Switching the classroom for the seaside can be a refreshing change for teachers and pupils when the weather is warmer. Brian Asbury suggests some ways to link the primary science curriculum to seaside lesson plans for KS2

There are few things more quintessentially British, or more evocative of ‘summer’, than a day out at the seaside – and there are also few places in Britain which better lend themselves to scientific study than seaside resorts. Take a look at the picture on this page, for example.

Try showing your class this image or something similar, or get them to draw their own seaside pictures from suggestions made in a class discussion. You can then discuss what the pupils think they could study at the seaside that links to science. Just a few suggestions might be:

Sc2 Life processes and living things:

  • What animals live on the seashore and what habitats do they occupy? What kinds of animals leave behind the shells we find on beaches? What kinds of plants do we find at the seaside?
  • Why do we find fossils at the coast?

Sc3 Materials and their properties:

  • Why are beaches sandy? What is sand?
  • Why is the sea salty?
  • How were structures like seaside piers and Blackpool Tower built? What are the best kinds of materials for building structures like these?
  • What role does the sea play in the water cycle?

Sc4 Physical processes:

  • Why does the tide go in and out twice a day, every day?
  • What effects are humans having on our coasts? How can we protect the seashore and the animals and plants that depend on it from further harm?
  • What effects does prolonged exposure to the sun have on us? Why should we protect ourselves by using sun screen, etc?

These are just a few of the many possibilities, and the pupils may well come up with many more. However, unless your school happens to be next to a beach – which, let’s face it, most aren’t – just how do you go about looking at some of these seaside-based themes in the classroom? Let’s take a look at a few of the above in more detail, because there are lots of ideas you could employ, including any amount of resources available on the world wide web, which could bring a flavour of the beach into your science lessons without ever needing to leave the classroom.

The coastline of Britain varies widely – from long, flat sandy beaches, pebble beaches (shingle) and mudflats, to steep cliffs of sharp rock and the softer looking white cliffs made of chalk. But let’s concentrate on sand for the moment. Any study of rocks and soils needs to include sand at some stage, and sand is awfully interesting stuff. Do the children know how sand is formed (ie from the slow wearing down of much larger rocks called sandstone and quartz)?

Sandy beaches aren’t just good for making sandcastles, of course. They also provide homes for many kinds of wildlife, especially on coasts where the sand has piled up into dunes. Ask the children to investigate why sand dunes don’t just collapse into flat beaches (because they are held in shape by the plants growing among them). They could also research what kinds of plants are good for forming dunes – and even try an experiment in the classroom to grow some plants and see how well they grow in sand compared to other types of soil.

There’s lots of information about sand dunes as habitats, and the animals and plants that thrive there, on the BBC’s Science and Nature website.

This may be a good springboard into a topic on the environment and what we need to do to protect these habitats.

Finally on the subject of sand, do your pupils know that sand is the main constituent of glass? A good place to learn about glass and its uses is Glass Forever, which offers a range of teaching resources including fact and activity sheets on glass making, ‘amazing glass facts’ and recycling, as well as games and a few other goodies. The British Glass website also has lots of useful information on this subject.

The sea is in itself a wonderful storehouse of ideas for science topics. For one thing, it is a good way to introduce or revise the water cycle. For some good ICT resources for this topic, try the Water Cycle Explorer at Nature Grid or the excellent animation at the BBC Schools website’s section on Coasts.

Do the children know why we can’t drink sea water (because it contains too much salt)? Why is the sea salty? The answer is that water flowing down into the sea from rivers dissolves some of the minerals in the rocks it passes over, and as sea water evaporates as part of the water cycle, these minerals and salts become concentrated in the seas and oceans. Salts also get into the sea as fallout from volcanic eruptions and other natural phenomena. The sea doesn’t become saltier and saltier and saltier, however, because the salts are combining with other minerals on the sea bed all of the time and thus are removed from the water.

A good experiment that the children can try in the classroom is to investigate how much salt is in sea water, and also whether there is any salt in water from other sources, such as rivers. You can either use real sea water, if you can get hold of some (your local aquarium supplier might be able to supply some, or at least a kit to create artificial sea water for saltwater fish tanks), or make a reasonable substitute by dissolving about 35g of ordinary table salt in 1 litre of tap water. You could then demonstrate evaporating a measured amount of this water and weighing the vessel afterwards to see what mass of salt is left – or, if you have appropriate facilities, the children could try doing this for themselves. Comparing the results with river water is interesting, because the children may expect there to be nothing left at the end. However, even river water contains some dissolved salts (albeit about 200 times less than sea water), which your pupils may be surprised to learn.

And again, environmental concerns can be brought in at this point. What is humankind putting into the seas that is a danger to the creatures and plants that live there? For example, is it wrong to dump rubbish such as plastic bags into the seas, and what harm can these do?

Well… and moon as well. Both are important factors in the seaside environment, so it’s a good springboard into talking about ‘The Earth and Beyond’. Why does the sun appear to move across the sky during the day? When does it seem to be hottest? Does the sun really get hotter, or is this something to do with its position in the sky?

This, of course, can lead into a discussion on sunbathing. Why do we need to use sun block to protect ourselves against the sun’s rays when we sunbathe? What happens if we sunbathe unprotected? What is the ‘hole in the ozone layer’ and how have humans contributed to its appearance and growth? What can we do to prevent it getting worse?

There are some useful ideas and learning materials available on this topic from the Boots Learning Store website.

The sun’s role at the seaside is obvious to children, but what has the moon got to do with it? The answer is, of course, the tides. Ask your class what happens if you sit for a few minutes at the water’s edge at the seaside. Does the sea remain the same distance from you? Hopefully, the pupils will point out that the sea will either retreat from you or come closer and eventually soak you! But what causes these tides? The children will probably be surprised to learn that it’s the moon (and to a lesser extent, the sun) that is responsible, and this can lead into a discussion of how the moon orbits the Earth and gravity in general. To support this, you can find some information on tides, and more about the moon, at Enchanted Learning. There is also a feature on the sun, moon and Earth on BBC Bitesize.

Specifically about tides, there is a fascinating ‘Ask an astronomer’ podcast from the Jodrell Bank Observatory, on the subject of ‘Why are there two tides every day?’ This would be well worth downloading and playing to your class.

So, if you thought that the topic of ‘The Seaside’ doesn’t hold much scope for teaching science, I hope the above has made you think again. These are just a few of the many ways you can use sun, sea and sand as a springboard into many different science topics, and I’m sure you – and your pupils – will be able to think of many, many more.