Shell collecting is a wonderful pastime. It doesn’t cost a thing, and it is full of possibilities for pleasure and learning alike. Children love shells because they are safe and easy to pick up, they are great for decorating sand pies, or for making into pictures in the sand. Challenges can also be thrown down: who can find the biggest or the smallest shell on the beach? How many different kinds can you discover? Who can find the most brightly coloured? The smoothest? Which is the prettiest shell of all? The possibilities are endless.
Young children are also fascinated to learn more about shells, especially when they discover that these beautiful objects are a creature’s habitat. You can explain that shells are made by molluscs – animals with soft bodies and no bones. For this reason, they build shells on the outside of their bodies, to protect them and keep them safe inside. They don’t keep changing their shells and replacing them with larger ones as they grow, but they live in the same shell, making it bigger as they get older. When your child finds an empty shell on the beach, it is because the mollusc that lived inside has died, and the discarded shell has been washed up with the tides. So we are not causing any harm to an animal when we pick up an empty shell, but it’s important to remember that if your child picks one that has a creature moving inside it, they should leave it where it was found. It’s also wise to explain to your child that lifting rocks to see what is underneath may disturb or damage marine creatures, because it is probably home to lots of animals, including molluscs inside their shells.
If you are visiting foreign shores, you may find different types of shells washed up on the beach. But be careful. The balance of nature is a matter of concern to us all, and there is also a word of caution when it comes to shell collecting. In an increasing number of countries there are local regulations that restrict or even prohibit the collection of shells, and it is important to check what rules apply to any coastal area you are visiting. International conservation agencies advise that where shells may be collected, only a limited number should be taken away from any beach.
The greenest approach is to enjoy finding the shells, but to leave them on the beach afterwards. Children can spend endless hours happily decorating sandcastles with shells, and making interesting patterns using shells on the beach. Children can do some sketches of their favourite shells or take a digital photo so they have a permanent reminder of them.
However, there are times when they really want to take their shells home. If this is the case, a great time can be spent searching for the most perfect examples – your child can then select the best single shell of each kind to take home. In my experience, children are always happy with this thoughtful compromise, and parents can feel satisfied with their own responsible approach to an activity that will always be cherished as a wonderful childhood memory.
Ingrid Thomas is the author of The Shell: A World Of Decoration And Ornament
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