Category Archives: natural play

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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Park life

I’m sat in a park, well more of a square, in central Leeds, on the hottest day of the year. Its full of life…people chatting, reading books or just chilling, kids play with the sent of roses filling the air. This small green space in the centre of one of the great northern cities shows why parks matter: it’s a place where you get a real sense of community.
It might be a well worn phrase but parks are our green lungs. We have the Victorians to thanks for the rise of public parks. They quickly became hugely popular as places to promenade and get away, on high days and holidays, from the intensity of a six day week.
Personally I can’t imagine a world with out parks. For me they are great democratic spaces where the full spectrum of life gathers regardless of income or status. In urban Britain with its squished in houses they matter for countless millions. People spill out into parks during the working week to get some green space time.
A weekend in our family rarely goes by without a trip to our local park. Children really value them as places to roam free and meet new friends. The concept of the park is so simple and yet is under threat.
Cuts to Local Authority budgets means that in the cold light of squeezed finances it is becoming a case of park life vs social services. As park budgets shrink we are in danger of being the generation that oversaw the end of parks as we know them.
Parks are so much more than a green space and we need to defend the important role that they play as glue bringing communities together. They are places to meet, places to dream, places to switch off and places to play. We need to stand up for parks before its too late and look at ways of keeping them open for everyone.

Wandering along Bath’s skyline

Bath is a pretty hilly place, which means that it has the advantage that if you get into the right spot you can catch some amazing views of this world-famous Georgian gem.

The lie of the land also means that while one minute you can be in the heart of  the city, in what feels like just a few footsteps you’re then deep in the countryside.

The Bath Skyline walk is a six mile circular route to the south of the river
Avon. It hugs the contours of the land, climbing high into places that
you feel like people have never been before. While I’ve walked the skyline
many times, it sometimes feels like this is a secret route only familiar to
Bath residents. Yet it has proved to have enduring appeal for thousands
of ramblers who have kept it top of the National Trust downloadable
walks poll year after year.

The great thing about a walk like the Skyline is that it can be divided
into sections that are manageable for families. Taking my two children,
aged 5 and 8, around the whole route would be a good day out.

You’d need plenty of stops and a rucksack full of snacks and lunch.
There are certainly plenty of things to keep the kids interested en
route from amazing ant hills to follies and the fantastic new natural play
area in Rainbow Wood. The sections where you climb out of the city
might be testing but nothing that a jelly baby-inspired quiz wouldn’t
solve. So it’s worth planning ahead and thinking about where you start
the walk or whether you maybe aim to complete it in sections.

In the autumn Bath looks spectacular. That golden glow of the low afternoon sun and the changing of the leaves as they turn red, yellow or brown is pretty special. There is also the promise of some blackberry picking along the walk.

Starting somewhere near to Bathwick Hill always seems the best option for walking the whole route, plus it has the advantage of getting the big climb out of the way first.

As you pass Smallcombe Farm you really do feel a world away from a busy city and that you’re in the heart of the Cotswolds. Walking up the hills, it’s worth remembering to simply stop every now and then and take in the fantastic views. I always find that a treasure hunt or encouraging children to take pictures as they go keeps up the momentum for trickier parts.

As you reach the flatlands above Bath you’re just to the east of Prior Park. This landscape would look very different today if it wasn’t in Trust hands as it had been eyed as a location for development in the 1960s.

The undisputed highlight of the Skyline walk is getting nearer. In the last few years the creation of a natural playground in Rainbow Woods has been a big hit with families. Before you get to the old quarry, check out the lovely little
fairy doors trail and then the energy levels of the children will rise as they spot the den-building area, rope swing and assault course.

This is a great spot for some lunch and about half way around the walk. If you have younger kids then it’s probably best to plot a shorter walk based around the natural play area. For families walking the whole route I’d definitely recommend some sort of quiz and treasure hunt.

Leaving Rainbow Woods you pass near to the Bath Cats and Dogs home, round  the back of the University and through an old quarry before emerging with
fantastic views of Solsbury Hill.

It’s all downhill now past Sham Castle, which is worth a detour, and through a patchwork of small meadows. In the autumn some of the walk can be pretty muddy so walking boots or wellies are the order of the day.

The Bath Skyline is for me one of those walks which can become part of a family memory bank. You can give parts of the route family names and as the children grow they will start to spot the richness of the landscape and get to know a lovely
city and its green and pleasant land.

This blog first appeared in the September/October edition of The Bath and Wiltshire Parent Magazine