Experts at The Ecology School in Saco have suggested adding lessons to beach trips by helping children explore the ocean’s ecology. 


The Ecology School camper Nia Farago-Dumsch, 12, goes crabbing at a tidal brook. The children caught crabs and studied them, then let them go.

Meg Edstrom Jones, education director of The Ecology School in Saco, demonstrates how to draw a “sounds map” on the beach. Ask children to close their eyes and listen for 60 seconds, then draw images of what they heard in the sand.

The Ecology School Education Director Meg Edstrom Jones recommends using a “tide stick” to observe the tide. After arriving at the beach, place a stick at the water’s edge, then observe how quickly the water comes in or goes out, she said. 

The Ecology School Education Director Meg Edstrom Jones holds beach lessons at The Ecology School in Saco.

The Ecology School Education Director Meg Edstrom Jones shows a “message in the bottle” lesson she teaches campers. She places a message in the bottle, then secretly places the bottle in the sand for campers to discover. The message can be anything, including beach lessons about sand dunes, piping plovers, sandpipers or hermit crabs. Jones’ message was from Brody, an Atlantic surf clam.

SACO — It’s a summer day at the beach. The sand and surf beckon you to play in the waves, build sandcastles, relax in the sun.

All good stuff — but there’s more to do, especially if you have children, said Meg Edstrom Jones, education director at The Ecology School in Saco. The school, which is near Old Orchard Beach, offers ecology lessons and camps for elementary school pupils.

The school’s programs are often full, evidence there’s a growing interest in getting children outside to explore nature. More parents want to ensure their children don’t spend too much time on screens and grow up with a “nature-deficit disorder,” said Ecology School Executive Director Drew Dumsch. 

Jones shared a basic beach lesson plan that any adult can use to get children more engaged in beach ecology.  

As the day at the beach begins, share with children that while it’s fun to come to the beach, it’s a tough place to live, Jones suggested. There’s no fresh water, no food — and no shade.

“We have to bring a lot of things: snacks, sunscreen, something to do,” she said. “Start talking about what we need to be comfortable on the beach and make connections with plants and animals.”


She recommends using a field guide so adults and children can look up and learn about things they see.

At the beach, Jones picked up a stick, which was destined to become the “tide stick.”

Any stick can be used, she said. Place one end in the sand when you arrive, marking where the waves stop, she instructed.

“When we leave the beach, we’re going to notice the change,” Jones said. “We can see how the tide is going in or going out.”

The tide stick can provide teaching moments about the tide, Jones said. One way to explain the tide to children is that ocean water comes up farther on the beach, then recedes because of the moon’s gravitational pull on the oceans and the Earth’s rotation. 

Binoculars, magnifying glass


In addition to pails and shovels, bring a magnifying glass and binoculars, Jones suggested. 

“Let’s look at the sand,” Jones said, picking up a pinch of sand and holding it under her magnifying glass. “It’s tiny, tiny pieces of crushed rock,” which have eroded, she said.

Higher up on the beach, the pieces of sand are bigger.

“It’s more recent rock and is less eroded and churned by the water,” she said.

With binoculars, “you get to see the islands out there,” Jones said. “They broaden your scope of how big the beach is.”

As Jones peered through the binoculars, looking out toward the water, she saw a bird.


“It’s a Canada goose,” she said. “That’s cool.”

Creating a “beach museum” is another must-do, Jones said. 

The number of objects in the museum can depend on a child’s age and attention span. Jones drew a big square on the sand and announced we would start with four objects found on the beach.

One was a red rock, another was part of a shell. The third was the red shell of a crab. The fourth was up to me.

“Find something really cool,” she directed. “Then we’ll try and identify it.”

I picked up a piece of fat seaweed.


Once our artifacts were inside the lines on the sand, Jones pulled out her Ecology School Field Guide that explains ocean plants and objects. (You can order one online for $12 at

Examining the crab and comparing it to a drawing in the field guide, Jones identified it as a rock crab, which is native to Maine — and delicious. 

The pinkish body’s shape and number of points on the outer shell confirms its identity. Rock crabs are under attack by the invading green crabs, Jones said.

“They’re bullies,” she said.

The field guide explained that the rock crab is larger than the green crab, eats mussels, other crabs, snails and worms. The rock crab is eaten by gulls, crows, fish and humans. The crab shell went into the beach museum.

She identified the shell as an Atlantic surf clam, which can range from 4 to 9 inches wide. The clams are edible, she said, but the meat is tough and is not eaten like steamers.


She identified the seaweed as northern kelp, which can grow to be 6 feet or longer.

“Kelp doesn’t live at the beach,” Jones said. “It lives at the tide pool. How did it get here? Maybe it came in the water. Let’s come up with a beach story.”

Message in a bottle

Every time Jones takes children to the beach, she makes a message in a bottle. When the children aren’t looking, she places it in the sand.

“They always find a message in the bottle — the beach is the most mysterious place!” Jones said.

Adults can write whatever message they want, she said. The message inside her glass Coke bottle was written by Brody, an Atlantic surf clam.


“Welcome to the beach dudes!” the note read. “My name is Brody. I live on the beach. It’s tough to live here. Can you find out how other plants and animals survive here? I’ll give you a hint. I like to dig. Have fun, and watch out for that sun. Sincerely, Brody.”

Another activity is to create a “sound map.” Everyone is asked to close their eyes for 60 seconds and focus on the sounds.

“Every time you hear a different sound, count it,” Jones said. “Everything counts except the noise made by the individual or group.”

Burping definitely doesn’t count, she joked. 

Some of the sounds the class heard were waves crashing, birds calling, a motor from a boat out on the water and a plane overhead.

The class drew the objects which created those sounds, on paper or in the sand. 


At the end of the beach trip, the class talked about what their five senses took in — what they tasted, felt, saw, heard and smelled.  

The No. 1 way everyone can protect the beach, besides not littering, is staying off the sand dunes, Jones said.

“That’s why we have boardwalks,” she said. “We want the dunes to stay healthy because they keep everything on the other side from coming up.”

One way to help sand dunes is when you’re leaving, grab some seaweed.

“Say thank you to the dunes by tossing them some seaweed,” Jones said. “It acts as fertilizer.”


Meg Edstrom Jones of the Ferry Beach Ecology School quizzes campers about what they found at a tidal brook during a “crabbing” outing. The kids found several green crabs. 

The Ecology School recommends taking tools to the beach to help children explore the environment: a “tide stick” to measure how far the tide has moved, binoculars, a magnifying glass and a field guide book

The Ecology School Field Guide is available at the school’s online store at

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