Jenny McAllister, Education Officer at the Scottish Seabird Centre, writes about the centre’s education work.

The Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, East Lothian, an education and conservation charity, opened its doors in the year 2000 with the aim of inspiring people to appreciate and care for wildlife and the natural environment in a fun, interactive and informative way.

The formal education programme was a key part in providing this and in 2009 the Trust employed me as their full-time Education Officer. Realising the potential of the outdoor learning opportunities on the doorstep, in the shape of beaches and rock-pools, I have developed an outdoor learning programme aptly named Seaside School. This is aimed at nursery and primary school children and can be tailored to the needs and interests of the class. There are nine themed days including: pirates, Treasure Island, survival, marine minibeasts, brilliant birds and rock-pool rambles. They comprise a huge range of activities such as scavenger hunts, dinosaur digs, shelter building, fire lighting, beach art, food chains and rock-pooling.

Since the launch of the outdoor learning programme bookings have soared to bursting point, particularly in the summer term when schools and nurseries are keen to explore the great outdoors! With only one classroom, limited toilet facilities and only one education offi cer and assistant, the centre is currently limited. Seaside School is a year-round programme but only the hardiest of schools book in for trips in January and February. The weather in Scotland is very unpredictable, even in the summer months, and not all children have suitable clothing for outdoor learning. With help from external funders we have purchased 90 sets of waterproofs, of varying sizes, as well as wellington boots. This enables all to spend time outdoors in all but extreme conditions. To date, only one school trip has had to be cancelled due to an extreme storm.

The most popular activity is rock-pooling, however this particular activity is tide dependent which can be problematic when schools have a set date in mind for their school trip. Our Education Service is good but even I cannot dictate the tides!  We have lots of other beach-based activities, such as beach art and treasure hunts, and these are proving to be just as popular.

Free play on the beach is timetabled in for every group that visits; we fi rmly believe that exploration and discovery are as important as the structured education activities. We are still surprised by the number of children who have never visited a beach and have never had the experience of building a sandcastle. Often, when told they have twenty minutes play time some children do not know how to play on the beach and have to be shown.  These are not always children from disadvantaged backgrounds – many come from affluent areas where being outdoors has been replaced by ‘screen time’. On a day-to-day basis we see the gap between children and nature widening and are trying to combat this by giving children the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. We live on an island where you are never more than 70km from the sea, and we strive to increase the number of children who are visiting and exploring our beautiful beaches in a responsible and fun way. In addition to the beach activities, we also offer a floating classroom. As part of our Birds and Boats package the children climb aboard our custom-built 55-seater catamaran, and take a trip around the island homes of the puffins and gannets, including the world-famous Bass Rock which is home to 150,000 gannets at the peak of the season and is the world’s biggest single island gannet colony. This is a great educational experience and also very exciting.

Education Scotland recognised the importance of outdoor learning and the fantastic work taking place by awarding our Education Officer with the coveted title of Scottish Teacher of the Year 2013. This is the first time this has ever been awarded to a non classroom based teacher. Recognition and support flooded in from around country and Mike Russell, Scotland’s Education Minister even dropped in for a spot of rock-pooling with a class of children! The Scottish Seabird Centre is an independent charity and we would not be able to provide this service without the support of our generous funders and sponsors of who there are too many to mention here.

For more information, contact education@seabird.org

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This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 106).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.