This year, don't think of your family beach vacation as just a time to swim. That sun-drenched stretch of sand is a giant playground where your children can learn about nature, play games, and do craft projects that will let them bring home mementos of your fun-filled days together. No expensive equipment is needed to embark on these ten activities. They're nice and simple. So put on your bathing suit, make sure you're all wearing plenty of sunscreen, and get set to have a fun day in the sun.
1. Photograph Beach Treasures
Give each child his own disposable camera for the day and let him take pictures of whatever he wants. The caveat: only one camera per youngster. Kids will learn patience by waiting for good photo moments. Explain that it's important not to let sand get into the camera and that it should be kept in a plastic bag in your tote when not in use. Later, develop the pictures and encourage your photographers to arrange their best shots in a special photo album or scrapbook. This is a great way to preserve happy memories!
2. Construct A Sun Shade
This is an easy way to teach about the sun's trajectory. You need four long, pointed sticks or bamboo poles from a home-and-garden center, large rubber bands, markers, and a sheet. Before heading out, let your kids decorate the sheet with colorful designs. At the beach, measure off an area a few inches shorter on all sides than the sheet. Drive the sticks into the sand where you have marked off the corners. Knot a corner of the sheet around each pole and secure the knots with rubber bands.
Once your sun shade is in place, youngsters can learn about shadows during the course of a day, says Tom Peters, director of a resource center for science and mathematics teachers at Clemson University. "Follow the sun's shadow during the day, and you'll see that it changes its angle," he says. "The shadow is longer in the morning and shortest at noontime." Each child can pick one pole and mark off the change in shadows every 15 minutes with shells, making a graph of the path of the sun.
3. Explore A Tidal Pool
Just after high tide, when the water recedes and pools up at the ocean's edge, is the best time for this educational observation. Look for small sea life like starfish, snails, and other mollusks. Think of tidal pools as minicommunities filled with living creatures that should be treated with respect. Ask your child what he sees, what different roles these organisms might play in that little community, and how he thinks they manage to stay put when the tide goes out. Starfish, for instance, have rows of small, suckerlike projections and attach themselves to rocks. You may want to find a library book on the subject and read it together.
4. Design A "Zen" Sandbox
Take a sturdy box (even a shoebox works well) to the beach with you. Fill it with clean sand, spread out evenly. Kids can collect shells and stones and use them to make a garden. They can design different groupings by maybe arranging pretty shells in one section of the box, colorful stones in another, and so forth. It's relaxing to look at and doesn't need to be watered!
5. Decorate A Kite
You'll need: wooden dowels (one-quarter inch or less in diameter), found at hardware and art-supply stores; a large brown paper shopping bag, cut open and flattened, or colored paper; markers or stamps and an ink pad; a stapler; crepe paper; and string. Make two lengths of dowel, one longer than the other, by scoring them with a knife and then breaking them on the cut line. The lengths depend on how big a kite you want: we suggest dowels of 36 and 18 inches. To form a cross, cut a groove in one dowel where the two overlap. Lay the other dowel in the groove; secure with a metal twist-tie (the kind that come with some garbage bags). Lay the cross on top of the paper. Mark off a diamond shape by drawing lines connecting the ends of the dowels; then add about one inch all around. Cut out the shape. Place the cross on the paper and fold the edges over about one inch; staple the edges. Staple the paper to the dowels. Let your child decorate the kite. Cut strips of crepe paper and staple to the kite for a tail. Tie string securely where the dowels cross and have a contest for the highest flying kite or the one that stays up the longest.
6. Create A Shell Necklace
You'll need smallish shells and colorful dental floss. Look for shells that have a tiny hole at one end so that you won't have to drill holes in them. Let kids string the shells onto a length of floss, tying a knot through the hole on each one to secure it in place. Tie the ends together. Want to get fancy? Kids can paint the shells before stringing them. Or if you have colorful, mini-pom-poms or large beads on hand, encourage your budding jewelry designer to alternate them with the shells.
7. Make A Tape Recording Of The Waves
The best time for this is when the waves are noisy, so go before a storm or during high tide. Have your child stand close to, but still a safe distance from, the water's edge. Put the tape in the recorder, press "record," and have her hold the mike directly in front of her. She might want to sing along for part of the tape. Play her masterpiece at night and don't be surprised when the relaxing, rhythmic sounds help her fall right to sleep!
8. Play Tic-Tac-Toe In "Wave Time"
You need two sticks and a level stretch of wet sand where, say, every tenth wave washes over it. Step one: Draw a giant tic-tac-toe board in the sand by making two vertical lines crossed by two horizontal lines. Step two: One player draws "X's," the other "O's." Take turns making the letters on the board -- the first person to get three X's or O's in a line (vertically, horizontally, or diagonally) wins. Time is of the essence. You must finish the game before it gets washed away by the next wave!
9. Craft A Driftwood Boat
Find some of your materials at the beach: driftwood, flat stones, reeds, and sticks. Bring other supplies: string or wire and a plastic bag. First, sandwich a stone (the keel) between two long pieces of wood (the hull). It should be in the center and protrude downward. Sandwich a smaller stone (the rudder) an inch from one end of the hull. Place a large stick (the mast) between the two stones, sticking upward. Tie all of this together tightly with string. To balance the boat, tie one end of another large stick to the hull at the base of the mast at a 90 degree angle. At the other end of this stick, tie a piece of wood parallel to the hull. Punch holes in a plastic bag and weave a thin stick through the holes. Tie the top and bottom of the sail to the mast and the top of the mast to each end of the hull. Now your boat is ready to sail.
10. Have A Scavenger Hunt
Give each child a bucket with a camera like the Polaroid I-Zone or the OneStep Express and a list of things to find. Include items that can be placed in the bucket, like sea glass, shells, and stones. But for a twist, add some things the kids can't take with them -- a red beach umbrella or two girls in blue bathing suits. The scavengers use the camera to take pictures of these items to complete the list. The first one to collect all the elements and arrive back at home base (your beach blanket!) wins. Have the older kids "buddy up" with younger ones; little players should have parents accompany them on their search.