My Wild Life: Kelly Wetherick

As our Wildbeach project draws to a close, Kelly Wetherick reflects on her time running this blend of exploration and learning on the Isle of Wight coast.

Hi I'm Kelly - I work at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust as their Wildbeach Officer. My background is in education: I’ve worked as a teacher and lecturer, but always with a passion for the outdoors and nature. I’m at my happiest when out walking my dog, and as I'm lucky enough to live on the Isle of Wight that normally involves a beach!

I started working for the Wildlife Trust as an Outdoor Learning Tutor in April 2018. In that post I delivered a few Wildbeach sessions and could see how beneficial they were - I was predominantly working with a group of home-educating families and their enthusiasm was infectious.

As I had previously worked in schools, I could see how amazing it would be for children to have the time to play and explore the beach, and how much they would learn by doing it. So when the Wildbeach Officer post become available I applied for the role, and was successful.

Wildbeach, which is part of Down to the Coast, is a National Lottery Heritage Fund project that aims to connect children and young people with their coastal environment. The group that I and my volunteers see most often are home-educating families; they have supported us from the outset, and attend their sessions come rain or shine! We also hold a regular group for under-fives and their families, and run session for children from local schools who have additional needs.

Connecting with nature is vitally important for children, as it plants the seeds for them to go through life wanting to protect and care for the natural world. For children living on an island, it is just as important for them to gain respect, understanding and affinity for the beach as a place to encounter wildlife. Wildbeach created opportunities to do this by applying the Forest School ethos - of taking a holistic approach to learning - in a coastal setting.

Freedom to explore

As the Wildbeach Officer, I am responsible for delivering the project in terms of planning, advertising, delivering and evaluating sessions. I have also worked with volunteers, recruited participants, and compiled reports for our funder. Of course, the best bit of working on a project like this is being on the beach playing!

A typical day of delivery started early, as I had to load up all of my kit and head over to wherever the session was being held that day – my favourite beach is St Helens. On arriving, I checked that the beach was safe and then marked out our activity areas. During our sessions we set out a number of activities, from rockpooling and seaweed safaris to digging for treasure and collecting shells to make a necklace.

I always took too much kit with me, but you never know if there will be a child who is struggling to engage, so I liked to be sure that I had something for everyone. The beach always came up trumps on that front too - new items brought by the tide, combined with changes in the weather, made for a different set of variables each day.

For example, an abundance of cuttlefish bones normally meant we abandoned anything I had planned; instead we would make boats and see which design could carry the most beach pebbles! A scavenger hunt to create a beach sculpture could turn up shells, seaweed, or even a mermaid’s purse if you're lucky, which could take our conversations with the children in new directions.

Similarly, if the tide was coming in we would set up markers to see how far it travelled in 30 minutes. The concept of the tides is hard for children to understand, but this shows them what it actually means in practice. That way, when we talked about dynamic habitats like rockpools, they gained a deeper level of understanding.

The beauty of our format means that nothing is prescriptive – the children chose the activities they wanted to do, and at the end we sat down to talk about how things went. Those who wanted to share what they made and achieved during the session could do so, and we planned what they wanted to do next time. It's this emphasis on the individual that made Wildbeach so successful.

Time to grow

The benefits of being outside are now well documented, and by working on Wildbeach I have witnessed them in real time. It has been amazing to see the impact that the outdoors has on young people, and it has been a real privilege to be involved in their learning.

The beach should be an intrinsic part of a child’s life here on the Isle of Wight, but it was saddening to find that this is not the case for many of our young people. Wildbeach gave them the opportunity to experience the beach and learn about the importance of the coastal environment. More than this, it gave those who struggle in a classroom environment a way to really flourish and feel at ease.

Looking back, there have been a number of individual children who have come to the beach with their own set of challenges. The calm environment of the beach and the individual nature of our set-up has meant that these children have been able to thrive during the sessions. I will never forget the looks on the faces of our most memorable participants as they had their first encounters with nature.

Individuals who were adamant they would not touch anything at the start and were collecting crabs and fishing for shrimps by the end! I recall one child holding up a magnifying pot with such glee, studying the way its contents moved. Even those who initially wouldn’t sit on the sand eventually embraced the ‘dirt’ and were digging sand sculptures with joy - the pride in their creations was evident as they invited others to view them.

By coming to our sessions, these children began to overcome their challenges and take new skills back into the classroom and beyond. Activities like Wildbeach, and Forest School, allow them to experience success, and thus develop good self-esteem. In turn they become confident in their abilities and transfer the social and emotional skills learned with us into their daily lives. Hearing this from their teachers and parents has been humbling, and I’m very proud of the team who have contributed to these successes.