Introducing your children to new experiences and seeing their delight and wonder is one of the joys of parenthood. From squelching your toes in mud to chasing after grasshoppers and butterflies on a summer day, these are the memories your children – and you – will cherish into their adulthood.
Being in the natural world brings excitement, life-enhancement and a chance to learn – when a child’s interest is piqued by nature, they are open to discovering more. As Tim Gill, childhood play expert, explains so eloquently: “Climbing a tree – working out how to start, testing for strength, feeling how the breeze in your face also sways the branches underfoot, glimpsing the changing vista through the leaves, dreaming about being king or queen of the jungle, shouting to your friends below once you’ve got as high as you dare – is an immersive, 360-degree experience that virtual or indoor settings simply cannot compare with.”
Yet our children are becoming increasingly sedentary, risk-averse and hemmed-in, with a knock-on effect on a whole generation’s emotional, physical and mental resilience. It’s been dubbed ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. A National Trust report, Natural Childhood, discovered that children spent so little time outdoors that one in three could not identify a magpie; half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp; yet nine out of 10 could recognise a Dalek.
We certainly don’t want the wonders of nature exterminated from our children’s lives, so let’s get out and enjoy it together.
1 Rock pools
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Poking around in tide pools on the beach (armed with a bucket for your best finds) is one of the best parent-child shared experiences. Coaxing your child to push a finger gingerly into a ruby coloured anemone and feeling the gentle suction, discovering the treasure of a hermit crab lodged in a whelk and marvelling at cushion starfish – just the right combination of glamorous and gross when you tell your children they feed by pushing out their stomachs through their mouths to engulf food.
2 Pond life
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Children are endlessly fascinated by the life cycle of frogs and toads – from spawn to tadpoles, developing legs, losing their tails and leaping away. It’s easy to spot the difference between frog and toad spawn – frog spawn is always laid in clumps, whilst toad spawn comes in long chains. A pond teaming with tadpoles is a real find. Female frogs lay thousands of eggs each year and only a tiny fraction of them will survive to adulthood. Pond dipping and trying to identify all the underwater creatures is a wonderful way to while away an afternoon. Pond snails, water beetles and, if you’re lucky, a newt are just some of the pond treasures you can find together.
3 Hunting for mini-beasts
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Carefully turning over rocks and logs uncover a busy mini world of mini-beasts – a busy ant nest protecting eggs, millipedes, centipedes, slugs, caterpillars and, if you’re lucky, a frog or toad looking for cool shelter. Mini-beasts – officially invertebrates or animals with a backbone, are the most numerous type of animal in the world. In Britain alone there are over 25,000 species of invertebrates known.
4 Creating a collection
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Children love collecting intriguing natural objects and it can be a great incentive to keep dwindling interest among little ones when you’re on a family walk and they need a mission. Plus, a shelf of treasured mementos will keep cherished memories fresh. Whatever the season, nature is bountiful – from different coloured and shaped leaves, smooth beautiful conkers,and pine cones, feathers and the perfect stick.On the beach you can search together for different shaped shells, stones smoothed by the sea into intriguing shapes and even fossils. For dinosaur-mad children, there is nothing more amazing than tapping open a stone to discover their very own fossil from a creature that lived more than 10,000 years ago.
5 Lie back and look
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Some of the most special moments of childhood aren’t filled with busyness but by learning to lie back, relax, let your senses takes over and let your imagination loose. Lying together playing the cloud game – pointing out different cloud shapes and what they look like, admiring swifts building nests in the eaves and lining up on telephone wires, seeing bees enticed into a flower head by scent and markings, then turning over and seeing ants and beetles clambering laboriously up and down blades of grass; these are the joys nature can bring you. And once you’ve had some quiet time, you can roll down a hill, try to cup grasshoppers, creep up on butterflies or teach your children how to skim stones.
6 Growing their own
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Seeing a seed grow into a plant, perhaps a flower you can admire or a vegetable you can eat, is nothing short of miraculous – and especially for children. Give your child a patch of ground or their own plant pot and show them how to sow seeds and keep the ground watered. Choose large seeded hardy annuals that grow quickly (to keep children’s interest day by day) and can be planted in situ without faffing around with repotting and growing on. Sunflowers, marigolds and nasturtiums are rewarding and easy flowers. The old favourites mustard and cress, radishes and cut-and-come-again salads are good choices to show your child you can eat what you produce. Grab every chance to show your child food growing naturally and how tasty it is when picked, from blackberry picking for pies to elderflower flowers for juice. And don’t forget the joy of making ‘perfume’ from flower petals and water.
7 Snail hunting
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Best done on a damp day at dusk with a torch to add to the excitement, children love playing sleuth and finding all the snails coming out to feast on your garden plants, whether hiding under leaves with a giveaway mucus trail to clustered in stonework. Small children are endlessly fascinated by a snail’s tentacles – touch gently and they retract – and ability to hide in its shell. Have a competition to find out who can find the most snails. Then pick the best exhibits for a snail race – garden snails reach a top speed of 50 yards an hour or 1.3cm a second. Dispose of far away from your garden.