Where are the kids?

Posted February 10, 2016 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

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How much freedom do you give your kids? I didn’t give mine enough when they were little according to a smart-thinking dad and geographer, Daniel Raven Ellison, who is deeply concerned about the lack of free range children. For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see www.nicolabaird.com

Exploring London with dad and dog isn't the same as playing out in your nearest bit of woodland. Find out more by reading research by Daniel Raven Ellison

Exploring London with dad and dog isn’t the same as playing out in your nearest bit of woodland. Find out more by reading research by Daniel Raven Ellison

“Where have all the children gone?” sang Cat Stevens.

Or rather “where are the kids?’ as my husband might say… Mine have come home from school and are making some pasta before homework. They got to school on their own, and back again, but they haven’t done any exploring today.

OK, it’s February and cold, but what if it was a warm, long summer holiday day with light until late evening? where would they be then? Would they be out and about? Probably not.

Daniel Raven Ellison, a fascinating explorer and campaigner, has done research about children playing out and his work is published in London Essays at this link http://essays.centreforlondon.org/issues/green/londons-empty-childhoods/ I totally recommend reading it.

It’s sad research, but he has a positive outlook arguing:

London is full of great childhoods, so let’s let children out to enjoy them.

Can parents do that? Let me know what you think.

 

 

 

In praise of a day in the woods & other microadventures

Posted January 21, 2016 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

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What did you do at the weekend? Or more challenging: what did you do after school? The same as you always do? Or something which makes your heart sing – either doing it, or remembering it? This post takes my family to a pub-crammed village famous for inspiring artist Stanley Spencer and Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame in Berkshire on a micro-adventure. Nothing too strenuous happened – you might just as easily call it a day trip. For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see www.nicolabaird.com

Impressive den in Quarry Woods near Cookham. This area inspired Wind in the Willows writer Kenneth Grahame.

Impressive den in Quarry Woods near Cookham. This area inspired Wind in the Willows writer Kenneth Grahame.

Big adventures are fun, but they are often hard to organise, and expensive. Of course you don’t have to cycle the Alps to have an adventure. You can have them in the UK, but as so much of British outdoor life is weather dependent getting a party together (especially of mixed ages) to do something on a set day you can all make can be easily spoilt by grey skies, a stiff breeze and a downpour.

And so micro adventures were born.Big adventures are fun, but they are often hard to organise, and expensive. Of course you don’t have to cycle the Alps to have an adventure. You can have them in the UK, but as so much of British outdoor life is weather dependent getting a party together (especially of mixed ages) to do something on a set day you can all make can be easily spoilt by grey skies, a stiff breeze and a downpour.

The name appears to come from Alastair Humphries, see his website here.

But a micro adventure can just be going somewhere different, or going somewhere you know well and really exploring it in a different way.Instead of going on mega trips occasionally – he was 24 when he decided to ride around the world by bike (which took four years!) – he goes on little ones, often. I love this idea. I need my adventure quotient topped up, ideally outside. For me one exciting walk a week is enough, but I also try to keep bigger adventures on the go in case I lose inspiration. At the moment my family is finishing off the New River Walk (approx. 30miles from Hertfordshire to London along a stream that is neither new, nor a river). We just do a short stage when we fancy. I’m also planning to walk a lot more of the Thames Path.

The shelter we put up... view from our fire! Learning skills at Conkers in the National Forest. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

A shelter Nell and I put up while learning outdoor survival skills at Conkers in the National Forest – lighting a fire in the rain and then toasting marshmallows on it. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

Alastair’s website is all kids in sleeping bags roughing it without tents – you can do that in a garden too, it doesn’t have to be a super glamorous overseas location. His current challenge is to get people to commit to spending one night a month under the stars for a year. It’s a lovely idea and you’d learn so much from it. I’m thinking about it… but rather suspect that I won’t.

Alastair is super creative (he funds his blog by asking people to shout him a coffee – the £2.50s add up and as a result he’s got a fab site). His adventures are incredibly varied and I am sure would be happy to spend a day climbing a tree to really develop a sense of what that particular oak is really like, and which little critters and birds visit it.

My micro-adventures tend to focus on taking the dog for a walk in the woods. There is nothing I like better. Although if you can throw in an art gallery and a nice cosy pub I’ll be extra happy. So visiting Cookham in Berkshire (the train from London goes to Maidenhead, then you change for the 10 min ride to Cookham) was perfect.

Coming down the chalky side of Winter Hill some teenagers were playing on the shallow flooded meadows. it was icy and couldn't hold their weight but they were having such a fabulous time 'moon walking' and sinking up to the top of their wellies. it looked a lot more fun than spending the weekend on your phone.

Coming down the chalky side of Winter Hill some teenagers were playing on the shallow flooded meadows. it was icy and couldn’t hold their weight but they were having such a fabulous time ‘moon walking’ and sinking up to the top of their wellies. it looked a lot more fun than spending the weekend on your phone.

I followed a 7-mile walk through Quarry Wood and up steep Winter Hill then down a chalk hillside for a last one and a half mile stroll along the River Thames back to Cookham and the Stanley Spencer art gallery in the old Methodist church.

Cookham, or “village in heaven” as the crabby but talented Stanley Spencer called it. His art is full of portraits of the locals and local scenes. I love the way flowers twine themselves into his pictures and the majority are making Cookham the ultimate destination.

To improve a micro-adventure it helps if there are options for all your party. So my husband, Pete, went on the Stanley Spencer guided walk around the village, my teen daughter turned up late for a quick tour of the gallery and then met me and Pete in the pub. We stayed on for tapas and another cheeky drink while she took the earlier train back to London for a David Bowie tribute gig…

There are at least six pubs in Cookham, and all seemed to serve food (there’s also the Teapot Tea shop in the high street which had delicious looking cakes). We tried the lovely old Bel & the Dragon, an old coaching inn. But a glass of white wine cost £9!! So for the next round we went to the Old Swan Uppers where for £7.50 I got a half of good beer, an even better glass of wine and a packet of crisps. Both were dog friendly, and both had lovely staff and roaring fires. My family wanted to talk about Spencer – his art and wives. I managed that, and was also happy to talk over my route which had included a quick detour to see the house that Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame lived in while writing the book. Behind is Winter Hill’s thick wood (and beyond that Quarry Wood), both very obviously the model for his book’s scary Wild Wood – home of Badger and those evil weasels who go on to take over Toad Hall. The house is now a prep school, Herries.

Just being outside was incredibly reviving. When I got back into the warm I felt tired and content – happy to go along with my family’s suggestions. And the dog just lay down and slept. My plan this year is to keep a day a weekend as free as I can so that the micro-adventure habit can blossom. Perhaps what I like best about this plan is that anyone can come along, but it’s still fun if you’re the only one who wants to head outdoors.

  • Walk route was in Country Walks near London by Christopher Somerville. I used the 1994 edition, but this links to a much newer version. Somerville is my favourite walk guide -his routes are great because you don’t have to have your nose in the book. It does help if you can bring an OS map too though.

What skills do your kids have?

Posted October 28, 2015 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

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Here’s a challenge – besides reading, writing and asking for a better phone what skills do your teenagers have? And what do they need?  For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see www.nicolabaird.com

We sing when we set up camp... "We didn't start the fire," (King Charles) went down well. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

Learning to light a fire, in the rain.  (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

It’s time to take stock about the practical skills my teenagers now have. When my daughters were little, learning was fun and they were willing to try all sorts of things from street dance and trampolining to modelling with sticks. Now they are teenagers life looks more restrictive – there’s a lot of peer pressure and instinct to shop and chat. Both are absolutely fine.

However both my girls now babysit quite often and the oldest is thinking about what she could do during a gap year between school and university. So what practical skills do they have? And what do they need?

DIY experience: how about re-covering a chair seat using an upholstery stapler? This is a goodbye pic to my chair which I recently passed on to a Freecycler.

DIY experience: how about re-covering a chair seat using an upholstery stapler? This is a goodbye pic to my chair which I recently passed on to a Freecycler. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

Life saving
One brilliant tick goes to Lola’s school that organised a first aid session, at a very cheap rate, after AS and A level exams last summer – definitely something worth asking your child’s school to do. Everyone needs to know the basics of first aid because it saves lives. Not long after this training Lola had to step in when a friend collapsed with a diabetes emergency. She said it was very scary to be the only one in the room not screaming, but at least she’d had a little bit of training to know how to use the recovery position, how not to panic and the sort of info you need to tell 999. She also accompanied her friend to hospital which was clearly the right instinct. Going back to the party afterwards was definitely not though!

At 18 in the UK some kids have already been at work for two years, but most have just been at school. Entrepeneurship skills are hard to acquire (I have enough trouble myself making ends meet and spreadsheets balance) but table top sales and babysitting start the process off well for school and college-aged kids. The only problem is that most of these “babies” are in bed, or just about to go to bed, so the teenager doesn’t have much responsibility. What they’ve got to be able to do is step in if things go wrong – and that often needs practice, especially keeping a cool head.

Life hack: trying out a clever way to rethread worn out shoe laces.

Life hack: trying out a clever way to rethread worn out shoe laces.

Life hacks
My daughters see my repairing all sorts of stuff – clothes, sofas, chairs,cushion covers etc. I don’t do it well. There’s no such thing as in invisible repair in my home, but I like the story of a repair showing. I hope seeing me mend things (with my sewing kit and sugru) will inspire them to mend stuff. But I don’t think it does. So today when Lola was queuing to buy some tickets on the net I challenged her to rethread some worn out laces into a shoe. At first she said she couldn’t, then she half did it saying that made the shoes look cool. I want to pass these shoes on to a charity shop so I passed her a pencil to see if that helped poke the worn shoe lace through the eyes… and it did.

You can’t teach practical skills – or common sense – but hopefully you can encourage all children, of any age, to think creatively in order to get what they want. Mine are brilliant at using words to browbeat me: now they also need to learn to use the other side of their brains to mend and repair things – not just to save money when they don’t have much, but to avoid having to throw stuff away unnecessarily.

Over to you
What skills do your kids have – or you’d like them to have – which you reckon are essential? Is it washing up, or thoughtfulness or something else?

3 ideas for coping with half term or days the kids aren’t at school

Posted October 15, 2015 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

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Here are some ideas about how to use a half term holiday not to get away but to get to know a place better.  For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see www.nicolabaird.com

You can walk or cycle to explore the Olympic Park.

You can walk or cycle to explore the Olympic Park.

In the UK we have quite a few bank holidays – there are two in May and one in August & then there are half terms. As a freelance working from home, bank holidays and half terms tend to catch me by surprise. And I guess that’s how most children busy at school surrounded by friends feel too. Loads of people seem to go away, but that’s not always possible (or affordable) so what can you do instead?

1)HOW ABOUT STAYING PUT?  We live in London which seems permanently restless – maybe this half term the kids will have time to explore the new parks created thanks to the Olympic Village, Stratford or the changes at King’s Cross. Neither trip will cost anything and is a great chance to develop map reading and app use skills. The visitor centre is easy to find at the Olympic Park is opposite the aquatics building. The visitor centre at Kings Cross is just beyond Granary Square, but that’s much harder to find so could be part of a challenge day out.

Cheap and entertaining: walk the boundaries. Here we are in York on the walls.

Cheap and entertaining: walk the boundaries. Here we are in York on the walls.

2) DO STUFF LOCALLY THAT’S FREE If you are planning a bank holiday outing you could check to see if the places you want to go are open, but I tend to check what’s free to enjoy first.

3) WALK YOUR BOUNDARIES: We’ve recently been holidaying in York and after a summer of fabulous activities and sightseeing definitely needed to keep an eye on our spending. Taking a walk around the lovely City Walls was a good way to avoid window shopping temptation (particularly boring for the dog) and to get to see this lovely city from a different perspective. Find out more about great things to do in York here http://www.visityork.org/

Walking the Islington boundary we ran into an Italian fiesta raising money for the local church near Exmouth market.

Walking the Islington boundary we ran into an Italian fiesta raising money for the local church near Exmouth market.

Few places have such an obvious path around their boundary as York. Where we live in London, with 220,000 others, the boundary isn’t clear at all but recently a fundraising group, Islington Giving, made a useful map of the half marathon-length boundary which we’ve been walking around in bits. Being a little unaware of what’s going on meant that we ended up walking into a lovely surprise…  a street fiesta with Italian food stalls and pretty things to look at, like the balloons (see pic).

Plan a pit stop or a sweet treat for all the walkers in your party (even the photographer).

Plan a pit stop or a sweet treat for all the walkers in your party (even the photographer).

Of course smaller kids need shorter walks – but the more they do them you’ll probably find the more they’ll want to do them, especially if the end is rewarded with something tasty and healthy you’ve picked on the way (like blackberries) or brought along. I know ice cream is evil(ish), but on days when the sun is shining (or you’d like it to be) nothing beats it…

Over to you
Where do you like walking with kids? Is it a place you know well? Is it a boundary? Whatever you’re up to this long weekend, have a good time.

6 signs your kids can read

Posted August 30, 2015 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

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It seemed to take ages for my kids to learn to read – now at 17 and 14 they are recommending novels to me. This post is in celebration of summertime word play. There are more good ideas about parenting in my book Homemade Kids: how to raise children in a thrifty, creative and eco-friendly way author Nicola Baird

1 PERMISSION

London

London

love this sign! Found it outside a pizza restaurant just opposite Highgate tube station in north London. For more baby-friendly places to breastfeed (which by rights ought to be everywhere!) see this list of breastfeeding-friendly spots in London compiled by Time Out.

2 ANTAGONISTIC

Kids: ever so scary? Possibly this sign in Newcastle upon Tyne was warning drivers not to run tots over...

Kids: ever so scary? Possibly this sign in Newcastle upon Tyne was warning drivers not to run tots over…

During the Olympics Londoners seemed especially helpful – so when we spotted this sign in the north of England we enjoyed the irony.

3 SIMPLE AS A, B, C

Absolutely no smacking.

A mastered.

Some signs just help the kids learn to read.

4 BASIC DIRECTIONS

Seen in Chelmsford (I was born here, but lived in Herts!).

Seen in Chelmsford.

It’s meant to be a great place.

5 WARNING SIGNS

We enjoyed this Lake District farmer's irritation with tourists.

The kids enjoyed finding this Lake District farmer’s irritation with tourists.

Not everyone likes children, or visitors. This one made laugh.

6 ASPIRATIONAL

Surprise!

Surprise!

Of course we want to see a kangaroo, and a beware kangaroos sign. But sometimes a sticker has to do.

Over to you
Are you and your kids sign spotters?

SPONSORED: Ways to have a go camping with kids

Posted June 29, 2015 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

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The school holidays are coming. A great way to entertain kids – and teach them all sorts of life skills, as well as have fun, is to camp. But what if you don’t have any equipment, or a limited budget? A trip to the Isle of Wight helped inspire this post on ways to go camping… from glamping to champing; on a trampoline or under a washing line. There are more good ideas in Homemade Kids: how to raise children in a thrifty, creative and eco-friendly way author Nicola Baird

During the 2013 holidays Nell and her friend were determined to camp so we brought our broken tent and let them put it up. They moved back inside when the rain started leaking in.

During the 2013 holidays my daughter Nell and her friend were determined to camp so we brought our broken tent to a hired cottage in Wales and let them put it up. The girls moved back inside when the rain started leaking through the sides. (c) Homemade kids/nicola baird

  • The Isle of Wight can be reached in about two hours from Waterloo station, then take an Wight Link ferry at Portsmouth to Ryde (with its long sandy beach) or Fishbourne. http://www.wightlink.co.uk/iow/
  • Park Resorts has 48 UK holiday parks including the Lake District, three on the Isle of Wight and also along the Essex and Norfolk coasts. www.park-resorts.com

Camping is lovely – the smell of the tent, the feel of dew-drenched early morning grassy fields and the murmured conversations in your cosy mini-world make fabulous memories. But I can’t remember when I last stayed a night in a tent. Um…not last summer. Nor the one before.

Nicola and Lola get into holiday mood on the Isle of Wight in the giant deck chair at Node's Point near Bembridge. This holiday resort even offers pony treks along the beach.

Nicola and Lola get into holiday mood on the Isle of Wight in the giant deck chair at Node’s Point near Bembridge. This holiday resort even offers pony treks along the beach. (c) Homemade Kids/nicola baird

I like camping, even if I don’t always get round to it, partly because it’s exhausting having to set camp, sleep on the ground, cook all your food in an old-fashioned way and then strike camp. But I love Swallows & Amazons, and the Enid Blyton stories when they camp out, so I want to make sure my kids (now 14 and 17) don’t miss out the camping experience too often. So here are some ideas to make sure you, or the kids, or everyone gets a taste of the camping life. They range from the “it’s going to be dry tonight, let’s sleep outside” to needing to plan so you can book yourself a safari tent and have a glamping experience.

OVERNIGHT ON A TRAMPOLINE – ideal for anyone with a trampline (or a friend with a trampoline) especially for young teenagers or sensible primary school kids. If the weather report is good (and correct) then two friends (or more if you’re not worried about how much sleep they get) can easily sleep well without even a roof over their heads. Instagram and Snapchat are full of records of nights spent under the stars/street lights. And if it rains in the night, or gets too cold, it’s easy for the kids to run indoors.

Signs of happy kids: swing, logs, wrecked grass, pets.

No space in your garden? Or no garden? If you can borrow an easy-to-put up tent then you can put it up in the park for two hours to shelter from rain (or provide shade) – perhaps for a birthday celebration. Park authorities do not like this kind of behaviour, so be sure to make it clear you will be going soon. (c) homemade kids/nicola baird

CAMP IN YOUR GARDEN
– my garden is small, lacks grass and is a bit too crowded, thanks to the swing and chicken shed. But if you’ve got a washing line you can create a basic tent.

It’s an old-fashioned camping method – just sling a large sheet or blanket over a lowish washing line and then make it into a triangular structure by weighting it down with large stones (or the laundry basket and other improvisations). Little kids love to do this. You may even get them to have their after lunch sleep al fresco.

13,10 and 3 - and each of them need a different book to read.

My daughters and a friend demonstrate the wrong way to use a hammock.

TRY A HAMMOCK – A hammock is how many South Americans spend their nights, and how many sailors used to. It’s more comfy to sleep on it if you don’t get in and put your head under the first tying point with your feet pointed towards the other tying point. Instead sit on the side in the centre point and then try to figure out how to life there. Use YouTube if it’s easier – this is good IQ training.

The shelter we put up... view from our fire! Learning skills at Conkers in the National Forest. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

The shelter we put up… view from our fire! Learning skills at Conkers in the National Forest. Sadly we couldn’t stay the night here. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

MAKE A DEN – set the kids the task of making a place they can sleep using a tapaulin and ground sheet. Piling up logs and then lining  it with bracken will waste hours, though it may still not be suitable to sleep in.

HIRE A POP UP TENT – lots of campsites have tents a family can move into. At the Isle of Wight’s Nodes Point Holiday Park, run by Park Resorts, you can book a tent with three bedrooms (sleeping six) plus a central space that it is easy to stand up in.

This is glamping. I love the hay bale seat but inside it is  amazing with real beds and proper running water - but still a canvas roof that makes you feel like you are camping.

This is glamping at Nodes’ Point. I love the hay bale seat and inside it is amazing with real beds and proper running water – but still a canvas roof that makes you feel like you are camping. (c) Park Resorts

FOR UNKEEN CAMPERS – I’m thinking of my Mum and my Husband (she hates the  inconvenience, he hates the lack of proper loos) there is an answer, glamping or even champing.

  • Glamping is staying in such a posh tent you almost feel as if you are in a home. It’s developed from safari tourism.
  • Champing is a much newer concept; using a term borrowed from glamping to encourage churches to let people stay in them in a bid to raise money for local congregations.
Glamping in a safari tent at Nodes Point holiday park on the Isle of Wight (c) Park Resorts

Glamping in a safari tent at Nodes Point holiday park on the Isle of Wight (c) Park Resorts

TRY GLAMPING –  the sort of posh camping that you used to only experience on an African safari. Most glamping is in a tent, but with luxuries. There might be a wood burner in a central tepee, and real beds. There might be a hot tub just by the door or a VIP route to Glastonbury main stage…

Glamping makes you feel like you are camping without the hardship. No lugging equipment around. No putting up tents. No warm beer/lemonade… But you’ve still got the canvas roof (so cosy when it rains) and the delicious smells of outside – freshly mown grass or even the sea…

At the Isle of Wight’s Nodes Point Holiday Park, above the rock-poolable beach at St Helen’s, the new glamping area is giving families a chance to enjoy a different sort of holiday. As the manager said “If the kids are happy, then mum’s happy.” Staying in a tent is going to make the kids happy that’s certain. In fact my 17yo daughter was very keen to stay in one after being tantalisingly shown a new Safari Tent on a whistle-stop visit around the Isle of Wight to two of Park Resort’s holiday centres.

The kitchen in a safari tent - glamping removes the hardships from camping! (c) Park Resorts

The kitchen in a safari tent – glamping removes the hardships from camping! (c) Park Resorts

The Safari Tents look fab. They have a wooden-floored veranda with rattan chairs around a table which looks a lovely place for the family to linger after a day on the beach or exploring the island’s cycle paths in a bid to find the red squirrels. There are fairy lights for when it gets dark (and inside electric light).

It may have a veranda with table and rattan chairs, but the front door has to be unzipped – making that evocative zzzzip sound – and then inside was a kitchen area with a wooden kitchen counter, sink and running water from a tap. Plus there’s a fridge. Opposite this camping survival area is a big sofa – and behind the kitchen bar were the bedrooms. It’s a tent but this one also has sweet bedside lights on a three-drawer bedside table so you won’t need to trip over your unpacked luggage unless you want to. One room had a double bed, and the other two singles. It was sweet and I wanted to move in at once.

Glamping means you can camp - but not need to worry that you've forgotten your torch. (c) Park Reorts

Glamping means you can camp – but not need to worry that you’ve forgotten your torch. (c) Park Resorts

So where’s the loo? Well this is glamping and at Nodes Point holiday resort there’s a wash block with showers and toilets a short walk away. It’s a brilliant way to go camping, without quite camping. It’s also good value. For a three night holiday (fri-mon) it costs £142-£474 (six people max, sharing two bedrooms with an option to use the sofa in the lobby/kitchen space).

Nicola, Sparky & Lola. Sparky helps entertain at some of the 48 Park Resorts which run Sparky Krew activities for up to 12 year olds.

It’s Sparky who helps entertain at some of the 48 Park Resorts during Sparky Krew activities for up to 12 year olds. (c) Homemade Kids

Another advantage of going to a holiday park – rather than a camp site where you’d have to put your holiday home up – is there’s a restaurant on site, plus evening entertainment, much of it suitable for younger children run as the Sparky Krew, and an indoor swimming pool if the weather is too bad for the beach. There’s also a roomful of arcade games including 2p shove

But it was Sparky who won me and Lola over – he’s a very cute rabbit (see photo right).

CHAMPING – church camping, a new use for old churches. An over night stay in a church might sound spooky and a bit cold, or filled with spectres. But if you are prosaically-minded and have thick sleeping bags/duvets and are happy to sleep by a nave lit by candles then staying at a church could be a life-long family talking point. Imagine cosying up in a pew on a camp bed or a bean bag, or watching the early morning light blast through a stained glass window – and breakfast is brought to the church. Don’t think about ghosts! Although maybe the bedtime stories could be the best part of the experience?

Find out more about champing and what’s on offer in Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Kent at http://www.visitchurches.org.uk/champing  Also see this video,

The Isle of Wight's fish is famously good. And so's the garlic, there's even a garlic festival.

The Isle of Wight’s fish is famously good. And so’s the garlic, there’s even a garlic festival.

FORGET CAMPING AND BOOK A LODGE ON A HOLIDAY PARK – Even if the famous adventurer Bear Grylls grew up on the Isle of Wight, where he learnt how to survive anywhere… during the summer holidays roughing it in a tent (even glamping) isn’t for all of us.

At Lower Hyde, in the island’s famous holiday town of Shanklin there are loads of lodges (sleeping six, many with two en suite bedrooms) spread around the woodland.

This is definitely not camping: the lodges have heating, hot water and proper flush loos. But it could be an economical way to get several families – cousins, grandparents, friends – together for a few days or even a fortnight without having to put up tents all over your lawn back home. There’s lots of child-friendly activities plus an outdoor pool with a huge slide and the chance to go to the adjacent holiday resort’s even bigger indoor pool.

Londoners can get to the Isle of Wight in two hours! Amazing to do a day trip. But camping or staying over night would mean you'd see a lot more of the island.

Londoners can get to the Isle of Wight in two hours! Amazing to do a day trip. But camping or staying over night would mean you’d see a lot more of the island.

At some lodges there’s even the option to have your own outdoor tub on the veranda – a holiday treat that seems to particularly attract families with a toddler and/or baby

OVER TO YOU – The summer holidays may be short but they are long enough to have a go doing something a bit different. Let me know what you think your family would enjoy, or any good tips.

Nicola and Lola were guests of Park Resorts for a day trip to the Isle of Wight visiting Node’s Point and Lower Hyde holiday resorts. We crossed from Portsmouth on Wight Link ferry.

How to introduce the great outdoors to kids

Posted June 15, 2015 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Do you ever find yourself thinking how to entertain young kids and teenagers at the same time? And what sort of things can you do with teens that parents might also enjoy? How about getting out into the woods with some marshmallows? Here’s how Nell, 14, and me (her mum) managed on a trip to Conkers in Derbyshire… There are more good ideas in Homemade Kids: how to raise children in a thrifty, creative and eco-friendly way author Nicola Baird

CAPTION Conkers used to be a coal mine. At one stage kids were working there without any shoes. Now they come in wellies with some parents terrified of letting them explore and get muddy. I managed to forget our coats and ended up plastered in mud – it was so freeing, and all thanks to the gentle survival courses you can do with the wardens.

Conkers near Ashby de la Zouch, Derbyshire used to be a coal mine. At one stage kids were working there without any shoes. Now they may come in wellies but some parents need encouragement to let their children explore and get muddy. That’s where the activity courses work so well – here’s Nell learning how to make a fire. Photo taken from the shelter Nell had just put up in the woods. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

It’s so tempting to ignore the outside world. Children can be kept very occupied with screens, and love them. But if you want to let your kids have a taste of the great outdoors, but don’t know much about it yourself it can be daunting.

That’s why places like the National Trust –with their rather cool list of 50 things you must do before you are 11 and three-quarters can be helpful. Back in dinosaur times my primary school had a nature table, but nowadays playing in the woods is occasionally part of the curriculum, see the forest schools.

But if your home is in a town or city it gets tricky to give children these opportunities. There are parks, but no one is allowed to light fires or set up a tent in them, meaning children don’t really have a chance to do the things that they have always done.

Sometimes we are a bit too safety aware. I grew up learning the Sooty song to “never, ever play with matches”. But when my eldest was 12 I realised she still couldn’t get a match alight. So we spent an afternoon striking matches (we used nine boxes) defying wind and weather. It was quite fun, and a useful skill was learnt.

So how to take it one step further and build a fire, safely?

A recent trip to Conkers with my younger daughter, Nell, who is 14, was a wonderful experience. Conkers is an adventure hub at the centre of the newly planted National Forest in the Midlands. It’s about eight miles from Burton on Trent station – roughly midway between (and north a bit) of Birmingham and Leicester.

Despite uncharacteristic June rain falling all day Nell and I spent the whole day outside in the woods. We learnt how to make our own shelter and light a fire and then toasted smores (marshmallows sandwiched by chocolate digestives) on our own fire. How happy we felt.

Of course adventure supremo Bear Grylls knows this place – he was apparently at Conkers only a fortnight before us.

Conkers ranger John (in the hat) shows us how to use cotton wool to create a great fire. Nell looks a bit suspicious... but it all turns out OK.

Conkers ranger John (in the hat) shows us how to use cotton wool to create a great fire. Nell looks a bit suspicious… but it all turns out OK.

How to light a fire

  • We sing when we set up camp... "We didn't start the fire," (King Charles) went down well. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

    We sing when we set up camp and try to get a spark off the flint… “We didn’t start the fire,” (King Charles) went down well. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

    First find a safe place to do this. If you are in your garden, don’t do it on bricks as they can explode. Maybe have a bucket of water ready to douse the flames.

  • Clear a rectangle for your fire. You could remove a sod of earth and then replace it later on. Or you could put down 4 bigger logs to mark your fire area, then lay some thinner sticks along vertically to help air get under.
  • Fluff up a large chunk of cotton wool so the air can get in and help the burning along.
  • Search for some small, thin, dry sticks that you will be very slowly piling up in a pyramid shape
  • Get your flint and strike (available for less than a fiver on ebay – a generous party bag gift).
  • Watch as the cotton wool blazes, then slowly make a triangle of sticks over the flame and see if they catch.
  • Nell and I had to repeat this process twice – but it was raining.
  • Bend your head down and blow to add a bit of oomph to your burning.
  • Now slowly add more sticks.
  • Bits of wood off-cuts (and pine branches lopped off your old xmas tree) will help your fire gain some heat.
  • If this has worked then you are ready to cook marshmallows or make smores.

Nell and I were at Conkers learning how to create a den and make our own fire with about eight other families – most with young children. The great thing about being outdoors is it is a huge leveller. Mums, Dads or whoever is the adult in charge can be safety monitors, but you can also send quite small kids off to look for sticks, help locate the perfect place to set up camp, find a stick suitable for toasting marshmallows on or just keep them occupied looking at the flames.

Teenagers love to do this stuff too
If you can find an activity centre that teaches a few survival skills then take your teen and go and learn (or even host a birthday party for them to share these skills).

Despite being the oldest in our group, 14-year-old Nell really enjoyed making a camp and she thought toasting marshmallows was brilliant. While we were in the woods she hardly looked at her phone (although I was taking quite a few photos on mine). It felt like it was giving her a real break from the usual humdrum of eyes-on-instagram or playing Crossy Road. Instead she was getting her instant gratification from flames and food.

Toasting smores - see how below. (c)homemadekids/nicola baird

Toasting smores – see how below. (c)homemadekids/nicola baird

How to make smores

  • Be prepared – you need a bag of marshmallows and a packet of chocolate digestives. At Conkers the record is allegedly 25 smores for one person, but the under 8s seemed to only manage one. Nell ate three. I ate two…
  • Get your fire going (see above)
  • Find a thin stick about the length of a ruler and sterilise by burning the pointy end in the flames
  • Put a marshmallow on to the stick and cook until brown and bubbly
  • Either bite off the toasted skin of your marshmallow & then re-brown over the fire
  • Or squelch the marshmallow between your digestives, chocolate side inwards.
  • Savour in front of the flames.

The rangers then showed us how to put the fire out safely. You just rake it apart – so simple. Do be careful if everything is very dry as fires can spread. I set my privet hedge alight once by putting a disposable BBQ too close to it…

I managed to forget my own and my 14 year old's coats and ended up plastered in mud – but it was so fun, and all thanks to the gentle survival courses you can do with the wardens at Conkers in the National Forest.

Off with the shoes for the barefoot safari. I ended up plastered in mud – but it was so fun, and all thanks to the gentle survival skills you learn with the wardens at Conkers in the National Forest. “You’d like to work here, wouldn’t you?” added Nell when she saw my toes. I think she meant this in a good way. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

Now let’s go barefoot
Running around barefoot used to be a child’s birthright. Of course it’s all different now, but you can try a short barefoot walk in real safety at Conkers.

Even when it is cold and wet if you take your shoes off and move, your feet are forced to do extra work, which stops them feeling too cold.

In fact by the end of the barefoot walk which took us through water, gravel-bottomed streams, slippy clay, coal paths and peat-silted streams your feet are tingling and warm.

Conkers is where Rawdon Pit, in South Derbyshire, used to operate. It’s also not far from Moira where the owner of Rawdon Hall in the early 19th century tried to set up a spa with special calcified spring water in the hopes of rivalling Bath. In the end it was re-located to Ashby de la Zouch with limited success. But there’s a spa history to this spot so it’s a sweet way of re-connecting visitors with the local history.

At Conkers in the National Forest, getting ready for the barefoot challenge is very simple - off with your shoes and socks. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

At Conkers in the National Forest, getting ready for the barefoot challenge is very simple – off with your shoes and socks. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

“We’ve made the barefoot challenge in three sections,” explained the friendly ranger, Tom. The first is through water and mud, like a spa experience – although he admitted it wasn’t perhaps quite as luxurious as the spas of today. The next is a nod to the kids who worked bare feet in the mines. Walking over coal is not comfortable, but to imagine walking over coal in the dark as a child, leading a horse helps make you realise how lucky you are. And the third section seemed to be more about mud and peat – so referencing ecology. But as I’m no fan of worms I tried not to think about this. In fact the peat and mud-bottomed streams were much the warmest to walk through. Your toes seem to develop extra-sensory perception.

Lots of the smaller children were nervous about going into a water-filled ditch without shoes and socks. And of course they could have kept their socks on (though none did), or were reassured by holding a mum or dad’s hand.

But Nell and I believed the ranger when he said this barefoot experience was like a spa, so we were instantly won over. Admittedly I hobbled around like someone with tender soles, but Nell found it fun and waltzed around. This is something teens and their friends would love to try – maybe you could set a mini version up in your garden with a bit of space, and imagination.

Nell couldn't scale the wall, but she could nip up the rigging to the top of this obsctacle. I was on camera duty. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

Nell couldn’t scale the wall on the left of this Conkers obstacle, but she could nip up the rigging to the top. I was on camera duty. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

Get the teens outdoors
The families with little kids have to keep a good watch on them at Conkers as there are lots of ponds – and lovely coots, geese and goslings too. Fortunately there are several places beyond the ponds which offer fun water-free challenges including a sensory walk, a labrynth (originally designed to help you meditate into the zone) and a maze. Or climb up high into the story-telling hut or the look out post to get new vantage points for a picnic.

To make it as fun for bigger kids and teenagers there’s an assualt course which challenges the over 10s to think how to get over  an assortment of 12+ tricky obstacles – the daunting looking sort I’m sure the army train over – that can be done as an individual challenge, as a race or team race.

At first I couldn’t get up the rigging or over the 2 metre+ wooden sleeper barriers, but gradually I learnt to put my feet in the right place and drag my resisting body over the top. It was really good fun… and no surprise that when Nell and I got back late that evening to the Hilton Hotel, Leicester l where we’d been booked in by the PR who sponsored this tirp (because it’s on the M1 so easy for families with cars and taxis) I used the steam bath and had a swim to ease out the aches; fortunately it worked.

Visiting indoor activities designed for kids is often so frenetic and noisy (and Conkers has this – with its Enchanted Forest Adventure) that it doesn’t always encourage fractious families to make repeat visits.

But outside in the 120 acres the noise and friction disappears – it’s all bird song and laughter, once you’ve got the pesky fire lit. Nell and I had such a happy day, and learnt so much.

The shelter we put up... view from our fire! Learning skills at Conkers in the National Forest. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

The shelter we put up… view from our fire! Learning skills at Conkers in the National Forest. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

Visiting
If I lived anywhere between Leicester, Nottingham, Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham I’d definitely buy an annual pass for £62.95 (for two adults and two children) and visit at least four times to enjoy the seasons as well as guided nature walks or spontaneous picnics. Under 3s are free, and 3-15 year olds cost about £7. It’s buggy and wheelchair friendly – and you can also use the mini train any amount of times to get between the waterside centre and the activity centre. Parking is free.

In summer 2016 we plan to holiday in the Midlands and I’m definitely going back to Conkers to give my teenagers – and perhaps their friends – the chance to do the fire-making sessions, but also see if they want to try challenges like mountain biking along forest trails, kayaking or spend time on the high and low ropes adventure course due to open in July 2015. Ideally we’ll time it with the many tribute bands that play on summer weekends at the National Forest – think Abba, Elton John, ‘80s greats – and then maybe stay at the nearby eco-friendly hostel run by the YHA. See you there!

 

 

 

 

 


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