The Garden Classroom

One of my favourite blogs for play ideas is Nurture Store. So I was not just a little bit excited when Cathy James, the woman behind Nurture Store, announced her ebook The Garden Classroom: 52 Kids Gardening Activities. She kindly sent me a copy to review for Nature Kids.

I expected a little book with a few activities. How wrong was I. The Garden Classroom is an ambitious ebook with not just 52 activities (it looks like lots more, I almost feel like counting as it feels more like over 100 ideas!), but also a lot of background information, wonderful photos illustrating the activities and an overview of how to set up even small gardens for maximum learning.

This book isn’t just about keeping kids busy. It is that of course, but it’s all about creating enticing environments which facilitate learning. And learning is key in this book, and so the activities are structured around topics of literacy, science and maths, gardening, arts and crafts (i.e. creativity), recipies and more. It really is all about learning opportunities and ensuring holistic and meaningful learning with and in the real world.

The activities are accompanied by many general tips and ideas and there’s lots of cross referencing for ease of use. They are also a starting point to get you thinking about how to best use even small outdoor spaces – something which is very close to my heart, living in a city.

This book will be all you’ll ever need to spend hours of fun and learning with your children in the garden. My favourite idea? Well, we’ve already done the long overdue diy watering can so that finally the kids don’t have to struggle with the heavy watering can, but I really quite fancy watching tatties grow in a plastic bottle. And you may think there’s a potato theme going on here, but arranging the harvested tatties according to size isn’t just fun but looks like a work of art.

The Garden Classroom: 52 Kids Gardening Activities is aimed at parents, teachers and kids’ group leaders who’d like to encourage their children to have a connection to nature. They don’t need to have a big garden or a green thumb / fingers, just a desire to make the most of the outside space they have. Most of the ideas are suited to kids aged 2-10.

At roughly £5.60 ($9.99), it’s a must have for anyone who is looking for ideas to enthuse children for gardening.

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The Hidden Gardens’ Code of Conduct

One of our favourite hang outs are the Tramway and the Hidden Gardens in Pollokshields. There is so much we love about it – a cafe and shelter, the piece and quiet of the gardens. You know, just yesterday when in the bustling noise and business of the Science Centre on a very rainy day during the school holidays, I thought to myself, why is it that something that the kids love often is the furthest from what I enjoy? I hated the fact I had to keep track of two little people, how the younger one wouldn’t nap, how the older one got hyper as time progressed. By the time we entered the planetarium, both me and little one conked out. Exhausted.

Compare this to the Hidden Garden: We play together, we relax, we all enjoy this space equally. 5 year old runs about, makes friends, plays hide and seek. I have so many great memories of the Hidden Gardens. Balancing on the walls, exploring each tree, playing tig. Even her 5th birthday party.

It’s also a place where I can actually meet with adults and bring the kids. The one place where it’s possible to have an adult conversation. The children are engaged by the environment and I can engage in a bit more than the usual superficial chit chat.

Now the Hidden Gardens have issued a code of conduct which is more than anything child unfriendly. They have consulted with parents – after the code of conduct was put together (which to me isn’t consultation but information, and I’m sure there are few who would argue that this should be called a consultation at all). The code of conduct includes that there are to be no ball games, no wheeled objects, no drawing of any kind (including with chalk on the paths or with/in dirt), no running.

Now, you tell my 5 year old not to run. She is an active and energetic 5 year old. She runs. She can’t not run. If the code of conduct asks for no running, we are effectively told to leave. All three of us. It is excluding children and their carers from enjoying this oasis of peace in the middle of the city.

I do appreciate the need to make a space work for everyone. I realise that kids can be noisy. However I’ve yet to visit the Hidden Gardens and find noisy kids because the space is just so full of zen that even the kids get it, or the noise is dissipated by the space. They may run and play but they’re not noisy – at least not in comparison to what I’m used to day in and day out.

I do understand the need for the parent to instill respect for nature and special places. I do not let my child pick flowers here, or run into the flower beds. She gets it. I have yet to be shown a child or parent who does not follow these simple rules. Moreover, there is evidence that letting children explore nature, even in places where extra care needs to be taken to ensure conservation, the long term benefits for nature are greater than the short term impact little hands and feet have on plants and wildlife.

I do understand the need to be respective of others and that there are users who are worried to be run into by bikes or scooters. We have brought scooters in but they never got used. The kids park them and then play, sit on the grass, run about and that’s it. I have yet to be shown an accident with a child’s scooter in the Hidden Gardens.

I’m all for working together, however being presented with a code of conduct (which implies misconduct, doesn’t it?) without meaningful ways of inputing into this can only mean that minds have been made up. Children are not welcome, and if my child is not welcome, neither am I because I can’t exactly leave them at the front door on a lead.

As a parent, I feel excluded from this space. There are many parents who use this space, in fact, it’s possible mostly used by parents and children. Which poses the question if this code of conduct might in fact backfire.

I would welcome the Hidden Gardens management to rethink their approach and to engage in a meaningful consultation with parents which would allow a change to the code of conduct and also a review of the vision for the Hidden Gardens. As it stands, children and parents are effectively excluded. This is a large percentage of the population, considering this is a public space. It also sends out a message about how we see our children (as little destroyers and a nuisance, rather than citizens and part of community).

In the meantime, i have a feeling the Hidden Gardens will become an oasis just for childless people. Which is a shame, because anyone with children would love to occasionally visit an oasis of calm, we might well be the ones who need it most!

Addendum: I’ve been alerted that the code of conduct apparently does not prohibit running. This was mentioned as a rule by one person. I’m not clear myself as to the extent to which the code of conduct will be enforced so that time will tell how much it will impact on families.

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Pick your own

One of my personal highlights of the year is an outing to a pick your own farm. We don’t do it often enough really, but when we do manage, there’s something really special about it in so many ways.

Personally, I can’t really think of anything more satisfying than harvesting food and then going home and making it into something. The picking becomes addictive, a bit like knitting or bursting bubble wrap. It’s so satisfying looking for the reddest berries, the thickest pea pods, the biggest broccoli florets.

There’s also the vastness of it – While my meagre attempts to grow my own hardly ever yield the ingredients for a full meal, and every berry, every leaf is precious, there is the bounty of a farm to discover, and I find it strangely exhilarating.

For the kids, there is the sense of purpose, the simple and pure enjoyment of carrying a basket and filling it, of presenting the bounty and the joy at making yummy food from it. The secretive opening of a pea pod (just to test it!) and tasting of the sweet pea, the secret berry. They smell the filling basket, they steal the berries I picked so that their basket fills up quicker. And when I tried a strawberry, the realisation of how much better, sweeter, juicier they taste in season when they’ve grown outside, even with the little sun we’ve had.

Of course a lot of learning takes place too – where food comes from, what the plant looks like, and how the plant grows, and when it’s ready to be picked. When we podded the peas, my older one insisted that the ones with the biggest peas were picked by her, because they were the best ones.

And the specialist thing was the basket, which my 5 year old had pressured me to buy for me. It’s a hand woven willow basket which we bought from the basket maker herself. I remember how please she was (to have sold one), and how pleased my daughter and myself were (for having bought such a thing of beauty). Yesterday, both children paraded it, taking turns, and were not to be separated from it. Even as the raspberries have become 12 jars of jam, the peas have been eaten or frozen, the basket is still at the centre of their play.

We picked our own at East Yonderton Farm in Inchinnan, right next to Glasgow Airport (which is great for spotting planes as they take off and land while picking fruit). It’s the only farm in the Glasgow area. There are lots in Fife and Perthshire and you can find a list of farms here.

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Events at The Children’s Wood

We had a lovely day at the Ditch the Stuff event and explored the North Kelvin Meadow and the Children’s Wood as part of it. At the event, lots of outdoor activities were put on and it was lovely to see some familar forest school practictioner faces as well as parents who I hadn’t seen in a while (we don’t often venture out to the West End). There was bow and arrow making, den building, a rope, lots of clay activities, info stalls and above all, space for imaginative exploration and my 5 year old was quick to make new friends,find the outdoor barbies and play hide and seek in the woods. Dr Carol Craig’s talk started all off and it was inspirational and I even found our very own Nurture in Nature playgroup with a lovely nature themed stall! Oh and the cakes… They were ueberyummy!

The Children’s Wood as a few events running this summer. The playgroup will continue to meet every Wednesday morning from 10-12 am. Cost: £1. It’s on whatever the weather, the woods give shelter, so even in pouring rain it’ll be great fun.

Additonally, there are a couple of weekend (Sunday events): There will be a Forest Creatures puppet show on 29th  July from 2-4pm, and to make it all complete, there’ll be face painting, prizes and more! The event is free though a donation of £1 is suggested.

On Sunday 12th August 2012 from 2-4pm It’s all about Stick Man: there will be free stroytelling and music by Tam Dean Burn, face painting, prizes and more. Free event!

Like The Children’s Wood on facebook!

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Enough is Enough, Ditch the Stuff!

This Sunday afternoon, in the west end of Glasgow, there will be a connecting children with nature event which sounds like music to my ears. I hardly know where to start, and I’ve been waiting for a while to write about this.

So let’s start at the beginning. There is this unused green space in the middle of a densely populated area of the city, in North Kelvinside, at the edge of affluent and a very much not affluent area of Glasgow. I know the area well. The land had been allowed to degenerate into a dumping ground, but a community initiative put their heads together in 2008 and cleared the rubbish and made it into a piece of nature, wilderness and beauty.

However, a planning application has been received. The residents, in a consultation which yielded an impressive 94% of feedback want to keep this space as a green space, for the community. But it’s in an area which will be attractive to housing developers so the fear is that the land will be sold off and flats will be built in an already densely populated area of Glasgow. It would mean the loss of a truly natural space, lots of trees and an exceptional flora.

The North Kelvin Meadow Campaign is trying to retain this green space for the community. The Children’s Wood runs a playgroup which meets weekly in the space and offers nature connections for children and parents, whatever the weather. There are regular events for children, the space is used in such creative ways that it makes you wonder how there can be justification to take it away and dump another set of flats on top of it.

This Sunday afternoon, there will be an event for children and adults with talks, activities, stalls and a second hand outdoor clothing sale which will do so many things: raise awareness of the issues, tell people about this beautiful piece of nature in the middle of the city, get kids and parents outdoors and connecting with nature. There will be forest education activities and talks about why outdoor and nature play is so important for our children’s wellbeing and their resilience. How this is particularly important in an ever increasing materialistic mindset, where happiness is connected with what one owns rather than personal strengths.

This campaign is about the simple pleasures, community spirit but also about the bigger picture. The UK has the shocking child well-being statistics, considering it’s a rich country. Most experts put this down to inequalities in the society, a bigger gap between rich and poor and the materialistic outlook this creates. Spending time in nature is a remedy because it doesn’t take toys or gadgets to play. It’s about being creative with what’s there, and playing together. These are life skills that don’t depend on money and possessions, but on people and resourcefulness.

I’m not one to vilify computer games and TVs. We play computer games and we watch TV. But there are many children who don’t play outdoors ever, who do not have access to green spaces. New research has shown that children who do not access nature will lose the ability to use time spent outdoors as a remedy for depression and feeling low when they are adults. Not providing access to outdoor play will create a generation of unhappy people, which is why it’s so important. Particularly in times of recession and lack of material means, it’s important to look for solutions that make do with less. Outdoor and nature play is not just making do with less. Far from it. It enables children to gain so much: resilience, co-operation, well-being so that we have a generation of future adults who have health minds and bodies and who can overcome challenges creatively with others.

All of this through nature play, imagine. All of this on your doorstep in a small community green space.

And they really want to make it into flats? C’mon!

July 15th, 1-4pm at Kelbourne St Scout Hall, North Kelvinside

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Further afield: The Eden Project, Cornwall

As the summer holidays are in full swing in Scotland, this blog is travelling a bit further afield. Our journey today takes us to the other end of this island, the southwest of England.

I’m not quite sure how it’s possible, but I hadn’t heard of the Eden project until the day we visited. This is of course an inexcusable state of affairs, and I’m glad it’s been remedied! One of those rainy summer 2012 days, where even our waterproofs decided that enough is enough, we headed down to Cornwall from Devon, a 90 minute drive through headgerow country, thick fog and relentless rain. Even as we approached, I had no sense of the scale of this place, or indeed what exactly to expect. Which wasn’t helped by arriving in thick mist unable to make out more than our parking space.

For those who like me have not heard about the Eden project before, it celebrates the interdependency of people and plants and promotes sustainability and environmental awareness. It does this in many different ways, such as through having edible gardens, educational events, and exploring the often problematic history of harvesting a number of different plants for human use.

Upon our arrival, there was a bit of worry around the parking, what with being guided onto a car park which seemed rather a long way from the entrance. But our worries were uncalled for, there was an instant courtesy bus service to the entrance, where rather impressive crowds queued to get in. This was a week day and schools were still on in England, plus the Eden project does have large outside areas so wouldn’t be a natural rainy day excursion. My initial reaction was that I didn’t like the crowds, that this would have a negative impact on our experience. However, the crowds moved quickly and dispersed in the Eden project. While it was still busy at the food areas, it was impressive how efficiently people got served and how a simple food distribution system (same price for all food) actually worked wonders.

Once in the garden area and the rainforest Biome (which is all we managed in the day), the crowds were dispersed and we were able to explore at our pace and without feeling rushed or surrounded by people. There were so many little touches that meant it was a great experience for both adults and children. The kids loved exploring the Asian style rainforest house, with its moveable objects: kitchen items, decoration, bedding – all items that would be found in a real rainforest house, and what worked so well was that the children engaged with this environment, explored it and made it their own. Similarly the wooden play train with large wooden dominos that doubled as loose materials and food wares. There was lots of play to be had for all ages, the little ones moving them, the big ones playing dominoes or reading what food was represented.

The many massive statues made from recycled or waste materials were eye catching for any age and really sparked the kids’ imagination.

As to the biome, there was a lot of information displayed, in manageable chunks, interactive and lots of opportunity to touch and explore. There was lots of food for thought on how to harvest nature’s bounty in sustainable ways. The sustainability message continued through the food on offer (sourced locally and cooked on site, with great variety and deliciously tasty) and the massive shop.

The one thing I was a bit uneasy about was the way that commercial culture was embraced as long as it had a sustainability stamp on it. The shop had so many items on offer, and at the end it was about buying, rather than stopping and thinking whether not buying might be the more sustainable choice.

Of course, visiting the Eden project is no cheap thing. Entry is £23 full price for adults and children from 5 pay £10. This does give you an annual ticket, but that is not exactly much use to us. There are ways to reduce the price tag, booking online is one option. However the cost of getting in was recouped a bit by the tasty and healty, yet affordable food (and the 3pm mark down, when you were able to get your dinner for a pound). One visit of course is not enough and for repeat visits, the annual cost is justified.

The kids loved it, the adults loved it. We were impressed with the staff, the prompt service, the always friendly and enthusiastic approach. The gardens were mature and stunning, and personally I loved the way how living in other climate zones was brought alive for the kids (ahem, and adults in fact), and how principles of nature play and forest education were used effectively. There were many events on which we didn’t have the time to explore, the bottom line is that the Eden Project needs much more than a day’s visit.

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Geocaching

I’m very pleased to introduce Jennifer of Jennifer’s Little World. For some time, I’ve been intrigued by geocaching but never quite knew what it was all about – so I’m excited about having her explain it all right here. Please have a look at her blog which is most definitely worth an extended read!

I’m Jennifer, Mum to Harry (3) and Mia (1). We live in West Sussex, England and I blog about parenting, arts and crafts and days out with the family at Jennifer’s Little World.

We live in a beautiful part of the English countryside, with open space and some beautiful, scenic walks right on our doorstep. But sometimes it’s difficult to take advantage of that with young children that don’t take quite the same enjoyment from the walk that you do, and then complain if they have to walk too far. What you need is some kind of motivation, and for us geocaching provides just that.

Geocaching turns an ordinary walk into a treasure hunt. Geocaches are containers, large or small, hidden all over the world, both out in the country and in urban areas. Those in the country tend to be larger and easier to find, while those hidden in a city are by necessity smaller and more carefully concealed. You find the cache using a GPS-enabled device. Whereas previously you needed to purchase a specific device, these days most smartphones have GPS capabilities, and so along with an internet connection you already have all the basic equipment that you need. To find a geocache you just need to know the co-ordinates of the cache.

The largest website which tracks geocaches is www.geocaching.com, where you can also find a wealth of information about the hobby. Just create a free account and enter your postcode to bring up a list of local caches – it’s almost certain that there are several within a few miles of your house. They are graded according to how well the cache is hidden and the terrain that must be covered to reach it. It’s probably worth looking for one that’s easy to get to at first, especially with small children. We try to choose ones that are not too far from a car park or main road, at least until those little legs have grown a bit.

If you organise yourself you might be able to plan a short walk that takes in two or three. Some caches are even set up as a trail, with the position of the next stored in the previous one. It is possible to enter the co-ordinates for a cache directly into Google maps, but we have found it much easier to purchase a smartphone app. We use the Groundspeak Geocaching Application (http://www.geocaching.com/live/), with other apps also available. They are a little pricey, but if you’re intending to visit several caches then I think it’s worth it. As you get closer to the specified location you will need to keep your eyes open, as the co-ordinates will often only take you within a few metres of the cache. That’s when you can send the children out searching for hollow tree trunks, under banks and behind rocks.

It’s always a thrill to find a box full of treasure, sometimes just metres away from other people (‘muggles” as the geocachers call them) out enjoying the countryside. Admittedly, most of what you find inside will probably be junk, but children are easily pleased.

Make sure to take some treasure of your own along to leave behind too – popular items are keyrings and small toys. Occasionally you might find a trackable item which has been registered with the website and should be moved from cache to cache, with its journey being logged on the website. There will also be a physical logbook inside the cache where you can record your visit and any other notes that you’d like to make about the find, and when you get home you can enter this information onto the website too.

It’s not until you enter a postcode into the website that you find out just how many geocaches there are hidden away. You have certainly walked past one many times, even if you aren’t one for countryside walks. We discovered that there is one tucked away in a hedge at the bottom of our road! Geocaching can also lead you to explore places in your local area and further afield that you’ve never noticed or even heard of before.

Have you tried geocaching? Do you have any tips to share?

image of geocaching find

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Outdoor Play Practice in the Early Years

I started Nature Kids not because I’m an expert on all things outdoors and kids. Far from it. The idea was conceived at the Museum for Rural Life, on the spur of the moment, but with a lot of clarity. There was this lightbulb moment that linked so many things that I feel passionate about.

Interestingly though, I’m sure that in another place and time, this idea would not have formed, simply because the need for promoting outdoor play wouldn’t have been there.

I won’t go down the route of giving anecdotes of my own childhood and how I played outdoors. There is no question that the current generation of children get less time playing out than most of their parents did. What tickled my fancy was the fact that there is  an institutionalised lack of outdoor play opportunities in the early years.

Let me elaborate a bit. My assumption of early years provision was that every child would get daily outdoor time in some shape or form. Nothing fancy. Something like letting baby sleep outside. Like playing outside. Like going for a walk. Simple stuff, just a bit of fresh air and all that, which improves the immune system and makes the child sleep better at night. I took it as understood that this would happen.

For anyone using childcare in Scotland it won’t come as a surprise that this wasn’t the case. And while I hate comparisons, I wonder if it was the German understanding of what is good for a child that caused the friction, because yes, in Germany, it is normal practice that you take your baby out every single day, and that you expect your childcare provider to do likewise.

We have used childcare providers who pride themselves in access to outdoor play. It was on my list of questions at every initial interview. I always got an enthusiastic response that yes, kids would be outside every day.

However the reality is different. It’s all about good weather in all but the obvious exception (that would be the forest kindergarten).  I provided waterproofs for every age that never came home for washing, bearing witness of the nice weather rule that seems to operate. Kids only get out in the sunshine,  never when it rains. And of course it rains a lot in Scotland.

At the nursery I was asked if there was any information missing on the daily diary. I asked for information on time spent outdoors. No follow up, in fact, the diary got scrapped. The childminder was doing reasonably well, as her flat was small and the garden big, so there was more outdoor play than the average but still far from “daily”.

And now, at the induction day to school, a school leading the way in outdoor education in Scotland, a school that dared to run the induction day outdoors, a mildly rainy day meant a transfer indoors (We turned up with a muddy and wet child straight from the woods and I felt very awkward with out muddy wellies and dirty waterproofs but at least my daughter didn’t). I have to say this was not a start that filled me with confidence.

At a previous occasion, the school tour, I asked the children if they got to play outdoors every day and the answer was that no, not if it rained. I prodded on and couldn’t get a straight answer as to what constituted “rain” because really, it rains a lot in this country and if that keeps you from going out to play, well, there won’t be much outdoor play at all.

Now you could say that it’s the parents responsibility but when I come home at 6pm and need to cook and do bedtime (and fit in homework from August), there is generally no time to spend outdoors on the days I work. It’s a rush all the way to the land of nod and for me it’s a choice between a healthy meal and outdoor play. I rely on childcare providers to offer outdoor play and surely it’s not too much to ask for considering the child spends 9 hours there?

There are so many laudable initiatives, campaigns and conferences. But the simple fact remains that we are depriving our children from daily outdoor time in the formative years. And as long as this continues and I get looked at strangely for asking if my child will be taken out more if I provide waterproofs, there is still a lot to be done for all our children.

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Today was brought to you by… Daisies

Summer has sprung.

And today, it was all about daisies.

5 year old took off her shoes as usual, 1 year old copied her and was visibly exploring the feeling of grass and flowers on her feet. There was a lot of daisy picking, double headed daisy making and daisy chains. Daisies entertaining everyone, even the big people.

In other news we have a new pet. A snail living on a dandelion leaf – apparently it’s to join the snails at the nursery terrarium (they are doing mini beasties at the moment). I feel a bit sorry for the wee snail but we are trying to look after it well. I’m amazed at the amount of poo it produces, who’d have thunk.

Congratulations to Anna who won the two tickets to the Scottish Bird Fair and had a great time on Saturday.

And now to some pretty daisy pictures:

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Win 2 tickets to the The Scottish Bird Fair!

If you didn’t know it yet, the RSPB Scotland are hosting their first ever two day Scottish Bird Fair the weekend of the 19th and 20th of May 2012. It’s promising to be a fabulous event, with a range of activities, exhibitors and stalls all in the stunning setting of Hopetoun House near Edinburgh. There are special events, workshops for all kinds of audiences from preschoolers to the bird geek; talks and even trips! – looking at the programme it would take a full week to explore it all. It will also be a fantastic family weekend including activities and events such as face painting, pony trekking, storytelling sessions and eco-expeditions. Children under the age of sixteen get free entry.

If you’re into wildlife, this is most definitely the place to be on 19th and 20th of May.

And what’s even better, I’ve been offered two free adult tickets to give away here on Nature Kids! All you need to do is leave a comment either here or on the Nature Kids facebook page.

Good luck!

Disclosure: I’ve not received any goods or payments for this post other than the 2 free tickets of this competition.

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