Winging it (successfully)

Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine

The children’s program of the religious education conference continued this morning. Once again this year, Lisa and I are doing nature and ecology with rotating groups of children in grades 1-6, and this morning we had the grade 1-2 group, followed by the grade 3-4 group.

We decided to take the 1st and 2nd graders down to the beach to see the fog. We collected different kinds of seaweed, and were having fun trying to decide where the fog began and ended, when it started to rain lightly. We headed back to our tent, and got under cover just before a downpour started. We compared the different types of seaweed, and decided which ones felt slimy, which ones felt slippery, which ones felt lumpy, and so on. The heavy rain put an end to rest of our lesson plan, so we decided to make time for free play in the sand in which the tent is pitched — but then the wind picked up, and it got cold, and we ran inside where it was warmer. It wasn’t a bad session — the children got time to get to know one another — but the heavy rain and cold winds prevented us from meeting some of our learning goals for the morning.

By the time the 3rd and 4th graders joined us, the rain had stopped and it was warmer. But the ground was still so wet that we couldn’t do our planned activities, which involved crawling around on the ground. So we walked down to the beach.

Once we got to the beach, I gathered the children around in a tight circle. “OK, children, we’re here on the beach and –” (I thought furiously) “– um, we’re secret investigators. No, what do they call it? We’re secret agents!” Secret agents! Cool! We’re secret agents. “And here’s what we’ve got to do. We’re going to find as many different kinds of seaweed as we can.”

We began walking down the beach collecting as many different kinds of seaweed as possible. “Ryan, what have you got there?” It’s a big piece of seaweed, and look, there’s a snail on it! Other children had other kinds of seaweed:– Look, mine is red! Look at this green stuff! Then other children found shells and other things:– Look, I’ve got a crab shell, it’s still got its eyesockets! Look at this rock I found!

We stopped, and collected everything in a big circle. “What do the different kinds of seaweed feel like?” I asked. Some of the children touched a broad piece of kelp. It’s slimy. Eww! “Is it really slimy?” I asked them. They touched it again. No, you don’t feel anything on your fingers after you touch it. It’s wet. It’s slippery! It’s cold. Then some of the children began touching sea lettuce, which is slimy. One child started crying at this point, and I asked her why, but she didn’t want to say; thinking maybe she didn’t like seaweed (some children get grossed out by such things), I started a new project.

“OK, we’re still secret agents, but now we’re going to to go back along the beach and collect stones and shells.” Why? What are we doing? “We’re collecting shells and stones, and I can’t tell you why until we meet again by the lifeguard’s chair.”

The children collected shells and stones, and we gathered around the base of the lifeguard’s chair to look at what we found. (At this point, it turned out that the child in tears needed to go to the bathroom, and had been too shy to say anything, so we managed to take care of that.) The children looked at what we had found:– crab shells, clam shells, a razor-clam shell; all different kinds of stones; a stone that was really driftwood, bits of brick, chunks of concrete, a shard of pottery, and pieces of roofing shingle.

As secret agents, we began piecing together the evidence. “Where did the bricks, concrete, wood, pottery, and roofing shingle come from?” From a house that fell into the ocean! “Does anyone know if any houses have fallen into the ocean?” Some of the children knew that a big winter storm had wiped out a couple of houses just down the beach from where we were sitting, and one of the children had seen the hole that one of the houses had left behind. They realized that what they were looking at might have come from one of those houses. One of the children said: The pottery must have been a cup or something in one of the houses!

Then we looked at the shells. “Where did these broken shells come from?” When we had just arrived on the beach, we had seen a Ring-billed Gull eating a crab, and one of the children had chased the gull away, and found a half-eaten crab claw. We figured out pretty soon that the gulls were breaking apart the shells, and eating the living creatures inside the shells.

Then we looked at the rocks that we had gathered. I pointed out the jetty down the beach from us, and told them that on the other side of the jetty was the Saco River, which originates up in the White Mountains, bringing rocks and pebbles downstream. One child observed that that must take a really long time, to bring rocks all the way down from the mountains. Then we experimented with hitting one rock against another to make sand — just the ways rocks hit each other rolling downstream. I told the children how the jetty keeps the sand coming down the Saco River from replenishing the beach, which is why the winter storms keep washing more and more of the beach away, to the point where houses fall into the ocean.

Mission accomplished, all of us secret agents went back to our tent. Once at the tent, I got out my guitar, and we wrote a song together that summed up some of what we learned. We based the chorus of the song on the famous rock song, “Wild Thing.” Our new words went something like this:

Everything — needs something
Else to — survive.
Everything — needs something
Else to — live

For the verses, we came up with sappy sentimental tune that contrasted with the boisterous chorus. The children brainstormed words for the verses, and this is what we have so far:

1. The seagulls eat the crabs,
The crabs eat the fish,
The big fish eat the little fish,
The small fish eat the plankton!

2. The seaweed eats the sun,
The albino snail eats the seaweed,
The crabs eat the snails,
The humans eat the crabs

(We weren’t really sure that crabs eat the snails, but we put that line in anyway.) We’re still working on the last verse, which will begin something like: “The waves destroyed the sand dune [or the house]/ The house detroyed the trees….”

This turned out to be one of the best sessions we’ve done. The children were fully involved, not least because their interests were steering the direction of the lesson — rather than a pre-determined lesson plan. We accomplished our learning goals, which is to help children love and understand Nature. And the closing song helped reinforce everything we learned.

2 thoughts on “Winging it (successfully)

  1. Administrator

    Jean — Actually, you can eat sea lettuce (one of the vvarieties of seaweed we found), but I’m not sure about the water quality in Saco Bay, so I wouldn’t chance it.

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