Are you taking a trip to the beach this summer? If so, here are ideas on how to use some of that time in a shoreside science study. You can modify your study based on whether your beach is sandy or rocky, as each one offers a different aspect of shore life.

For an in-depth study, bring along a magnifying glass (or low-power stereo microscope), gloves, containers, and a notebook for recording your observations. Use paints, crayons, markers, or colored pencils to combine art with the science lesson and capture some of the color of the seashore. And if you’re at a rocky beach, you might want to bring along a small water net for fishing specimens out of tide pools.

Using the magnifying glass or low-power microscope, look at a sample of ocean water for tiny creatures and plants. You’ll probably see a variety of marine diatoms and dinoflagellates (very small algae) and protozoans (one-celled organisms). You could also take a sample of water home, and look at it under a high-power compound microscope, using a concave slide, to see greater cell detail.

Birds are an easy part of shore life to observe. Look at the birds on the beach and in the water. What do their bills look like? What about their feet? How do they get their food? If you have a field guide for identifying birds, see if you can figure out which species each one you spot belongs to. It might be helpful to have your children “classify” different sea birds—what characteristics would they use to decide how to group them?

On sandy beaches, look for tracks, insect life, burrowing animals such as clams, bristle worms, or sand crabs, and jellyfish and seaweed that have been stranded on the shore.

On rocky beaches, the shore “anatomy” is very different. You might see plants growing on rocks, tide pools with water plants and animals, and even limpets clinging to the sides of rocks. Look for mussels, rock and hermit crabs, clusters of anemone, and perhaps even starfish and coral in a tide pool.

If you’re at a sandy beach and you don’t mind the risk of coming home with a carful of “treasures”, let your kids collect driftwood pieces, crab shells, sea sponges, and other interesting specimens that catch their eyes. Try a family scavenger hunt with lists you’ve prepared— draw pictures for very young children, or perhaps only write out scientific class or family names to challenge older children. When you’re finished, draw some of the specimens in a notebook. At a rocky beach, you should be more selective in what you pick up. It’s a good idea to wear gloves when picking up a specimen—some organisms can sting.

The fun doesn’t have to stop when you leave; in addition to shells, there’s usually algae (seaweed) along the beach, that can be brought home and preserved by pressing it. If it’s not already wet, dip the specimen in water, then arrange it on a piece of paper with a sheet of waxed paper underneath. Cover with a piece of paper and another sheet of waxed paper over that, then press the whole set of papers and specimen between several heavy books. You’ll need to let your algae specimen dry for several days at least before it’s ready to remove from the “press”. Frame the specimen, or paste it into a notebook with its scientific and common names.