Art and Design

Kids Clean Up and Make Art at Ocean Beach

May 20, 2011

How do you get 500-plus kids to sit still on the beach? Tell them a helicopter is about to fly overhead and take their collective photograph, and that by the way, they’ll also be on television.

On Thursday, May 19, students from five schools in Marin and San Francisco counties fanned out across Ocean Beach armed with milk jugs, orange juice containers, and tennis ball cans. These second- through fifth-graders–from Bahia Vista, Edna McGuire, Ulloa, Sunset and Willow Creek elementary schools–were participating in Kids’ Ocean Day, a coordinated West Coast beach clean-up hosted by the California Coastal Commission.

As the kids sifted through the sand for litter, a DJ spun techno tunes to help keep them motivated. Meanwhile, artist Carter Brooks and several volunteers flagged the outline of a giant bat ray and the phrase “Turn The Tide.” At the end of the day the kids would literally become art, using their bodies to fill in the outline of the impressive image.

Excited shouts echoed across the beach as kids found items for their containers. In their enthusiasm, some of the kids neglected to discriminate between trash and “nature-made” items like driftwood.

Kids with beach trash they've cleaned up
Hundreds of kids gathered to help clean up Ocean Beach on Friday, May 20, 2011. Photo by Juliet Grable.

“I found a feather!” shouted one third-grader from Willow Creek Elementary in Sausalito.

“A feather is not garbage,” teacher Valerie Sprecht shouted back. Sprecht is an Ocean Day veteran, as are many of her students.

“We look forward to it every year,” she said.

Ocean Day is about more than collecting trash. The event is part of the Coastal Commission’s Adopt-A-Beach Program, which is funded by the Commission’s “Whale Tail” license plate sales.

Event coordinator Wendy Dalia, who is also education director for the Richardson Bay Audubon Center, says classroom presentations before the event teach kids about marine debris.

“We focus on the connection between the watershed and the ocean,” says Dalia. For instance, marine debris often starts out as land-based litter that ends up in creeks and storm drains. The lessons focus particularly on plastic, which takes a long time to break down and is especially harmful to wildlife.

While some kids covered a lot of ground, others took a different tack. Karen Lam, a teacher from Sunset Elementary, drew a large square in the sand and instructed her second grade class to stay within its perimeter. Not only did the square help Lam keep tabs on her kids, it forced them to search more carefully.

“That’s what the birds like to eat,” said one of Lam’s students, pointing out a neon-blue plastic straw.

Among the items kids collected were straws, plastic bags, food wrappers, bottle caps, cigarette butts, and countless unidentifiable plastic bits. They also collected a prodigious number of rusty nails, left over from lumber burned in bonfires.

Kids sitting on beach for aerial art
After the beach cleanup, the kids lined up on the beach to create a giant image of a bat ray on the beach (see aerial photo above). Photo by Juliet Grable.

The kids worked hard, but snuck in some fun, too. More than one spontaneous sand castle popped up on the beach, and many kids took a break from litter patrol to ham it up for the cameras.

After a sack lunch on the sand, volunteers helped arrange the kids on the bat ray outline, which Conservation Corps North Bay/AmeriCorps intern Andrew Frostholm designed. After a few minutes of anticipation, pilot Kevin Lozaw and his chopper buzzed into view. Soon the enormous sand creature began to wiggle, but not before the kids’ big statement was captured on film.

Dalia says she was pleased with how smoothly the day went, and with the weather, which was overcast but mild. Last year rain had threatened to cancel the event. To see more pictures from Kids’ Ocean Day, check out this website: If you would like to help ‘Turn the Tide” next year, contact Dalia at

About the Author

Juliet Grable is a freelance writer with one foot in southern Oregon and another on a sailboat in Sausalito.