Homeschooling mum Noorhaida Abdul Majid inspires us with her beach school philosophy and practice.

From the Editor’s Desk:

Homeschooling is characteristic of the freedom to explore – in teaching, learning and everyday experiences. As a result, homeschooling parents often practice diverse ideas in parenting and teaching. In going beyond the confines of the “classrooms,” concepts such as forest school and beach school emerged in recent years and gained traction among parents. Because homeschoolers often look to learn outdoors and in natural environments, they have similarly taken on these ideas.

Today’s insight is provided by a mother who fosters her children’s connection to nature through visits to the beach. She shares about the joy her daughters have experienced through play and how this play positively affects their development.

Noorhaida Abdul Majid is a mother to two daughters who are 10 and 5 years old. Previously a school teacher, she has been homeschooling her children to pursue her passion for educating in ways that nurture the learners’ minds and hearts. She engages her children and those under her charge in the classics and through the explorations of natural environments.

Beach School

By Noorhaida Abdul Majid

I remember watching as my firstborn, then 6-years-old, played quietly with the sand on the beach by herself. She was absorbed with scooping, pouring and moulding the sand with the sand toys around her and was oblivious to her surroundings. She played by herself while her 16-month-old sister sat beside me on the picnic mat.

Unlike her older sister, my younger daughter did not take to the sand naturally. She tried walking barefoot on the beach but disliked the sensation of sand sticking to her feet. I am not one who would force children into things they are not ready for. So I simply let her watch her older sister from the picnic mat for 16 months. Occasionally, she would share her food with the pigeons at the beach, who were more than willing to eat whatever she would throw at them, but for the most part, she kept to the picnic mat next to me.

After 16 months of observing her older sister, my younger daughter seemingly decided that playing in the sand must have been fun since her sister had spent so much time on it. So, she left the picnic mat one day and joined her sister on the sand. I was elated. It was time for me to start the idea that had been on my mind – Beach School. Although I didn’t have a curriculum or a fixed schedule for Beach School, we’re playing it by ear as we always do.

The following list is a rough guide of what we have done and plan to do at our Beach School. 

1. Sand Play

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the beach is playing in the sand. You may even picture a sandcastle with toys strewn around. Though we’ve built sandcastles with conventional toys, we once lost a set of much-loved toys that had served us for several years. In the time it took for me to replace them, my children had to be creative. They realised that their hands could work as spades too. They used bottles or cups or empty coconut husks that they brought to or found at the beach to build their masterpieces. Once, they found some orchids at the beach (I still wonder how they got there) and made a drink for me, decorated with orchids, which they named Orchinade. They added twigs to the drink and asked me to imagine that they were little umbrellas. 

They also engaged in what I call ‘immersive sand play’ where they would cover each other in the sand. One of the children would sit down or lie down on the sand, and the other would cover her with sand up to the waist or the neck. They told me that it felt warm and cosy to be covered with sand. If they have extra time and I am not rushing them home, they like to give some scales and a mermaid’s tail to the one buried in the sand. Their other favourite pastimes are to dig into the sand until they find water or to dig a tunnel through it.

Digging a shallow pool of water

The benefits of sand play1 and unstructured play for children are immense. Sand play helps children develop fine motor skills like those necessary to use a small shovel or build a sandcastle. By burying themselves in the sand, children engage their proprioceptive sense (the sense of one’s body relative to space). Sand play also develops social skills in children. They need skills like problem-solving, sharing and communicating as they share tools and communicate ideas to accomplish common goals like building a sandcastle or digging a tunnel. Sand play is also beneficial for developing a sense of texture as sand is a new and different texture for children to feel on their skin in contrast with grass, cement, and wood.

2. Physical Education

On weekends, PE might include a dip in the pool, a cycling adventure or a racket game with their father. Since I am not keen on ball games or racket sports, being outdoors on the weekdays usually means stretching our legs at the beach. I would try to convince the girls that it would be fun for them to engage in some physical activity while I do a brisk walk by the beach. As they zoom along on their scooters, I walk behind them while taking in the view and breathing in the fresh, salty air.

Scooting by the beach

Occasionally, they would prefer to climb at a playground at East Coast Park. Depending on my mood and energy level, I would either sit and wait for them or leave them to go for a walk on my own. On other days, I would sit on the beach and watch them play “wheelbarrow,” chase each other on the sand or go up and down the breakwater.

These days, children are spending more time indoors due to increased scheduled activities and screen time. Technology has also made indoor exercise easier – with activities such as running on a treadmill or following workout routines on YouTube being common.

Despite the convenience of these indoor methods, exercising outdoors has a lot of benefits2 too. The human body works best with daily exposure to sunshine since vitamin D plays a crucial role in many body processes like bone development and the immune system. Studies have shown that exercising outdoors reduces stress and enhances one’s well-being. The distraction that nature provides takes one’s mind off the physical strain of working out, resulting in longer outdoor workouts than indoor ones. Exercising outdoors is also a great bonding activity for the family and is mostly free.

3. Nature Study

When I was a primary school teacher, I longed to take my students out regularly to explore the Science garden or school compounds – especially when introducing a new chapter. Now, as a homeschooling parent, I can make that dream a reality.

We have lovely conversations on pollination, seed dispersal as well as flowering and non-flowering plants – all while watching a butterfly flit from flower to flower, admiring the fruits of a pong pong tree while sitting under it and picking up dried up fruits of a casuarina tree. I plan to bring our sketch pads and notebooks to the beach one day so we can all journal our findings together. I have also received two sets of printed worksheets and activities on Clouds from a homeschooling friend, and I am thinking of all the storybooks that could go with them as we study the clouds by the beach. I am praying this will come to fruition too.

We use our senses to marvel at the natural wonders around us – from the majestic sunsets to the tiny hermit crabs. Together, we reflect upon the wisdom behind them and bask in the glory of their Creator. Just standing by the beach, watching the dark clouds roll in from the horizon with lightning flashing across the sky and listening to the wind howl can leave a profound impression on us. These evoke feelings that one cannot feel by reading a book or watching a documentary. The same is true for everything in nature, no matter how minute it may be.

We need to take our children outdoors as this feeling of connectedness to nature has been linked to happiness, empathy and generosity, amongst others3. While people gain huge perks from their connection with the natural world, the environment also benefits when people feel connected and committed to caring for the Earth. The planet is in dire need of care. I hope that this connectedness to nature will spur future generations to work on pressing issues like climate change and habitat loss.

4. Art Therapy 

Nature study at the beach sometimes leads to some painting by the beach. I am no art expert by far. Yet, it always amazes me what the children can pick out – from the gradations in colours to the details in the subjects – when they are painting a scene of the beach. Their art makes great conversation starters too. They provide in-routes to discuss their observations, feelings, and the One who created all the beautiful sceneries for their paintings.

Painting by the beach

Art not only fosters creativity in children and develops fine motor skills, but it also encourages neural connections and builds problem-solving abilities. Children absorb vast amounts of information daily. Art allows them to process them in safe and reflexive ways. This, in turn, encourages them to be comfortable and confident in their creativity and decision-making in whatever form it takes4.

5. Rest and Relax

This point is possibly the most important for parents. So, I am saving the best for last. Homeschooling in Singapore is a privilege for those who can sustain their households on a single income. We are one of the most expensive cities in the world. As such, not many homeschooling families can afford a domestic helper or someone to look after the children for a few hours while they get some quiet time.

Therefore, the beach has always been my go-to place for free babysitting. I would take the chance to read a book, write my posts, plan my lessons, catch forty winks or simply, rest my tired mind and body while I gaze into the distance. It could be as short as an hour or an hour-and-a-half – something that I squeeze in after a lesson and before dinner time. I know that at Beach School, my children will have a myriad of things to do. As a result, I would not feel as guilty as I might when I leave them in front of a screen.

Studies have shown that the hues of blue and green at the beach, coupled with the sound of crashing waves, can reduce stress levels and calm the mind5. Those short moments spent at the beach have perked up my tired mind and body countless times and gotten rid of headaches and sniffles as well. I almost always tell myself that the sand I get later on in the car and the house is all worth it. 

On some days, our trips to Beach School are for the children, but on other days, I am the one who needs Beach School the most. Whichever it is, we always leave feeling rejuvenated after taking a sip of knowledge from the One who is Most Generous and Knowledgeable.