Category Archives: family

Swallows and Amazons 2.0

Seeing all of the posters promoting the new ‘Swallows and Amazons’ film made me think how much the ability of children to roam free will have changed since the book was published in 1930.

December 023

Kids need their nature time and once they get a taste for it they are hooked

Barely a week goes by without new stats being published about kids spending less time outdoors than ever before and the impact that this will have on their well-being and the skills needed for life. If Arthur Ransome were alive today would his equivalent book be all about a group of kids marooned in their bedroom playing minecraft for weeks on end with little or no connection with the outside world.

You could argue that Ransome’s vision of a ideal summer spent mucking about on an island in a beautiful lake in Cumbria is a Utopian vision that never really existed. However, reams of research shows that children’s connection with the natural world and spent time outdoors has diminished drastically in the last couple of generations.

I spent alot of time outdoors when growing up. Every time I went out to play my Mum would ask me to make sure that I was home by tea time. I disappeared off into the countryside and had amazing adventures with my friends. This was only in the 1980s and yet it feels very different today. There are a plethora of barriers that have led to children becoming almost invisible playing outdoors or in local parks.

And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Why shouldn’t every child have a right to the kinds of experience that the children in Swallows and Amazons had, where ever they live in the UK, and that millions of Britons had when they were growing up? I don’t want to be part of the last really free-range generation.

The brilliant thing is that once kids get a sniff of the outdoors they’re hooked. Children have that deeply natural sense of adventure and thirst for learning (something that seems to be educated out of many people). The boom of the Forest School movement and the rise of campaign’s by charities such as the National Trust and Wildlife Trust is making a difference. Places on den-building days or adventure courses will often sell-out as quickly as tickets for Glastonbury.

I know from my two children that they love nothing better than wandering through a wood, playing in a stream or hunting for crabs in a rock pool. We need to unleash that inner wild child in every kid and let them discover the simple joy of being outside.

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Nature’s guide

A couple of years ago I came across an old well thumbed copy of the Observer book of wild flowers. In the digital age its easy to forget the power and wonder of a tactile thing such a book.

As a kid I would spend hours looking in books to find out more about the world around me. One of my daughter’s favourite books, which is just about holding together, is a children’s encyclopedia. Its something she goes back to time and time again.

Recently we were sent a 1973 copy of booklet called ‘Spotter in the country’. It might look a little bit dated now but the words that jump out of the pages are all about inspiration, encouraging observations of nature and importantly having fun. Something which can be easily overlooked is that spending time in the natural world is one big adventure with lots of fun and constantly discovering new things.

These simple spotters guides have played such an important part in connecting generations of kids to the natural world. One of our naturalists at work came in with copies of a ladybird guides to the four seasons in four beautifully illustrated books. They told a wonderful story of nature through the seasons with barely a fact in sight. They’ll be out of print now but it feels as though it’s time for a revival.

And don’t forget that these are the books that have inspired the wonderful group of writers penning such fantastic poetry and prose about nature.

The premise of these often pocket sized books was about presenting information simply. Taking these books on days out or flicking through the pages to identify a plant or butterfly was all part of the experience of learning about wildlife. The words used were accessible and they took you on a journey of learning without realising it.

Turn on a computer or visit a local bookshop and the choice of guides to nature is huge. There is a wonderful array of information at our finger tips but kids connection with nature has been in decline for the last 30 years.
I’m worried about the desire to have too much information and too many facts. What is needed is to tell a story about nature, tapping into that innate sense of storytelling which is such a fundamental part of being human. Kids need to be drawn into nature and they have a natural fascination with nature that needs to be unleashed by creating a story related to the wildlife that they see every day.

Wouldn’t it be great if every seven year old in the UK got a copy of a wildlife spotters guide, helping them to identify some common species of trees, plants, birds, insects and mammals.

It would be a story of things they might easily see and a first step into the wonderful world of wildlife, encouraging them to stop, look and listen; and perhaps most importantly talk to their friends about it.

Kids at this age are like sponges, absorbing a huge array of information and I reckon that there would be a real sense of excitement finding out about the trees in a local park or the butterflies in their garden.

A Wild Time memory box…

By now some of the New Year’s Resolutions will have been broken but here is a suggestion that should keep you going during the year. Its good for you, is loads of fun and is free.

A Wild Time memory from my childhood on Dartmoor with my Dad

A Wild Time memory from my childhood on Dartmoor with my Dad

If like me you get to the end of a year and struggle to remember everything you’ve done outdoors, unless you keep a diary or have a photographic memory, I have a solution for you.

The Wild Time memory box. All you need is an old ice cream container or jam jar. Cut up some strips of paper and every time that you come back from time outdoors write down some of the things that you did.

Its kind of simple really and is a great way to keep a note of all of those wild experiences that you had. It could be just for you or for a family.

I experimented with one a couple of years back and it was great to look at the contents of the box and be instantly transported back to the places that you’d been. It doesn’t just have to contain stuff from holidays or big days out. You can include things from everyday experiences – in a local park playing tag or exploring some local woods and hugging or patting a tree.

The act of writing things down (and not taping away on a computer or tablet) seems to add something to the recording of activities and experiences. It could be some sort of phenological notes (the first of the season, when things come into flower, spotting the first swift etc) or doing something that creates a wow moment. And you can let your creative spirit flow with little drawings, by you or the kids, or the odd photo.

My daughter walking through Kensington Meadows in Bath looking for frosty leaves

My daughter walking through Kensington Meadows in Bath looking for frosty leaves

And as the memory box fills up you could start to set yourself monthly or weekly challenges. And why not get your friends and family involved sharing your experiences when you meet or via social media challenges.

Throughout our lives we have a blend of experiences that create a cocktail of memories that will last a lifetime. We’ll remember some things very clearly while others fade away. A Wild Time memory box is a great way to keep them in your consciousness and then when you get to end of the year you can write them down in a notebook or pick the favourites from the year (and you can look at them when ever you want).

Its something that I’ll be doing with the kids in 2015. Yes the spontaneous nature of digital photography means its easy to capture things you see and do on camera. But the act of physically writing something down connects you in a rich way, thinking of the words or images to capture an experience or a place.