The summer holidays are upon us and it’s time to get your kids outdoors! It’s not easy to keep your children occupied with weeks upon weeks to fill and it can be difficult to come up with new and exciting games for them to enjoy. Get inspired with ideas from Alexia and Duncan Barrable, whose book Growing Up Wild is out now.
Have you ever noticed how much calmer and more engaged your children are when they are outside in the natural world? A growing body of evidence is pointing to the need for children to spend more time outside. Being outdoors has the potential to energise, entertain and educate our children, often with minimal input from adults. Getting them outdoors is only half the battle. Once your children are there, it’s useful to have some activities up your sleeve to lead them in. Why not try this educational and, most importantly, enjoyable idea from Alexia and Duncan Barrable’s Growing Up Wild.
Do you speak ‘nature’?
A Year Outside Challenge
Weather: Cold and cloudy, light drizzle
On this cloudy morning, despite the light rain, we are enjoying looking for some flowers for Joe to take home for our special guest this evening – his godmother is coming to visit.
A rather untimely spring has arrived, it seems, and our almost daily walks up on the mountain have been taken over by the search for wild flowers. Joe is most keen to find little colourful buds and point them out to me. Sometimes he picks a bunch to take home (but I make sure he doesn’t pick anything rare) and then he looks at it for hours, inspecting each and every flower, its stalk, its leaves and petals, its stamens and the occasional sprinkling of golden pollen.
I am a firm believer in calling things by their proper names, including plants and flowers, although I’m by no means an expert in taxonomy. But when Joe picks up a flower, holds it towards me and informs me proudly that he has found a crocus, I swell with pride.
The power of language is huge. It shapes our perceptions, and provides a medium for describing the contents of our conscious experience. We humans tend to name all the things that are important to us. That’s why people who are really into cars know all their brands and models (and why, half the time I still tell people that my car is ‘red’ when they ask me what type I have) and that’s why naturalists, like Carl Linnaeus, came up with a special classification system to name all plants and animals.
I want to show my sons that nature, its plants and animals, matter to me too. Although when I take stock of the names that I do know they seem to cover a rather large percentage of our local flora, I am still keen to know more. Joe is amazed by the fact that each flower, each grass and bush has its own name – just like each person does. He loves the idea that he can be precise in his communication with me and on top of that I feel that he is picking up my enthusiasm for the subject.
Learning the names of the most common flowers, trees and insects around us used to be a rather organic process. I remember learning about wild herbs, like thyme and oregano, as we picked them as kids with my parents. I also remember learning to identify stinging nettles and thorny bushes rather quickly! Pines were all around, and cypresses were what was used as windbreakers and all around cemeteries in the nature of my childhood. Aspen tree bark was covered with eyes (I now know that in some places they call it ‘eyeball tree’), while the bark of eucalyptus tress could be peeled off, leaving behind lovely swirly patterns on the trunk.
By talking to my sons using the names of the trees and flowers around us I am passing on several messages to them. First of all, I pass on what I feel is important cultural knowledge. Nowadays kids are more likely to be able to identify brand names and logos than name three or four local plants. Secondly, I want my children to feel at home in the natural environment, I want them to feel like they are amongst friends, and the first step towards this was to teach them some of the names of the plants all around us. Finally, I want to show my kids that I value the diverse nature we inhabit, that I think it important enough to name it. Just as other children can tell a Peugeot form a Volkswagen, or Nike for Adidas, it is important for me that my children can tell daisies from chamomile (clue: they have very different leaves).
It doesn’t come easy, I have to do a little bit of research before I can confidently tell a dandelion from a yellow hawkweed, but I let Joe know that I don’t know very much and that he can help me too. I am delighted when he starts calling spring flowers by their names, feeling comfortable and simply at home in the nature that surrounds us.
Taking it further
Depending on where you live, you and your child can visit the local botanical gardens to learn more about your local plants, as well as more exotic ones. If you are in London, Kew Gardens offer unrivaled diversity, but other cities, especially those with universities, tend to have botanical gardens ranging from the grand and old, like the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, to the smaller but equally interesting. Oxford is home to the oldest botanical garden and arboretum in the UK.
For older children the identification process can become quite a challenge by using botanical keys like the one available online by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.
For younger kids, drying and keeping flowers can offer a chance at starting a collection. Frame some and give them as gifts, or keep them and leaf through them to remind yourself of your jaunts into local nature.
A botanical sketchbook can be a worthwhile project for older children too. There are even guides available on how to keep one.
About the authors
Alexia Barrable and Duncan Barrable are the authors of Growing Up Wild. Alexia has worked in schools in London and Athens, and her passion for the outdoors has always permeated her teaching practice. She runs a forest playgroup. Duncan Barrable was born in South Africa, where nature was always a constant presence in his upbringing. Weekends on the family farm and long school holidays fishing and beachcombing in a remote cottage without running water and electricity are some of his fondest childhood memories. When not outside, he is a primary school teacher and is passionate about getting kids outdoors and active.