Tag Archives: children

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.


Its time to play…

Play is an essential part of growing up. As kids we learn so much from the time that we spend playing; it has a kind of informality that appeals to children and can make a massive difference to their development. It fires the imagination, creative thinking and that sense of team work, without feeling like they are in a classroom. It’s also time for children to be children away from the adult world.

And yet in the last generation there has been a steep decline in natural play. Kids playing in the street or local park was once a common sight. No longer. The reason why this has happened so fast is down to a huge range of factors including the rise and rise of traffic and the temptations of screen time.

The new research out on the legacy from the Olympics and a lack of people taking part in sport is probably as much about kids not playing in their streets, whether football, cricket or tennis, as much as the cost of going to sports facilities. Think about where you grew up and the amount of time you spent playing with friends in your road and then fast-forward to now and the almost complete of kids playing out.

But things are beginning to change. There feels like a quiet play revolution is happening. Communities are fighting back. Parent are starting to see the importance of unstructured play in their kids lives.

The rise of forest schools, natural play trails and bucket lists of things to do has certainly helped. I remember chatting to a National Trust ranger who said that as soon as they advertised a den-building day the places sold out almost as fast as tickets for Glastonbury. At another Trust event in deepest Somerset kids from Taunton and Bridgewater spent the day chasing butterflies and racing snails, giving them an outlet for running about and having fun that has become restricted in many places.

And it’s not just happening in rural areas. Councils are looking at their attitudes to play and risk. People are coming together to close their streets so that the kids can play outside the front door. The city farm movement also plays an important role in giving children and families access to a little bit of the countryside in urban areas.

It will take time to see real change. But on play day 2015 there are grounds for some optimism. We can’t rest on our laurels and we’ll need to continue our hard work. But the momentum feels like its shifting and now is the time to start to grapple with some of the really big barriers such as traffic, making green spaces accessible and giving people the confidence to have a wild time. Every kid should have the right to play and as adults we have the duty to make that happen.

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.”

We don’t need no education…an open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education

Dear Secretary of State,

Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Education. It’s good to see the MP for my former University town of Loughborough taking on this vital role in Government.

To me it is one of the most important roles in the cabinet – creating an environment where children can flourish, have fun learning about their world and equipping them with the skills for a lifetime.

The start of the summer holidays is a good time to reflect on the state of education in the UK. As a parent of two kids, aged seven and four, I have a sense of the pressures facing teachers and also the impact upon our children.

A debate seems to have begun about getting our children to start their school years earlier. I’ve even read about kids starting their formal education aged two. To me this seems like we’re trying to create a production line of children purely focusing on them as economic units rather than human beings. It’s almost as though we are trying to create widgets rather than well-rounded and socially minded citizens.

Children want to play and play (or informal learning as it’s sometimes known) can be as important to their development (in terms of the basic skills they need for life) as time spent in a class room. We want children to have a childhood rich in memories and a sense of adventure and discovery. They’re natural sponges soaking up a wealth of information and there is a need to make sure that we help on this journey of learning, which will hopefully last a life time.

In many other European countries kids start school at six or seven years old. Yes they have a formalised child care set up for pre-school years but they seem to have very different motives. Germany is always held up as the economic powerhouse of the European Union. And yet children start school much later than in the UK and they seem to be doing ok.

There is a real danger that we are going take the child out of childhood. It is so important to get the pace of learning and the nature of learning right – a tricky balance I know.

The whole issue of parents not being allowed to take their children out of school during term time is another example of micro-management and the meddling in the lives of families. Does it really matter if a five year old misses a few days or even longer to go on holiday or visit family? Having a newly draconian way of making it an offence is a sure fire way to alienate millions of parents in the UK who will always do the right thing by their children.

Children as you know have boundless energy. They are always on the go; moving on to the next thing. However the way that the school day and year is going is draining them of energy. Kids shouldn’t feel pressurised or unhappy at school…after all these are the best days of your life. Piling on the homework or introducing more testing my work for the manufacturing line but not when it comes to human beings.

Let’s, for the sake of children, parents and teachers, have a period of consolidation. Creating a permanent revolution in education isn’t the way forward; it has to be creating an environment where learning is fun, kids are encouraged to enjoy school and parents aren’t left to pick up the pieces.

I wish you well in your new well and hope that you use the summer holidays to reflect on the benefits of the merits of a fallow period of new measures and getting things right.

Yours sincerely,
Mike Collins

Two year olds just want to have fun

Is it me or are they getting younger these days? No I’m not talking about the teachers but school children if the idea floated by Ofsted comes to fruition.

They have been doing a bit of good old fashioned kite flying. Some wise policy wonk in a darkened room deep in London has come up with the idea that children should start school at the age of two. Yes that’s right – aged two.

We’re in danger of losing out in the competition stakes they argue and need to get kids learning when they can barely walk and talk.

It seems that learning now is all about a production line: trying to hothouse children, pushing them harder and harder from an early age. As we slip down the international league table for educational performance the answer, the Government would have us believe, is to get them through the school gates earlier.

Aged two kids just want to play and they need to play. Surely we can’t be serious about parachuting them into a classroom environment – presumably sticking them in front of iPads.

Travel north east to Finland or Sweden or east to Germany and kids don’t start school till they are six or seven. Yes they learn through nurseries and outside the ‘classroom’ but there isn’t the pressure put on them at such a young age.

The mother of a German friend of ours, who used to be a teacher, is horrified about how we teach our children from such a young age. Germany and Scandinavia do pretty well in the learning league tables and yet their kids start formal education 2 or 3 years later than in the UK.

Informal learning for young kids is a good thing and needs to be an essential part of the mix. They learn loads from imaginative play and having the space and time to draw, make and create. Spending time outdoors is also really important for their personal development: there is something special about ‘unstructured’ play in a wood or a green space where children find their feet. They discover, collect and try out new things.

We need to get the nature of learning right for children allowing them with the support of parents and teachers to grow and flourish. But without loading too much on them when they’re so young.