Philippa Statter, Environmental Education Officer for Groundwork Hertfordshire, has delivered a variety of outdoor play activities with parents and their children.
It’s taken me 10 years of working with children to fully realise that humans were born to play – whether young or old. When playing, some of the best learning happens. There’s pressure for parents to buy the best toys or electronic gadgets for their children but there is already a whole world of natural toys out there waiting to be explored. Children and adults love nothing better than to explore…
I grew up by the coast so was extremely lucky to have the beach on my doorstep but my fondest childhood memories are of being out in the garden. I was never happier than when I was outside in my little den in the compost heap, making mud pies. I was particularly proud of creating a red hair dye for my Cindy doll and I’m sure my parents got fed up of finding the leftovers of my flowery perfumes festering on the shelf! Things don’t change; I now work with parents and children to spread the word about outdoor play and its many benefits.
It’s hard for parents to find the balance between spending the time you would like to with your children and how much time you actually have. Outdoor play is free and you only need a little bit of time and a patch of green space. Most of us have access to the outdoors, whether that’s your own garden, a park or a grassy area with a bench! Of course the number one priority is that your children are safe and the best way of ensuring this is to make time to go out and play with them.
Okay, what do you do with just you and your children and some grass?
Top tip 1: Let the children lead the way (but also lead by example yourself).
Observing what your child enjoys doing is the best way of tailoring the activities you do with them. Leading by example is also really important. My midwife friend told me, “A child is only born with two fears: a fear of falling and a fear of loud noises. All other fears are learnt.”
So when your child spots a spider scuttling away or a bee feeding on a flower, encourage them to enjoy the moment!
Top tip 2: Use simple everyday household items.
Free or low cost items make great toys. Empty yoghurt pots and sticks mean you can mix potions and kitchen roll tubes make great telescopes. If you have a pestle and mortar (or a bucket and a rolling pin!), you can make natural paint by crushing leaves or berries and adding water. (See top tip 4 for more info.)
Children love collecting things don’t they? Give them an empty egg box, yogurt pot or plastic bag and see what interesting things you can collect together… Encourage them to look for nature’s rubbish – things that nature doesn’t need any more, like fallen leaves, seed cases and berries. The best bit is that at the end, everything that’s been collected can just be thrown back into nature!
Top tip 3: Let your children get dirty!
If they can relax into playing and exploring without needing to worry about mud or grass stains, it’ll be a lot more rewarding for everyone. If you need more convincing, read this interesting article from the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ben-greenfield/germs-kids_b_4951388.html
Top tip 4: Focus on what is safe rather than what’s not!
When you’re in a public space it’s always worth giving the area a quick sweep with your eyes and feet to check for any hidden undesirables.
Once you’ve done that, you can concentrate on having fun. If you’re worried about what is safe to pick, here are some pointers:
Berries that are red, orange or yellow are a natural warning sign. Only pick berries if you definitely know what they are. Blackberries, hawthorns, elderberries and rose hips are all good. Keep your eyes open for prickly leaves. If your child does get stung by a stinging nettle, it’s not the end of the world.
Nature’s rubbish on the ground indicates what nature does not need any more so that’s a safe bet – you can pick it up without damaging the plant or animal that shed it!
Of course, this is all with the caveat of taking the necessary precautions to avoid triggering any specific allergies that your child has.
Top tip 5: Be risky in play.
If your child wants to climb a tree, roll down a hill or jump from one rock to another, then reward their courage and support them with the challenge! We have to deal with risk in life and, as a parent, you can manage this best for your child. Children grow up fast and being more adventurous with choice is an advantageous skill for later in life.
Top tip 6: Be prepared for all weather.
We are naturally more engaged with the outdoors when it’s warm and sunny (a rare occurrence in this country, I know!) Remember the expression, “There’s no such thing as bad weather; only bad clothes.”
Your child will be happy out in the cold air if they are wrapped up warmly or out in the rain splashing in puddles if wearing wellies and a waterproof. For more fantastic ideas as to what to do in wintery weather check out the Wild Weather Book by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield.
Now, I hope you feel inspired to grab your coats and wellies and explore the outdoors through your child’s eyes!
Groundwork Hertfordshire is the community charity with a green heart. We are committed to changing places and changing lives. We work to improve people’s prospects, create better places, and encourage greener living and working. Visit www.groundwork.org.uk/east for more information.