How to introduce the great outdoors to kids

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

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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2 Comments on “How to introduce the great outdoors to kids”

  1. really interesting – Conkers has been on my wish list for ages as we have family nearby.

    • Thank you Kathryn for commenting – lovely to hear from you. You MUST go to Conkers, especially if you are visiting family! Have a good look around the website as some of the best things probably need to be booked in advance… although there’s is still plenty to do if you just turn up. Nell and I will talk about this trip for a long time to come! Let me know what you end up doing. Nicola

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