Traveling to the beach with kids? Capitalize on this outdoor learning opportunity by testing out five fun and educational marine science activities, no ocean science background necessary.
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Some of my favorite childhood memories came from my family’s summer trips to the beach. Armed with nothing but sunblock and a plastic beach pail, I combed the shores of the ocean, searching for seashells and shark teeth. This early introduction to the marine ecosystem inspired me to study marine science at the university level, leading me down a path of scientific research and education as an adult.
The Benefits of Childhood Outdoor Experiences
Much research has been done on the positive correlation between outdoor experiences and children’s cognitive abilities. Time spent in nature stimulates creativity and builds critical thinking skills. Providing children time to explore the outdoors has also been linked to increased concentration skills. Why not foster a love of nature while building essential problem-solving skills on your next trip to the beach?
Marine Science Activities for Kids
I’ve compiled a list of five simple beach activities for kids you can try on your next trip to the sea to foster an appreciation for the marine environment. Don’t worry, you do not need to be an expert in marine science to complete these beach activities. It’s actually better if you explore with your children and learn together, as this demonstrates the importance of life-long learning.
Make a Bathyscope
Have you heard of a bathyscope? A bathyscope is a tool to look underwater from land or a boat. It’s the perfect tool to get your kids answering the question, “What’s under the sea”? Que the Little Mermaid soundtrack.
The device eliminates the glare off of the water’s surface so you can see what lies beneath. You can purchase one at a store, but we recommend making a bathyscope out of household materials instead! Check out our really easy tutorial showing you how to make a bathyscope at home. You could probably even pull together materials to make this while you’re on vacation!
Is there anything more enjoyable than collecting seashells on the beach? Take the practice of collecting shells a bit further by identifying the marine invertebrate to which each shell belongs. I highly recommend the following guidebooks and nature apps to get you started:
Note: I am most familiar with North American field guides, as I am located on the eastern seaboard of the United States. If you have recommendations for field guides outside of this zone, please add them to the comments at the end of this post.
- Seek App by iNaturalist
- Outdoor School: Rock, Fossil and Shell Hunting
- Peterson Field Guides: Atlantic Seashore
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to Shells
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to Seashore Creatures
Always remember to return what you find. The marine ecosystem relies on empty shells to become new homes for juvenile invertebrates as well as eventual sources of calcium carbonate for marine organisms to build their own exoskeletons.
Explore the Intertidal Zone
Determine the tidal cycle in your area, then explore the tidal zones at high and low tide. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has an online tide prediction tool to provide tidal cycles for coastal areas in the United States and the Caribbean. You’ll be amazed to see the differences in marine life at low tide versus high tide.
Dig into the sand or peer into tide pools to discover what’s moving about. Take notice of the presence of different bird species at each tidal change, as many aviators capitalize on low tide to find a fresh meal under the recently exposed sand.
If birds are poking their beaks around the intertidal zone, most likely there are small fish and invertebrates waiting for you to discover! Look for air bubbles surfacing on the sand, as this can indicate that clams and other shellfish are just below the surface. Keep track of what you see via photographs or a paper and pencil list and compare your findings over a few days.
Do a Biodiversity Study like a Marine Scientist
A biodiversity study sounds super fancy, however, it’s one of the basic observation tools that marine scientists use to get an unbiased idea of what organisms reside in an area. All you need is a hula hoop.
Yes, that’s correct, you can use a simple hula hoop to perform an experiment called a quadrat sampling method. A quadrat sampling method is a way to count the abundance and distribution of slow-moving and non-moving organisms in a specific area using a square meter device. A hula hoop may not be a square, but it works the same way to randomly sample an area! Using this information, you can calculate the relative abundance and density of different populations.
To perform this biodiversity study, simply throw a hula hoop randomly along a beach or tidal area. Then identify and count the different organisms (both plants and animals) that you see within the circle of the hula hoop. Toss the hoop 5-7 times in various locations within your study area, tallying the diversity and abundance of organisms within the hoop for each throw.
If you’re not sure of the identity of an organism, take a picture of it and identify it later with the field guides and nature apps recommended earlier in this post.
After completing the hula hoop tosses, combine the collected data to see how many different organisms you identified and the relative abundance of each. Creating a bar graph is an excellent way for kids to visualize their findings and provide them a practical way to practice their graphing skills.
Conduct a Seaside Litter Pick-Up
If your kids are anything like mine, they seem to notice every piece of trash that’s in our path when we’re out for a walk, no matter if we’re on a beach or strolling through the woods. Instead of defaulting to the “don’t touch that” phrase that we so often use to protect our children, why not consider bringing some gloves and a trash bag along with you on your next beach outing?
You know your kids better than anyone. If this is a recipe for disaster and will end with them putting litter in their mouth, then this isn’t the activity for you! However, if your kids are up for it, or if you simply want to demonstrate how to properly pick up and dispose of litter, consider trying a seaside litter pick-up with kids.
Safety is of the utmost importance in this activity, so consider purchasing a litter picking tool to keep a safe distance between you and the trash you collect. And obviously, refrain from picking up anything that could be potentially harmful or dangerous.
You can take this a step further and connect with other like-minded litter pickers by logging your collected bag of trash with Just 1 Bag. Last year, The Burgess Family, @just1bag2020, set a goal to have 2,020 individuals from across the globe pick up a total of 20,000 bags of trash by the end of 2020.
And they did it!
This year, their new mission is to inspire 5,000 people to pick up just one bag of litter by the end of 2021. That means that you can count community service hours while you’re on vacation. That’s a win-win!
What educational beach activities do you and your young learners enjoy? Feel free to add them to the comments below. Happy Exploring!
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About The Author
Jess Purcell, a co-founder of Raising Global Kidizens, is a science educator who is dedicated to making the science of sustainability accessible to all learners. She creates sustainability science lessons and nature activities written for students of all ages to be done in the classroom or at home to foster critical thinking skills and a love of the natural world. You can find more of her work at Thoughtfully Sustainable.
Jess lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and two cats and can usually be found outside, working out the kinks of an experiment, upcycling trash into “treasure”, hiking with her family, or attempting to read a book while being cajoled into a game of hide-and-seek.