Learning About Coal Mining

How kids can process and learn from Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith's Town Is by the Sea

Whether you are living in a big city, rural farmland, suburbia or a small mining town in Cape Breton, there is usually a daily routine that reflects your life and the people around you. In Town Is by The Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz and illustrated by Sydney Smith, we peek into a young boy’s life as the son of a coal miner in 1950s Cape Breton.

For him, it is ordinary to wake up in the morning knowing that his father has already gone to mine coal under the sea while he lives his life in the salty ocean air above, playing with friends and doing chores and errands, waiting for his father to return at the end of the day, tired and covered in coal dust. As the boy goes about his routine, his mind constantly drifts back to his father, working hard under the sea, and the knowledge that someday this will be his destiny.

The book is written in a dreamy prose that makes the reader feel like they are following along with him as he goes about his tasks. The illustrations connect with the prose in that ethereal tone and the engaging images will intrigue and captivate children, and adults, of all ages.

This story makes a wonderful book to start a conversation with children who are ancestors of coal miners or to introduce children to the history of coal mining in the Atlantic region. Reading extension activities are ways that children explore a book by digging deeper into a story and how it may or may not connect to their own lives.


Most children today don’t know a lot about coal so a natural story extension activity is to teach children how to research, using the internet or non-fiction books, about what coal is, how it is mined and different uses for it.

A mining experience can be simulated for young children using a bin filled with pre-crushed dark cookie crumbs that look like dirt. You can even melt black chocolate over marshmallows and coat them in cookie crumbs to look like lumps of coal to include in the bin. Hide various items throughout the crumbs and then create a list (with photos if the children can’t read yet) for them to record their findings. Give children small plastic tools like picks, hoes and shovels and have them “mine” through the “dirt” to find the treasures.

As they find the items, have them note on the list what it is they found and then dig for some more. Talk with the children about the hard work involved in coal mining while digging for the treasures.


As we travel through the boy’s daily life it naturally prompts a conversation about how his life is different or the same from other children’s lives and the significant role his father’s job plays in his life. Encourage children to create their own book, inspired by the protagonist’s story, to capture a moment in time in their typical daily lives.

Work with the children to document a day; have them journal it if they’re old enough or write it down for them if they’re younger. Have them include small details about the smells and sights they see and who or what their thoughts drift to during the day.

After the day, help them write it out as a story, with a different activity on each page. Then have them draw a picture (or take photos as you go if they’re younger) to correspond to the activity. When it’s complete, bind it together and include a title page with them as the author and illustrator.

Compare it to the boy in the story’s day and talk about the things that are different, the things that are the same and what they would like to do that he does, what they would not like to do.


If you want to explore coal and coal miners’ lives even further, there is an experiment online to create crystals from coal (education.com/activity/article/Colorful_Crystals_Coal), or you can listen to some music from Men of the Deeps and talk about how they formed, or take a trip to the Coal Miner’s Museum in Glace Bay and book a tour of a real coal mine.

Written By

Heidi Tattrie Rushton is a writer, blogger, Mama and consultant living in Halifax.

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