Spirit of Sustainability at a Beach School

June 24, 2021
Trudi Bennett
Deborah Scanlon


School: St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School

Year Group: 1

Teacher: Deborah Scanlon

Creative Practitioner: Trudi Bennett

Creative Practice: Nature Connection

Over the start of summer in 2020, the year 1 classes at St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School decided to start a Beach School in replacement of their Bush School program. We wanted to focus on the cross-curricular priority of sustainability whilst allowing the students to experience the joy and love of being at the beach. The question for us was, how do we be intentional about teaching sustainability without generating a sense of fear around the human impact and decline of the Earth? For six-year-old children it is important for them to establish strong, positive connections with the environment first so there is emotional connection and a strong value system for later knowledge and sustainable action to link to. 

“If we want children to flourish, we need to give them time to connect with nature and love the Earth before we ask them to save it.” - David Sobel (Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, 1999). 

There is enough fear and anxiety in our world and it can be counterproductive to overwhelm children with environmental issues at an early stage.

Through this project the teaching team, Deborah Scanlon and Lexein Dohney, with creative practitioner, Trudi Bennett, asked – what does it mean to be sustainable and what are some of the foundational thinking skills of sustainability? Then, how does this philosophy of foundational sustainability correspond with the Creative Habits of Learning?

On each visit to the beach, the students would run down to the water and let the waves lap their feet as they shouted in joy and delight. They would start to watch the waves coming in and predict when the next one would arrive, waiting in suspense and then jumping in the waves until it subsided. They would share this joy with each other, through sharing glances, holding hands and encouraging each other to try sitting in the waves. Totally collaborating through sharing the product with not only other humans, but with the whole of nature.

The students’ gaze would then open as they start exploring and wondering about the world around them. They would collect interesting objects and run up to us asking what it is. 

“I’ve never seen so many interesting things I’ve never seen before!”

Said one student as she peered into the water on a still day. We encouraged the students to see details in nature, notice and reflect on changes and wonder what the objects are and what they do. This inquisitive thinking often overlapped with imaginative thinking, where students would see shapes and characters in the natural objects they found. We would also ask, “If you could give it a name, what would you call it?” We encouraged students to create transitional art with their treasures so they would remain on the beach, but still be honoured as something precious. We also had a set of beachcombing identification cards, we would call out a name and ask the students to imagine what it could be and see if they could find one, or to use them to match and find the name of found beach objects. When we call someone or something by name, we communicate that we value them.

One thing that we noticed was that some children felt very uncomfortable at the beach from the feel of the sand, salt or cold water on their skin. Feeling comfortable in nature is a foundational step to being able to connect and fall in love with nature. To be able to truly value nature, we need to know how to be safe and we need to know how to regulate our bodies and temperature to enjoy being outdoors. We need to know that uncomfortable experiences are only temporary and that there is opportunity for joy to distract us from these feelings. These are skills that are sadly missing for many children who have minimal exposure to a variety of outdoor environments.

Finally, discipline was an important foundational sustainability skill and came in the form of self-discipline or self-management where the students were expected to take care of their hats, shoes and water bottles. Packing what was needed and knowing where they were at all times ensured that we did not leave anything behind on the beach. The students started to find things that other people left behind, like plastic bags in the water. From this perspective we started to “Take 3 for the Sea” conducting a small action of collecting rubbish before we left. 

The sustainable thinking wheel that we have created are foundational skills for everyone, including adults. Imagine what our Earth would be like if everyone had the ability and desire to be the following:

Collaborative – When we value nature and use our skills with others to be helpful and caring. 

Inquisitive – When we notice small changes and ask questions. 

Persistent – When we overcome fear of the unknown and make do with the resources we have. 

Imaginative – When we visualise a picture of how we are connected to natural systems. 

Disciplined – When we are responsible for what we consume and manage our actions that impact nature. 

For our team at the Beach School, starting slowly and not doing too much was an important part of sustainability. Being able to sustain an action for a long period of time is sustainability and Beach School is a project we hope to see happen every year.