Reasons to Get Outdoors: The Alternative List

My twitter feed has been going mad today with the launch of the Wildlife Trusts’ Every Child Wild campaign, which aims to get everyone talking and sharing ideas on how to ‘put the wild back into childhood’. There have been some great ideas, articles and quotes shared using #EveryChildWild, which indicates that there are plenty of people willing and ready to engage with the issue. Loads and loads of great reasons to get outside and take advantage of the huge impact time in nature can have on children’s health, development and wellbeing.

Chances are that none of the information in those tweets will come as a surprise. We may not have the statistics at our finger tips, but most of us can list plenty of the reasons experts say we should be outside. It’s just that when its cold, wet and windy, or we have chores to do, or we’ve had a long day, those lofty reasons aren’t quite enough to push busy parents out the door. So here is my alternative list of reasons to take the kids on adventures in the wild – for those days when the more worthy ones just aren’t cutting it.

1) Keeps the house tidy (ish)

Anyone who has spent longer than 5 minutes in the company of a toddler know what havoc they can cause to a tidy home. Cupboards opened and emptied, toys tipped out all over the floor, the clean laundry thrown down and stamped on, the pasta relocated to your handbag… an inquisitive toddler on a rampage can turn your whole house upside down and inside out, leaving you behind picking up the pieces. So the less time you spend in your house, the less tidying up there will be to do. They can chuck leaves, throw sticks, and splash water all they want in the great outdoors, with no tidy up required (obviously do pick up any rubbish though – I don’t want to encourage littering!)

2) Makes them sleep better

Naps going a bit wonky? Toddler fighting bedtime? Chuck them outside and let them run around madly to get rid of the extra energy. Fresh air has an amazing tiring effect on small (and big) people. Hopefully leaving you more time to watch the Apprentice get some chores done.

3) Saves the entry fee for soft play

There are some great toddler classes and soft play centres that can keep your toddler entertained. But they (almost) all cost money. If , like me, you are saving the pennies, one of the big draws of adventures in nature is that they are free. Of all the things I have written about on this blog, the only one that cost any money was Countryside Live (ok, Hackney City Farm did costs us two cups of tea and two slices of cake, but we didn’t have to have them.)

4) Manages the tantrums

We are just beginning to enter the world of toddler tantrums, so I’m aware the worst is still to come. Generally though, tantrums or tears seem to occur much more frequently indoors. There is something about being outside and having physical space that seems to create the mental space to deal better with big emotions. And if a tantrum does occur, it is much easier to stay calm, acknowledge feelings and patiently empathise if you are in a wild space without a whole bunch of other people staring and tutting (yes, I know they don’t really. But it feels like it).

5) Keeps you all warm

Only really relevant at this time of year maybe, but one of the unexpected advantages I’ve found of spending more time outdoors is that we feel warmer when the weather is cold. We wrap up well before heading out, and are generally pretty active once outside (even Tom generally gets a run around). This keeps us warm when we are out and, when we come back in, the house feels warmer in contrast with the outside. As a result, we need to have the heating on less often (and aren’t in the house to use it anyway) which bring us back to saving the pennies. We have now turned the heating on here, but only for an hour in the morning, and more so that some of the mountains of wet laundry might actually dry than for our comfort.

So there you have it, 5 alternative reasons to spend more time outside this autumn. Can you think of any I’ve missed?

You Baby Me Mummy

Outdoors in East London with a Toddler: Millfields Park

One of my favourite day-to-day walks is a loop that takes us over the Marshes, under Lea Bridge Road, and across the canal to Millfields Park. We almost always stop in the park to let Tom have some time to play and explore.

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It’s a good, wide open space, split into three by Lea Bridge Road and Chatsworth Road. As well as tennis courts, a cricket pitch and an athletics track, it has a children’s play area in one corner and wooden gym equipment (pull up bars, balancing bars etc) scattered around. One end is bordered by a canal, which you can follow on to nearby Springfield Park.

We rarely use the play area, which is aimed at older kids than Tom, but the open space, with gentle slopes and the occasional tree, is perfect for crawlers/newly toddling toddlers. It’s also the site for Clapton’s new forest kindergarten, Free Range Urban Kids. Sadly they don’t seem to be accepting children as young as Tom, but I’m keeping an eye on their plans to see if it might be an option for us in a couple of years.

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We’re going on a…crab hunt?

The book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, was one of my family’s favourites growing up. We had the CD, which we used to play in the car on long journeys, and even as adults my siblings and I will recite parts of it.

I love it as a parent as well. It has a great rhythm for reading out loud, is a good length, and best of all, it introduces lots of different environments, complete with sound effects.

So when Tom woke up unnecessarily early from his afternoon nap on Saturday, I decided to make use of our extra time and take him on a bear hunt*.

We set off with Tom on the buggy, teddy in tow for hunting.

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Unfortunately, Tom had other ideas, preferring to ‘hunt’ a plastic crab rattle he had found in the bottom of the buggy. So our bear hunt turned into a crab hunt.

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We hunted crabs in the long, wavy grass.

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And by a deep, cold river (ok, so we didn’t go in. It’s October!)

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Lack of rain meant no mud could be found, so we had to settle for some dirt at the foot of this tree.

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But we did discover a big, dark forest.

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It’s a little early in the year for snowstorms, and the closest thing we could find to a cave was the underpass under Lee Bridge Road. No way was I letting Tom out of the buggy there! All in all though, we had a great time, put the book into a real life context, and explored areas I wouldn’t usually head for. And of course we read the book when we got home.

*Although I had thought of doing this before, I also spotted this fantastic post on things to do outdoors in the autumn, which helped to inspire me: http://www.sunhatsandwellieboots.com/2013/10/50-outdoor-activities-for-kids-this.html

Life Unexpected

Barriers to Wild Time #2: Risk Averse Culture

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Like every parent, I started worrying about Tom from the moment I knew I was pregnant. Once he was born, that worry only intensified. He was so small and so vulnerable and the world seemed so full of things that could harm him.

Thankfully, I am surrounded by very practical, down-to-earth people. And some (long) time after Tom’s birth, I emerged from the sea of overprotective-new-mother hormones with at least some of my rational faculties still intact. That doesn’t mean that my heart isn’t still in my mouth every time I watch him making his perilous way upstairs, or negotiating his way down from the armchair in his room. It just means that I remember to swallow the words ‘watch out’ more often and fight back the urge to interfere.

I really do believe that it is impossible to learn without making some mistakes. Like all new toddlers, learning to walk is meaning a lot of falls for Tom. But I’ve learnt to let him fall (unless it would mean serious injury), because otherwise he will never learn how not to fall. And a kiss and a cuddle soothes most bumps.

This attitude of trusting Tom to be able to learn from his own mistakes has been a great help in overcoming the perception of the risks found in the natural world. Especially when Tom was a bit younger and everything went straight in his mouth. Here are a few things I have found helpful when spending time with a baby outdoors:
1. Taste Safe
When Tom was first able to crawl, and could suddenly escape from the protective blanket to grab everything within reach and try to eat it, I found it really difficult not to snatch every single thing out of his hand. Eventually, I taught myself to differentiate between things that are dangerous (poisonous plants, small stones, dog poo etc), things that are ‘taste safe’ ie. fine to lick but not to swallow, and things that are harmless if swallowed (edible plants such as dandelions, grass, clover etc.) Most things actually fall into the ‘taste safe’ category. Fortunately, most of them also don’t taste good, so are quickly spat back out again. Interestingly, once I relaxed and let Tom mouth more things (keeping an eye out in case it looked like they were about to be swallowed), he soon decided that most things in the park weren’t worth eating. He still likes a good blackberry though and the odd dandelion will occasionally disappear…

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2. Embrace the dirt
Along with relaxing about Tom putting everything in his mouth, I have a very chilled out approach to him mucking around in the dirt. Granted, some does get eaten, but only minuscule amounts and there may even be some advantage to this.

3. Pick your Spot
So that Tom can get on with exploring without me jumping on him every few moments, I scout out an area before we settle down. I avoid anywhere I can see dog poo , cigarette butts or large amounts of rubbish, pick up smaller bits of rubbish (I carry a spare plastic bag in my handbag just for this purpose), and try to choose somewhere that has a good amount of space, so I’m not constantly dragging Tom away from a bank of stinging nettles.

4. Allow Some Distance
According to the Nature Play website, most children have a ‘safety line’; a distance which they are prepared to go from you. Experiments with Tom suggest that this line will be just a little bit longer than what you would be comfortable with! However, I have found that he won’t go more than about 5 or 6 metres from me – a distance I can easily cover if he gets into a sticky situation. I can also see most of what he is doing, but am too far away to be tempted to interfere with every little thing. It’s taken some time for me to get used to this, and I am still not entirely comfortable with him being so far away from me, but he has never caused himself any damage and ‘checks in’ with me regularly (glances over to check where I am or comes over to show me something he’s found).

Wild Baby

Ultimately, I think that overcoming our perception of the outside world as ‘risky’ to babies and young toddlers takes time and requires a shift in attitude. Once you see your baby as a capable small being, able to learn from his mistakes and act in his own best interests, it is easier to accept that the risks are not really as great as they first seem.

The Natural Play website has some great advice for enabling babies and toddlers to explore freely outside: http://www.nature-play.co.uk/guidelines.html

Celebrating Autumn

I know, I know, officially autumn started on 22 September which is a couple of weeks ago now. But I just woke up on Saturday feeling autumnal. And the leaves have started to fall around here (though not actually change colour yet) and it definitely felt like weather for jumpers and long walks and cups of tea.

So what better way to celebrate than a foraging walk through the woods? I am, at best, a very novice forager, but our local patch of woodland makes it easy by having plenty of easily identifiable munchables…I mean plants.

We were lucky to find some late blackberries (Tom’s favourite).

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Sadly, the apple tree was looking pretty bare, with only some rotting ones left beneath.

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But we did score some hawthorn berries (I would have picked more but Tom was bored and wanting to move on).

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I’ve never used them before but have been experimenting with some blackberry vodka, so will expand my hedgerow drinks collection to include hawthorn vodka (not exactly kid-friendly this, unless you are looking for ideas on engaging older teens with nature…)

I also spotted some rosehips, but by this stage Tom was getting antsy and wanted to escape from his cruel torture device (aka the buggy).

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Despite the rather rough path, he enjoyed crawling around, and also practiced pushing the buggy for a bit.

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I love this time of year. Very thankful to live somewhere with proper seasons!