a safety briefing on the beach, the young people naturally split off into groups, digging with spades, making mudcastles, and having pebble-and-spoon races with a course marked out in driftwood.
“The biggest benefit of Beach School is that the children are engaging with their community, and getting a different opportunity for creativity,” Cassie says as the seagulls squawk overhead. “Their parents might not take them to the seaside, especially not to Severn Beach, but there’s so much to do here and it’s a place we should all use more, especially as you can take under-5s free on the train.”
The time and the tide drift on, and soon it’s time to get on the train home. “I found a big rock and I’m going to give it to my mummy,” four-year-old Jenny says. We all change out of our muddy boots and clamber into the carriage, tired and ready for lunch, but with colour in our cheeks and a hunger to come back and learn more next week.
If you’d like to participate in Beach School, visit: www.bristolbeachschools.co.uk
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