Literacy and Outdoor Play


I have a friend who is a primary school teacher in a fairly typical inner city school. In fact, she is not just a teacher, but also head of literacy, despite only having been a teacher for three years. She is passionate about engaging kids with books and that just shines through when you talk to her.

A few months ago, we were chatting about the importance of reading to kids. She told me about reading the Gruffalo with one of her classes. She hadn’t got past the first page when one of the kids interrupted. To ask why it was dark in the forest. None of the other kids could work it out either.

Why? Because these are kids who have never played in a wood.

They don’t know that trees block out light to make forests dark. They have no personal experience to fit these stories into.

I don’t think anyone would deny that learning to read is important. But my friend’s experience shows that outdoor play is a key part of fostering a love of books. Kids need to experience the physical world in order to let the imaginative world of literature take shape. To learn that trees cast shadows. To learn that grass swashes and mud squelches (especially when hunting bears).

It works the other way too. Books can provide a framework for creative outdoor play. Tom and I have hunted bears (well…ok… multicoloured plastic crabs) on the Walthamstow Marshes and enjoyed windy day play with Carol Thompson’s Wind

Experiencing firsthand the wonders of nature is integral to encouraging literacy in kids. And vice versa. Plus, who can argue with a love of books and a love of nature as worthy things to nurture in our kids?


A New Park and a Winter Picnic


Brr, it has been chilly the last few days. It’s taking me much longer than usual to get Tom and myself dressed in the mornings – we’re both wandering around wearing enough layers to be cosy in the arctic!

We’ve been trying not to let the cold scare us off going out. Mostly pretty successfully. We’ve walked to and from nursery every day that Tom goes, he and Mr Techno have started their weekly nature club, and Tom and I spent a great weekend wandering around the Marshes and Springfield Park.

Wednesday is my day off, and Mr Techno had to work, meaning family day has had to be postponed until Sunday. Irritatingly, the parcels that were supposed to be delivered earlier in the week hadn’t turned up, so we had to make a trip to the sorting office, a half hour walk away. As Tom has taken to napping late into the afternoons, it had to be a morning trip, which wasn’t going to leave us much time to get there and back before Tom wanted lunch.

I was determined not to give up our outdoor playtime, so had a good look on Google maps and spotted a little park close to the sorting office; one we had never been to before. And so a plan was hatched – we’d pick up the parcels, have a play in the park, then have a winter’s picnic before heading home for Tom’s nap.

The park turned out to be pretty small, with not much open space. But that didn’t matter at all as it had a huge play area. My one complaint about our local park is that even the toddler equipment doesn’t have easy to climb steps, so Tom needs help using it. No such issues here – there were perfect Tom-sized structures.



After a good play, we settled down on a bench to enjoy a sandwich and grape lunch.


By this point we were both pretty cold, despite our layers and the winter sun. So it was time to walk home for cuddles and naps.

I’m glad we made the effort to fit in some outdoor play and discovered a new park into the bargain!

Life Unexpected

Baking with a Toddler


I love to cook. And I want Tom to share that love. So I’ve been impatiently waiting for him to be old enough to start getting involved in the kitchen. He’s now 16.5 months and I thought I’d give it a first try.

Obviously anything involving cooking over the hob or sharp knives is out at this age. Which really just leaves baking. I had no eggs, and bread is a bit time consuming for a little one, so we went with biscuits as the best option.

I try to feed Tom a healthy diet. He gets ‘dessert’ after lunch and dinner, but it’s a piece of fruit or a small yoghurt. We don’t really have snack food in the house. Having said that, I don’t see anything wrong with the occasional treat, especially if it is something homemade. Otherwise I worry he will see those foods as forbidden, which will only make them more attractive.

I decided on peanut butter biscuits. Mainly because we had the ingredients already. Since Tom was going to have to stand on a chair to help, I got everything we needed together before we started.

Tom watched with interest as I measured out flour, then sugar, and tipped them into a measuring bowl. I couldn’t persuade him to help with this part, but he did find the tipping very funny for some reason.

He was more interested in helping with the butter and peanut butter. And by helping I mean eating. He managed to grab a handful of peanut butter before I could stop him, but I got the butter away in time.

Once I had the butter and peanut butter a bit more mixed into the other ingredients, he lost interest in trying to eat them and got involved with helping me mix. He really enjoyed this bit and kept looking at me and grinning. He was even more pleased when I put the dough out onto the table and showed him how to sprinkle flour over to stop it sticking.

For some reason, Tom got quite cross when I started rolling the dough out, and kept trying to take it away from me. I think he was enjoying patting it. He got back on board for the cutting bit though and, once I had showed him what to do, very much enjoyed placing the biscuits on the baking tray. In fact, he enjoyed it so much that he kept taking the offcuts and putting them on the tray too.

The biscuits had a few fingerprints and were a bit misshapen, but for a first effort I’m pretty proud of our baking trial. We had a couple of them each after Tom’s dinner and they were yummy. I look forward to baking with Tom a lot more in the future!

Inspiration for Outdoor Play Area

We are incredibly lucky to live in a London flat that actually has a garden. So I feel guilty that we rarely use it. Tom and I get out every day to the Marshes, or a park, or for a walk by the river, but I very rarely take him to play just in the garden.

One reason for this is access – we live on the first floor, which means we have to go down our very steep, narrow, dark back stairs to get out into the garden. If we want to take any toys out with us, it means taking two trips (one for toys and one for Tom) or being organised enough to pack up a bag. And if we are going to that kind of effort I would rather be getting further away from home.

The other reason is that I find the space, frankly, uninspiring. We are spoiled with so many great green places on our doorstep, so I tend to head for them when planning a trip outdoors. Our garden, on the other hand, is not exactly large. There are some plants, kindly provided by our downstairs neighbour, who is a keen gardener and has over-spilt her own patch into ours. And we have a table and chairs from our last flat. Otherwise, there’s not much to recommend it.


Or so I thought. But after getting locked out of the flat last week (see tomorrow’s post), I realised I had been looking at the space through my eyes rather than the eyes of a toddler. What to me is a small, boring patch of paving, is to Tom a wonderland of things to explore and play with. He doesn’t think it’s boring – it’s small enough for him to feel safe, and big enough to offer plenty of opportunities for exploration.

We went down on Monday afternoon, taking some scoops and stacking cups and a small tub of water with us. I thought we might get half-an-hour before Tom got bored. Not a bit of it. We were still out over an hour later, when the light started to fade, and he was showing no signs of boredom. He’d played with the water and toys, explored the area, then spent ages putting snail shells into different stacking cups and ferrying them around the garden, into the water and out again. In the end it was me who took us back inside – it was getting dark and I needed to make his tea.


So that is all the proof I need. It’s time to invest some effort into making the garden more of a play space for Tom, which I will then be inspired to use on a more regular basis. I’ve already spied out some spare bricks and bits of wood that should make the basis of a mud kitchen. And there must be something we can do with all the tin cans that I’ve been reluctant to throw away.

Anything we do will have to be low-effort, low-cost, and temporary, as we rent the flat rather than own it. So I’m starting a Pinterest board to give us ideas (you can find it here) and would love to hear any suggestions you might have.

Engaging Toddlers with Nature: 16 Months

I realised the other day, when I was writing one of our weekly reports, that I have developed a standard repertoire of different ways to engage Tom with green spaces. Most of our outdoor activities are variations on these themes. As Tom grows and develops, we’ll drop some and add others, so I thought it would be helpful to have a record of what worked well at each age. Here is what we do currently:

Going on a walk is probably the first way most children will be taken outdoors. I’ve been going on walks with Tom since he was only a few days old. Obviously he wasn’t doing any walking of his own at that age though, so walks with him have changed a bit since he started to toddle. Broadly speaking, we now go on three types of walk;

1. Parent-led – these are walks that we take more for my benefit than Tom’s. He will typically be on my back in the sling or buggy, facing outwards, so that he has a good view. These are the longer walks we take, usually at least an hour long (though ideally more). I do always try to have a break where he can get down and have a bit of a run around too, but mostly he is a passive observer on these walks. I chat to him as we go about what is around us, and he has started pointing things out as well.

Christmas 2015_691

2. Child-led – these are walks where I give Tom control. Usually I will pick a spot (the Marshes, our local park or woodland) and get us there first, but after that the direction and speed are up to him, with me following along behind. The only time I interfere is if he is heading for something dangerous, like a road, or if we need to start heading home for a meal or sleep. Typically these don’t last longer than half-an-hour, involve a lot of stopping, and cover very little ground, or sometimes the same bit of ground over and over and over. They are also conducted at a frustrating slow pace – sometimes I have to run round and round him in circles to burn off my own energy and quell the urge to hurry him along. Apologies to the family I surprised in the woods a few days ago whilst doing just that!


3. Walks with a theme – more rarely, we will go on walks with more of an aim than just getting outdoors and being active. Examples include our autumn foraging walk, our bear/crab hunt, and foraging for Christmas decorations. I’d imagine we will do more of these as Tom gets older and the novelty of just going for a walk wears off a bit.

Trips and Visits
Especially when Mr Techno is home, we like to have a bit more of an outing and visit places outside our usual haunts. Sometimes the weather means that we end up going to a museum or heritage site instead, but wherever possible we head somewhere outdoors. City farms are a favourite – we loved our visit to Hackney City Farm a little while back. We also like to keep an eye out for local events, and enjoyed a great visit to Winterville before Christmas. When we get the chance, we also like to escape to the countryside to visit friends or family and explore new areas. These trips don’t always go smoothly – one day I will have to write about our failed visit to the Olympic Park in Stratford – but generally make for some great family bonding time.

I am not at all a fan of the typical, hard-top playground with static equipment. Fortunately there has been a real move away from that kind of thing in our area and the Waltham Forest and Hackney Councils have both invested a lot of money in developing natural play areas, many of which are suitable for young toddlers. Our favourite is Leyton Jubilee Park, which is very close to our flat. We visit at least once a week. Once there, I tend to let Tom potter about for a while, doing his own thing. He loves to investigate the green gym equipment, follow other kids around, and try to climb the slides. Before we go he usually gets a go on the swings and the slides, both of which he loves. My only issue with this kind of play for Tom’s age group is that he still needs my help to use the equipment, so has less opportunity for self-directed play.

Free Play
Sometimes the best times outdoors are when we head out with no agenda in mind. I find an open green space in a local park or on the Marshes, and find myself a spot to be our base camp. Then Tom is free to roam, or just to sit with me if he prefers. We take no toys or distractions with us, just use what nature provides (trees are a favourite!) I stay put at our base camp as much as possible, so as not to influence Tom’s play. The only times I interfere is if he falls and hurts himself, if he is headed for a road or other danger (which is rare as I try to pick spots away from such things, though I do sometimes have to stop him chasing dogs), or if he is about to move out of sight. I try not to worry about his distance – he always checks back to see where I am and never goes beyond where I can get to him within a matter of seconds if I need to. The one thing I do have to say is that this kind of play was easier in the summer, when I could sit on the ground without getting soaked. In winter, I recommend taking a waterproof to sit on, and wrapping up warm as it can get cold staying in one spot too long.


Messy/Water Play
This typically takes place in our little patch of garden, as I am not organised enough to pack supplies to take with us elsewhere. Muddy play is the usual favourite, and we also did a lot of water play when it was warmer. High on my wishlist for our garden are a mud kitchen and a proper water table, but for now we are just using plant pots, or an old washing up tub for water. Gather together some containers, scoops and pourers, plus mud or water, and off you go. Some mud always gets eaten, but doesn’t seem to have done any harm…


Playing with the Weather
Although I don’t always manage it, I try not to let rain or wind keep us indoors. We’ve had a great time in the past playing in the rain, splashing in puddles, and experimenting with different materials in the wind. This is definitely something I want to do more of as Tom gets older and begins to understand the principles more. There have been some great ideas mentioned in the ‘Whatever the Weather’ linky (hosted by two lovely ladies – Jenny at Monkey and Mouse  and Chloe at Life Unexpected) which I fully intend to steal in due course.

When I was first looking for outdoor playgroups in our area, I was disappointed to find that most started from 2 and up, which was no good for my little 1 year old. Fortunately, our local Forest Nursery have started a 0-3 nature club, which I have signed Tom and Mr Techno up to. They are starting in a couple of weeks and I’ll let you know how they get on. For those without a handy outdoor nursery (which I guess is still most people), some branches of the Wildlife Trusts run clubs for under fives. You could even start your own – I’ve recently been in touch with another local mum who is trying to start a sort of picnic club in one of our local parks come spring time. Assuming it gets off the ground, there will be more details in a few months time.

Nature Based Arts and Crafts
I am not very crafty, but I enjoy it all the same. Tom is really just getting into painting and drawing, so we recently experimented with making our own Christmas decorations. Since these were a success, I’m planning more nature based crafts in the future. This is another area I expect him to get more and more into as he gets older.

That essentially covers the range of activities we do to engage Tom with nature. What activities does your family enjoy?

Life Unexpected