Tag Archives: childhood

A tale of leaf catching…

On face value catching leaves as they tumble out of the trees should be pretty easy. Just stand near a tree, wait for a gust of wind and you’ll be able to pluck a leaf or two out of the air before they hit the ground. Job done.

Surely nothing could be simpler. If only. I remember a few years back visiting Lanhydrock in Cornwall and watching closely as family took on the leaf-catching challenge. The Mum and Dad stood rooted to the spot waiting for the leaves to come to them, remaining cool and calm. While the two boys jumped about and leaped from side to side, a bit like goal-keepers. Its an image that will stay in mind for a long time. A simple pleasure and a family having fun.

With so many distractions in life leaf catching might not appear to be the most exciting activity on the planet. But once you start you become addicted; determined to rule the roost and not be beaten by leaves as they gently float out of the sky avoiding your clutches. This is one addiction that is definitely good for you.

There I was with my son and daughter in a local park. Just waiting for the leaves of all shapes and sizes to descend. A strong gust of wind rattled the tree and down they came like a short sharp shower. Our hands cupped and ready resulted in zero leaves. Our tactics were found wanting. The leaves just weren’t playing ball. Then we changed our game-plan: charging at leaves scooping them up before they settled on the grass. This worked to some extent. Next we identified target leaves from high up as they descended and worked together to get the job done.

The family leaf-catching tally was slowly starting to mount up. We were rosy cheeked from leaping about and had that nice feeling of satisfaction of building up a steady bank of leaves. Still they came down and just when you thought that you’d got your leaf bounty they would take a sharp turn and you were left clutching at thin air.

Like collecting conkers, leaf-catching is a very seasonal wild time activity. It can be a team game or more of a solo pursuit. For me its something that brings out our personality and above all its free and fun.

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Wild things setting up wildlife clubs

At the weekend I asked my daughter how her wildlife club at school was doing. ‘Fine’ she said. All available 16 spots on this little club had been filled and demand was high.

Back at the start of term in early January I came home to find her working on the creation of an A3 poster and membership cards for everyone in a new wildlife club that she wanted to set up at school. This act of spontaneity made me smile and feel really proud. I just love it when kids use their vivid imagination to create something so powerful and so inspiring without any prompting from parents or teachers.

She talked me through the poster – the rules, the sign up list and what they’d be doing – which was beautifully illustrated (she loves drawing birds, butterflies and flowers). The membership cards, lovingly cut out, even had a password (a well-known beetle spelt backwards). When everything had been finished she asked her teacher if she could pop the poster on the door of the classroom, encouraging her school friends to sign up. The answer was an emphatic ‘yes’ and its now become part of school life for her friends.

Interest was brisk and the wildlife club now meets regularly in the playground at break time or lunch time to discuss what wildlife they’ve seen or facts that they have learnt about the natural world. Most of the discussion seems to be about what they have seen at home, in the park or on the route to school; keeping it local and encouraging them to explore where they live.

For me this shows that kids have a natural fascination with nature. It doesn’t take much to get them interested and there is something really appealing to them about wildlife; and the great thing is that it doesn’t have to be something really rare, it could be a wood lice, common garden bird or the moss on a tree.

I think that the real strength of this little wildlife club is that it has been designed by a child for children. It’s not some top-down, over thought out proposition but something that is really simple and has that appeal of coming from their peer group. All it took was the idea in the first place, some plain white paper, lots of creativity and some colouring pens.

Coastal memories

Recently I came across some photos of me from when I was about three or four years old. Three pictures really stood out and they were all taken on the South Devon coast. They show me with my Mum and Dad and Gran who lived in Exeter – either building sandcastles or going for a little wander.

On the beach with my Gran building Sandcastles

On the beach with my Gran building Sandcastles

Many of my earliest memories are from those day trips to the seaside – especially Dawlish Warren and Exmouth. Holding those slightly faded colour photos transports me back thirty years.

At Dawlish I can vividly remember the walk from the car park near the station up towards the sand dunes and the beach. First you had to pass the shops selling buckets and spades, deckchairs and beach balls before you made it to the sands. On the way back the smell of fish and chips wafted through the air and the temptation of an ice-cream with a chocolate flake was very strong.

And there was the stunning walk (though I was probably a reluctant walker aged 3 or 4-years old) pinned up against the railway on one side and the beach on the other between Dawlish Warren and Dawlish. Its a spot everyone knows now thanks to the drama of the railway line hanging above the crashing waves pretty much a year ago.

These memories of days at the seaside as children are part of our national DNA. Millions of Brits head to the coast every year. And there is a rich social history of the connections between the big cities and the nearest stretch of coastline. Begun with the expansion of the rail network and helped by the arrival of paid annual leave in the 1930s people from the East Midlands headed east to Skegness and the Norfolk coast while for the West Midlands it was Wales and especially Somerset. Its something that has been traditionally repeated across the land.

A day trip or holiday by the coast still excites families up and down the land. We took our kids to Lyme Regis for their first experience of the coast – paddling in the water and eating sand. When ever we go to a beach, whether in Cornwall or Pembrokeshire, as soon as we’re out of the car they’re off, running, laughing and having fun.

Its these powerful memories of ice-creams on the seafront, the smell of fish and chips or the laughter of children that enrich of our love of coast.

Paddling in the cold Atlantic in August, clambering over rocks to a hidden part of the beach or a car full of sand create those moments that we cherish and talk about as families. But its also a shared collective experience with people that you’ve never met before for those few hours that you have become a community based around that one place at the seaside.

Recently I spent time on the Exe estuary watching Brent geese fly in formation across the silver winter sunshine drenched mudflats. This was a place I knew well growing up and it felt good to be back; partly through nostalgia and partly through the freshness of the coast that day.

The seaside towns and the miles of golden sand that we visit as children and adults, though constantly changing, are a constant in our lives. Somewhere where we can vividly imagine a past of happy days and a place that we can return to physically or in our daily thoughts.

Reclaiming our natural words…

Words shape our history and our story. They provide the tools that allow us to create the narratives that define us.  Words are important because they give us the ability to capture the colour and scribble descriptions that connect us to the world that we inhabit.

And no where is this so important as the words that children learn as they grow up. That is why it really matters for the natural world that 50 words about nature and the countryside have disappeared from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Its something that needs to be reversed for the sake of our wild places and green spaces and for future generations.

At a time when the decline in the connection between kids and nature is well documented it doesn’t help children that they’re not able to discover more about the words that describe wildlife, the countryside, woodland and the coast. We need to do all we can to encourage children to see the importance of nature for their lives and words and phrases help equip them to do this.

In the last seven or eight years the Oxford Junior Dictionary has replaced many words that we took for granted such as catkins, conkers, otters and kingfishers with cut and paste and broadband.

As naturalist and writer Mark Cocker says: “Children need access to nature as never before in history. An Oxford Dictionary aimed at seven-year olds should go out of its way to help them.”

Yes technology has changed all of our lives beyond recognition. When some of the words disappeared from the dictionary back in 2007 smartphones and tablet computers didn’t exist and social media was in its infancy. In the last eight years there has been a digital revolution where technology has displaced alot of things in our lives and this is true of screen time taking over from wild time.

If nature is to stand a chance in an age of headlines about declines in the natural world its going to come from reconnecting kids to nature. Children are naturally drawn to wildlife and it can fire their imagination. But the absence of conkers from their dictionary, something that generations of kids have collected and played with, is a very sad state of affairs.

Our stories and memories are shaped by experiences that are captured in the words we write and speak. We need the diversity and beauty of the English language to give children the vocabulary needed to describe what they see and hear as they grow up.

That is why its so important that we support the campaign to get these words that are part of our DNA and enable us to describe the natural world back into the next edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

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.

Wild Things: reconnecting kids and nature

This is a longer posting than normal as it appeared in the November/December issue of The Bath and Wiltshire Parent magazine.

“Seeing thirty kids running wild is a wonderful sight. They are all in their element, rosy cheeked with almost limitless sources of energy; running, climbing, hiding and making. This was the scene at a birthday party in the hidden world of Mike’s Meadow, a parcel of land attached to Batheaston Primary School. Used as a place for the Forest School it can be hired out and one of the departing parents neatly summed up the experience – ‘this was the best party that my son has ever been too’.

Kids have a special connection with the outdoors, giving them a real sense of freedom and allowing their imagination to run wild. Hearing their laughter and the noise of them excitedly running about collecting conkers or rolling down a hill is pretty special. It’s giving them the experiences that will help equip them for the journey of life.

However, the pull of the outdoors has more competition that a generation ago. This was confirmed by an RSPB survey that showed that only one in five children has a connection with nature. The reasons that this change has happened pretty quickly are complex from the rise of screen time to more traffic on the roads.

It feels like change is in the air and that Bath and Wiltshire is at the heart of this movement for reconnecting kids with nature. More schools than ever before are running Forest Schools (they have exploded in popularity in a couple of years), outdoor clubs during school holidays are really popular and den building events sell-out almost as quickly as tickets for Glastonbury.

Steve Sutherland set up Hidden Woods three years ago hoping to recreate the experiences that he had in his childhood for today’s kids. Set across 80 acres of ancient woodland it’s a place that kids can roam free, get muddy knees and get that little bit close to nature.

Steve explains: “There’s a growing awareness of the importance of unstructured outdoor play on children’s development. Whilst the research suggests that today’s children spend much less time doing so than their grandparents did, our experience at Hidden Woods is that they’re always stimulated by the environment and instinctively know how to entertain themselves away from all the screens and modern day distractions.

“We regularly observe the benefits that such rich child-led experiences deliver – greater self-confidence, improved communication and physical skills to name but a few. It’s a real privilege to be facilitating and sharing such powerful experiences in our wonderful natural playground.”

Parents always want what is best for their children and the evidence is stacking up that time spent outdoors and in nature is a key way to help kids grow.

Teachers, GP’s, play experts, local authorities and politicians are also seeing the wider benefits of outdoor time for children.

Time playing outdoors can improve children’s physical activity rates fourfold compared to playing formal sport. Playing in green space helps to reduce children’s blood pressure and enhance their physical development, a counter to the more sedentary lifestyle associated with screen time. Perhaps the most compelling stat is then three-quarters of children feels happiest when playing outside, helping them to connect with the natural environment and sleep well after all of that fresh air.

Teacher Sally Searby runs the weekly wild and muddy club and organises forest schools at St Stephen’s Primary School in Bath. These hugely popular outdoors sessions help kids experience den building, climbing trees and making fires in a safe environment – giving them skills that will last a lifetime.

Sally Searby explains: ‘Forest Schools are all about exploring and experiencing the natural world through practical activities. The activities that take place build on a child’s innate motivation and positive attitude to learning, offering them the opportunities to take risks, make choices and initiate learning for themselves.”

It’s not just formal learning where change is happening. Bath and North East Somerset is one of two councils in the UK to adopt the risk-benefit approach to play. This new model is about looking at both the risks and benefits. Jeremy Dymond, who has over-seen work on play in the city, says: “Children have a natural tendency to explore, have fun and take risks. This is a part of growing up and something we all want to encourage safely. Safety should not equal boring.”

The council has designed a toolkit to help people working with children to make play fun and exciting and weigh up the benefits of being active, creative, out in nature, and the improved health and wellbeing that this would offer, set against the real, yet reasonably low risks of playing outdoors.

Luckington Community School in Wiltshire has recently revived its playground with three beautiful tepees surrounded by wildflowers, creating a magical place for children’s imagination to run wild. Schools across the county are being supporting by the County Council as part of its Outdoor Play Project – showing how local authorities, with the support of local communities, can make a huge difference.

Conservation charities are also upping their game. The Avon Wildlife Trust and National Trust are both part of the Wild Network, a movement of over 1,500 organisations committed to reconnecting kids to nature and outdoor play.

Locally the Bath Skyline, much of which is managed by the National Trust, now has a fantastic natural play trail which is proving a huge hit with families. It allows kids (and parents too) to have a go at clambering, climbing and building in the woods.

I’m glad that my children have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. Seeing their faces as they watch a spider in its web or their huge appetite for collecting conkers brings a smile to my face. They love being outdoors, like all children do, having the chance to explore, the chance to engage in imaginative play and the chance to see nature close up; and it’s helped me see the world anew from their viewpoint.

So, why not give your kids the gift of wild time this Christmas. The experience of being outdoors will create an experience that will stay with them for life and there is something magical about being in the natural world with your children whether collecting treasure on a walk or finding a river to play pooh sticks.”

Photos, memories and childhood

I was tidying out a cupboard when I came across a carrier bag full of stuff. I stopped what I was doing and began going through its contents. It turned out to be a bag full of memories with some photos I’d never seen.

Two pictures stood out for me. One with my Mum and me looking back, as we walked down a country lane. The second was a picture of me and my Dad on Dartmoor.

I’d never seen these pictures before but they transformed me back to my childhood. A click of a shutter (these were the days of film long before digital) captured on camera a moment in time that 30 years on stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking about the amazing power of photography and the role of the outdoors in my childhood.

Photography shapes the way that we see the past. Long after the event a picture reminds us of a time long forgotten or a cherished moment in our lives. They help us tap deep into our minds to find those memories from years gone by.

Mum and me wandering along a country lane

Mum and me wandering along a country lane

Seeing the picture of me and Mum looking back to Dad as he takes the picture has unlocked a vivid memory of Sunday walks in the country. We’d often set off for a stroll, what-ever the weather. In this picture you can see that it’s been raining and looks fairly damp. We look really contented, even rosy cheeked; showing the power of the countryside and fresh air to lift the spirits. That puddle in the distance looks pretty tempting to me and you can get a sense of the journey ahead as the path meanders in to the distance. I keep looking at this picture and it makes me smile. Job done!

Standing in front of Haytor on Dartmoor with Dad

Standing in front of Haytor on Dartmoor with Dad

The picture of Dad and me is taken on Dartmoor with Haytor in background. As a kid I spent many happy an hour on the moors climbing up to the tors, having breakfast in a sheltered spot or looking out for the ponies roaming the unforgiving countryside. This snapshot of time shows that the outdoors is in my DNA. I’ve always had a love of the countryside and nature which has grown in recent years but this small colour photo shows that it’s been a constant in my life. In the picture you can see that the weather is fairly typical for Dartmoor with the wind wiping across our faces but we look happy and ready to battle the elements.

For me these two pictures neatly sum-up the importance of the outdoors to childhood. You get a real sense of adventure whether in one of the national parks or walking down a country lane near to where you live. You can feel the full force of the elements and create those snapshots in time that can fuel a lifetime of memories.

And I look to my life now, taking my kids out into the countryside on mini-adventures, safe in the knowledge that they’ll look back on their childhood as fondly as I do now these pictures have come to light.