Did you collect special things when you were a child and keep them secretly in a box so you could look at them when no one was around? I had a shoe box and inside was the bird skull and breastbone I found in the garden. It was a very small bird with delicate white bones and I had to wrap these delicate things in the tissue paper from round my shoes to stop them getting broken. We used to go to Wales for holidays quite often because that was childhood home to my mum, staying by the sea in a caravan or B&B. The week that stays in my mind was Caswell Bay with sand so hot you couldn’t walk on it with bare feet. The reminder was a worn sheep’s tooth from a Welsh hillside where we walked while my mother talked about travelling down to Mumbles on a train that went so slowly you could jump off and pick flowers on the way. The sea shore is reflected in fragments of blue sea glass, whelk shells and a mermaid’s purse. The fossilised sea urchin still sits on the bathroom windowsill. We had to buy a memento too with our pocket money and my brother and I spent hours in a shop poring over little animals made of shells. The tortoise fashioned from a limpet shell with cockleshells for feet sat on my dressing table for years before the glue slowly dissolved and its feel fell off. But I still have the wonderful green onyx egg that I rescued from a white elephant stall. I’m still hoping it will hatch.
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What I like to see happening as children grow up is the development of a spirit of enquiry. I’m intensely interested in how we can help children not just to collect information but also to wonder how things work and ask why things are as they are. Books are one tool we can use, but certainly not the only one of course. When my children were small I had a collection of pictorial guides to living things and as soon as they could match shapes they could match a plant or animal they found with the pictures in the book. They were too young to read but matching shapes and patterns develops quite young. So at three years old they could identify the whelk shells we found on the beach, groundsel plants that the guinea pigs liked to eat and butterflies that settled on the buddleia. So which books could be helpful when you’re on the beach? First of all, make sure the book you choose is showing UK fauna and flora. There are lots of American books on the market which may be beautiful but not much use in the UK. Usborne non fiction books for children are well known and their Shells title in the Usborne Spotter’s Guide series has just about the right level of complexity for children … and lots of adults too. I'd be interested to hear from you if you can recommend any other titles.