The children and I spent today and yesterday in Devon. It was a fleeting visit but it's surprising how much beach time one can squeeze into 36 hours.
We set off at 6am and by 9am we were tucking into breakfast on the beach. The photo paints a perfect picture but the reality was very different. Wet hands, sand, coco pops and milk was a recipe for disaster with these two. Nonetheless they polished off the lot and about half the beach with it.
By 12 noon, after three hours of splashing around in an enourmous rock pool, we were all feeling the heat, which was becoming unbearable. We retreated back to the house where we all collapsed on the sofa for pretty much the rest of the afternoon. I got to shut my eyes for a bit while the children enjoyed one of their favourite holiday treats - CBeebies!
Today brought a whole new adventure in the form of rock pool rambling. The rambles are run by the National Trust and this was the first of the year. It was an organised event where a £1 donation per person is asked for.
Jenson was very enthusiastic about it and even waited patiently while Ed, one of the wardens, gave a brief introduction to what we would be doing. He explained a little about the history of the area - apparently the rocks date back to the Devonian period and are 318 million years old! Jenson always makes me laugh for when he heard this astonishing fact he asked if that was as old as Grandma. We like to joke that Grandma is older than most things, including the dinosaurs, but on this occasion I put him right!
We then got stuck into the fun part - rambling! First up were barnacles. Apparently a barnacle attaches itself to a rock by its head. It then uses its legs to catch food as it travels past. Ed demonstrated this brilliantly by pretending to stick his head to a rock, then laid on his back and wiggled his feet in the air. The children loved it. We then put our ears up to the rocks and listened to the barnacles talking - yes they actually do talk and apparently gossip more than my friends and I do! They sounded like the snap, crackle and pop that rice krispies make in case you're wondering.
Next we moved over to a rock pool where we found two crabs making baby crabs together. They didn't look too pleased at being interrupted. Apparently the female crab will shed her shell in order to become soft for the male, making it much easier for the eggs to be transferred. When another parent overhead about this whole casting process that crabs do, they were amazed. I was amazed that they didn't already know this fact already. I felt like a very smug sea life specialist!
That feeling didn't last very long as the wardens continued to impress with their massive amount of knowledge. We learnt how to tell the difference between a male and female crab - if you look underneath the male has more of a triangular section and the female's is more rounded.
Below is a picture of Jenson learning about sea lettuce and, much like the lettuce we grow in our garden, you can put it in your sandwich!
One of the wardens called us over to a small pool. She had found a limpet moving over one of the rocks - she clearly knew what she was looking for because I've never ever seen a limpet move to the point that I didn't think they did! Apparently a limpet will take up just one position on a single rock for the whole of its life. It will only move from that position to feed, using its hoof to manoeuvre. When it has finished feeding it will return to the same spot or scar as it's correctly known and attach itself using nothing but its teeth.
Next our eyes were opened up to the magical world of sea anemones. The red ones are the most common but if you look a little closer you'll find plenty more species. We found four and all within the space of just a few minutes.
You can't see it all that clearly in the photo below but it is a gem anemone, found predominantly in the South West of England. Compared to many species, it has few tentacles, and those it does have are brown with white markings. The body is pink with white markings.
The beadlet anemone is the one I mentioned earlier. It is the most familiar sea anemone throughout Britain. When it is exposed to air at low tide it appears as a red blob of jelly, but when feeding up to 192 stinging tentacles emerge, arranged in six circles around the mouth. The smooth body of the anemone is correctly known as the column. Jenson and Wren love sticking their fingers into the tentacles of these fascinating creatures and feeling the dull sting as they latch on. Below is a picture of one along with some whelk eggs, (centre, directly below the red jelly blob). Apparently whelks are the most deadliest of sea predators. They will make a hole in a limpet shell then pour acid in and eat it. I can think of nicer ways to go.
Here is another species of anemone called snakelocks. It will capture small fish and other animals in its many stinging tentacles. The tentacles of anemones in deep or murky water can be a grey colour but are otherwise usually a deep green colour with purple tips. This is due to the presence of symbiotic algae within the tentacles that use sunlight as an energy source. Since the anemones benefit from this they prefer brightly lit shallow waters. On average the snakelock anemone is 8 cm large. Unlike the beadlet anemone, it cannot retract its tentacles so is only found in pools on the middle and lower shore.
And finally, the strawberry sea anemone. It has a squat, jelly-like 'body' with thick short tentacles which are retracted when disturbed or when uncovered by the falling tide. It is similar to the beadlet anemone, but larger; the 'body' is always dark red with tiny pale spots, making it look like a strawberry. Jenson asked if he could eat it. I think I prefer my strawberries fresh from Primrose Vale!
There was much excitement when an enourmous shore crab was found hiding in a crevice. Sadly between the two wardens and I we were unable to capture the thing such was its desire to escape! Jenson did manage to see it though from his rather good vantage point and below he is trying to explain to someone just how big it was! Also in that crevice was a little blenny. It was well tucked away and the wardens did very well to spot it. Jenson saw it and exclaimed how awesome it was. We could just about see one of its red eyes staring out at us.
I've been admiring Jenson's new found confidence on the beach these last few days. Yesterday, while bobbing about on his body board, another little boy came into the water to play. The lad seemed dead keen for a go but Wren refused to give hers up so Jenson whispered in my ear that he could have a go on his. He was too shy to tell the lad himself so I told his Mum. A while later, Jenson started to chat quite freely to the boy and his Mum.
Today, Jenson's confidence again shone through and this time it was with the wardens. He answered questions when asked, talked about discoveries he had made and even ran off to get his bucket to show the lead warden, Ed, what we had found earlier in the morning. It speaks volumes about the impact your environment can have on your mental well being. Jenson clearly felt at ease on the beach and was well able to express himself as a result of that. Credit to Mummy too, after our jelly fish dissection earlier in the week I was well able to talk to Jenson in front of the knowledgeable wardens about where the jelly's various body parts are and how they feed. I hope they were impressed because I was!
There was even time to get a few of our finds under the microscope for a closer look. Here Jenson is looking at a blue jelly.
Every time we head down to Devon and I see Jenson embrace all the wonderful opportunities coastal life has to offer, I am reminded that there really is no better place for children to learn. Jenson had fresh air in his lungs, the sun on his back and the freedom to explore. Life doesn't get any better than being a kid on a beach with miles and miles of golden sand stretching out before them just waiting to be discovered; for stories to unfold and be told. The space it provides is limitless if you're looking at it through the small eyes of a six year old child. There are no restrictions, no barriers and no one telling you no.
Much as I respect school and the super human effort teachers make, I believe it falls a long way short of providing children with an enriched, learning experience. Education could be so much more exciting and vibrant. It could be so much more stimulating. It has the potential to empower children and develop within them a strong love of learning and sense of self. Sadly I don't see any of that, but rather children who are exhausted, emotional wrecks riddled with pressure and anxiety from a curriculum that is obsessed with testing. A child's imagination is like a key into wonderland and schools should be teaching them how to use that key to unlock a whole world of discovery and opportunity. It's very satisfying for me to be able to give Jenson and Wren a dynamic and unique education that is full of variety and, for the most part, is driven by them and their own interests. We have that key firmly in our own hands and consequently are able to open doors to places we never dreamed we'd venture to. We seize the day and don't look back.