Many of us believe that a strong engagement with the natural world is vital for our children’s development, but amidst our busy lives, the wet boots, cold hands and uncomfortable over-trousers, how can we make it happen?
The many wonders of our technological age have undoubtedly presented the ‘simple pleasures’ with some stiff competition. Digital devices and TV are little short of addictive and a child who chooses the woods over screen time, is a rare beast indeed. So, before anything else, designate some time purely for outside fun, free from the distraction of phones and tablets.
Happily, millennia of human evolution has ensured that despite the pull of technology, children are still fully charged up with natural instincts and the deep-rooted drive to get out, seek food, water, shelter and warmth, can be a powerful motivator.
Kids don’t need educating to love the countryside, just the opportunity and encouragement to let their instincts kick in.
One such childhood instinct is an uncanny ability to sniff out a fake, so if you are hoping to inspire your children with natural wonders, it helps to be enthusiastic yourself.
A bird feeder in the garden is a good start. The children will soon pick up on your interest in the different feathered visitors and before long, with some help from a decent book, the whole family will be able to identify a selection of wild birds. With a shared passion for twitching, the family walk will now hold a new level of excitement for young and old.
With time set aside and a developing family appreciation of nature, we can now look at a few practical tips for unlocking those inner cave children. Food is a serious driver for most little ones and any country activity which incorporates eating is likely to be a resounding success.
Foraging then, is a great activity when it comes to getting children excited about being outdoors. Safely identifying and sampling even a few of the basics, such as sweet wild strawberries (fragaria vesca) whilst out and about can take things to an entirely new level.
However – if foraging isn’t your thing – anything food related, such as a picnic planned and packed with the kids and eaten in a special place, is always a winner.
As we work through the cornerstones of human instincts, it’s useful to remember that not being cold is another essential ingredient to children relishing being outside. Of course, children should be dressed in warm, comfortable clothes but this potential negative can also be used in imaginative ways to inspire and motivate them. Camp building and fire lighting are always popular and if it is a little cold or damp, the edge of ‘necessity’ will have the kids rushing about with great focus as they gather materials and kindling.
Hunting is another strong instinct, and although many would not choose to have their children pursuing live quarry, this very real urge can be harnessed in other ways. The good old scavenger hunt is a case in point and to hunt for objects such as feathers, acorns, and snail shells, with a prize at the end, is an exciting way for youngsters to engage with the natural world.
Finally, an attraction to danger is another childhood trait that can be drafted into service. From years of working with children, I have discovered a simple truth. Whittling a stick is ‘boring’ whilst whittling a long stick to make a spear is ‘amazing’. The impression of danger can be very inspiring (as long as in reality the activity is safe and well supervised). When planning kids sessions I incorporate as many fires, weapons and traps as I can.
Through my business Rural Courses I have worked with many children and I am always pleased to share my ideas. I hope that as the days lengthen, they may inspire you to get out and involve your children in what is after all, their natural world.
Michael White, founder of Rural Courses, was born and raised in the country and loved it so much that he stayed to build a self-sufficient life for himself and his family. The skills and techniques he teaches are those he uses daily to sustain his way of life and his knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject ensures an inspirational and informative day.
For over fifteen years, Michael has run courses and workshops introducing hundreds of adults and children to a host of country activities from his ‘Rural H.Q’ near Cranbrook. He has always had a particular passion for foraging and just to prove that it really is possible to live off the land, in 2009 Michael walked in excess of 300 miles from St. David’s, Wales to his home in Kent living exclusively on wild foraged foods.
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