About zoejanemcdonald

Ghostwriter, copywriter, journalist, editor

Wild Winter Play


Wildmum’s eldest started school in September. He loves it mostly, but is struggling with the transition to a five day institutional week, spent mainly in a building where despite the fun, a lot of sitting down happens. The other day,  he said: ‘Mum, we hardly ever go to the woods any more.’ I had convinced myself that the daily runaround in the playground next to school was enough, but it seems he’s missing the quiet freedom of the outdoors.

It got me thinking about how difficult the demands of structured education are for four and five year olds and how it can cause unstructured playtime to fall by the wayside. A wealth of research has been quoted by academics and educators in recent weeks, in the wake of the government’s mental guff about starting two year olds in ‘pre-school preparation’. We know the following: Finland, where children start formal education at 7, has an excellent education system and scores top in the developed world for English and Maths. Likewise in Denmark, open air culture, ‘friluftsliv,’ informs kindergarten and preschool approach. In contrast, British schools are required to teach in a more prescriptive, less play-led way and children start formal schooling at 4 and 5 (if Gove gets his way, it sounds as if toddlers may soon be learning their ‘Willy Willy, Harry, Ste’ rhyme).

Compounding all this, as the folks at Project Wild Thing #wearewildthing highlighted so eloquently in their film (which you can now watch, for free online if you haven’t seen already: http://projectwildthing.com/film), of the free time our small children do have, only a tiny proportion is spent outside. There’s so little room for outdoor adventures, once organised, orchestrated and payed-for activities, swimming lessons, indoor softplay, Cbebbies and homework are accounted for.  In the words of Professor Tanya Byron at Mumsnet’s recent #blogfest: ‘we are raising our children in captivity.’

The fact is, it’s far easier in the summer to enable outdoor play (and more appealing for adults too), but children really need it year round.  So I’m making a promise to myself to rethink my weekends to make sure that there’s some lengthy wildtime without fail, whatever the weather, and to make sure my littlest gets plenty of it when her big bro is at school.

This weekend our wildtime took the form of a brilliant 5th birthday party courtesy of the folks at Hidden Woods (http://www.hiddenwoods.co.uk/). The children had so much fun making these mud dinosaurs (below) out of clay and seed pods, twigs and leaves they found on the forest floor. Why not try them at home with a lump of modelling clay and some naturally sourced extras foraged on a local walk…..

mud dinosaur closeup

Meantime, here are three tips from Hidden Woods’ Steve Sutherland for tempting kids outdoors when it’s cold, rainy and the sofa is calling your name…

‘Dress yourself and your child properly, and take your all-weather kit out with you (in your buggy or car boot) even if you’re not sure you’ll need them. Waterproof all in ones, wellies, warm hats and gloves mean that you’ll be comfortable and weatherproof and children won’t get distracted or put off by feeling wet or uncomfortable. Even squeezing in half an hour in the woods or a wild bit of your local park, is brilliant for children.’

‘Small children worrying about getting muddy and messy is a common problem, but they will be led by you, so encourage them to enjoy it and don’t be too ready with the hand sanitiser or baby wipes. Save that for the end. Show them you’re enjoying squelching, digging and climbing and they will too.’

‘Take your ‘sandpit kit’ to the woods with you – children can use the bucket to collect natural treasures or creatures, and the spade to dig in the mud.’


October. Halloween, wild encounters and wet play


 We’re on the hunt for….. a pick-your-own pumpkin

Hallowe’en is nearly here. Whatever your take on the macabre marketing of this festival of the dead to little people, it’s hard to ignore. Even if you don’t want to go down the party route (Wildmum’s fingers got burnt last year when ours ended in wailing), everybody loves a spot of artistic carvery. Last year, we picked our own pumpkin from Garson’s Farm (www.garsons.co.uk), which added to the ceremonial feel, and the gathering of it was a welcome reminder of the time and energy involved in growing these beautiful veggies. We opted for a smiley face, rather than a scary one and called him Pete. This year, we’re admiring quirky creations like these beautiful owls (below) at www.marthastewart.com  (not that there’s the time to create anything quite this complex, but still). Last year, a neighbour created one so intricate, it looked like a Rob Ryan papercut. She explained such delicate carvings are traditional in her native Poland.





Wild wisdom on: Natural encounters

Filmmaker David Bond @wearewildthing has created a moving, persuasive and inspiring polemic with his film, being released on 27 October. Get tickets at projectwildthing.com if you haven’t already. We caught up with him on Skype to pick his brain on outdoor play. 


Do you think ‘wildness’ is key to the quality of children’s experience and play? Is a forest always better than the park?

“No, I think it’s really important not to think hierarchically about the outdoors. There’s no such thing as ‘good’ outdoors and ‘bad’ outdoors. Even a small patch of grass with a few trees on it can provide an exciting, enriching and liberating experience for children. If you start to put limits on wild play, it becomes exclusive. The most urban of environments can contain precious outdoor havens and even if they’re mini-ones, there’s plenty these natural spaces can offer. Just stopping to rifle through the leaves in a roadside hedgerow, or scrabble in the mud beneath it can engross children. The simplest natural wonders: tunnelling worms, rain-choked spiders webs and strange berries can spark fascinating conversations.”


Why do you think families have lost touch with the ‘wilderness’? 

“There’s so much to distract us and we’ve become fearful of traffic, wary of stranger-danger and reluctant to get messy and muddy, because we’re out of the habit. There’s so much to be said for exposing children to environments where they can have wild encounters. The other day, I took my children out for a walk in Nunhead cemetery. Albie, my youngest, found a severed crow’s wing. He was fascinated by it: it was so light when he picked it up and this triggered a brilliant discussion about aerodynamics and the mechanics of birds’ skeletons. It’s wonderful how unpredictable and wide-ranging these explorations can be.”


Lots of parents would have stopped him from picking that wing up…

‘Yes, and I think that we’re now so fixated on hygiene and so reliant on ‘designated’ play spaces and experiences, that we’re losing out on the value of these elemental, everyday miracles. I was talking to the naturalist Chris Packham the other day and he told me that his passion for wildlife began as a boy, when he kept dead foxes in a box in his shed and studied them as they decomposed. There is no substitute for the observation of nature when it comes to learning about the way the world works.’



This month’s most coveted

A fruit press. Maybe it’s because of the long summer, but apple trees everywhere seem to be especially bounteous this autumn. It’s making us crave a proper fruit press, for making juice for the kids and cider for grown ups. This one from Amazon, is under £50, too, and there are lots more on Ebay….


September. Autumn glory.



We’re listening out for: Birds

Virgin twitcher? Get to know your local birds by opening your ears to the resurgence of the dawn chorus, making a return this month before tailing off again in late October. Lower-key than the spring one, it’s still a soothing soundscape to wake up to. Listen to the National Trust’s recording, with timed markers for the calls of different birds including the chaffinch, robin, wren and blackbird. See how many you can tick off, even in city centres, next time the little people are awake early doors….  http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1356393771610/



Click this: Awesome wild play app

Momentum is building ahead of the  forthcoming October launch of a new documentary on children and nature, highlighting the importance of outdoor Play. Filmmaker David Bond is campaigning to encourage outdoor play for children around the UK, especially in urban areas. Sign up to join his campaign and view the trailer for his film at www.projectwildthing.com. Best of all, download the free Wild Time App from the App store: it’ll suggest original outdoorsy things to do with your child whether you have ten minutes or hours to kill.


Wild wisdom on: Foraging and feasting


Picking wild mushrooms is not to be attempted unless you know what you’re looking for. A cautionary first-hand warning: In the olden days of Wildmum’s youth, Dad picked a basket full of beautiful brown mushrooms in a French forest on a family holiday. He fried them up (at which point they began to ooze a dubious looking puss-hued slime), served them on toast (‘er, no thanks Dad…’), ate them indignantly himself, deaf to the protestations of offspring… and spent the following night on the loo. The next day, taking the remaining handful of ‘shrooms along to a French pharmacist, we children sniggered when the man behind the counter told us ‘ah, oui. These are famous laxateef….’

So, it’s important to make sure you know what you’re after, clearly (or you could end up with more than just an an upset tummy). All that said, when you do get the right ones, such as the delicately fragrant Puffball (which looks like a chalky stone and cannot be purchased anywhere but the most specialist markets), the results can be seriously rewarding. We asked John Wright (www.wild-food.net), River Cottage foraging guru who has written numerous foraging guides and runs training courses in the New Forest, for his top tips on scavenging with children:

Why should parents take their children foraging?

“It’s brilliant fun. Children are natural foragers; why else would every mother or father have to repeat the famous invocation ‘Don’t eat the berries!’ I am always delighted by the native dedication of even the most urban child to find the next mushroom or plum. Their excitement is palpable and otherwise fractious children will enjoy hours in the woods without complaint. Foraging is an instinct and children inherit it uncorrupted by time and the distractions of modern life. Most of us grown-ups remember the foraging trips of our childhood with misty-eyed pleasure – outings with my parents and sisters blackberry picking or cockle hunting are still bright in my memory, even after fifty years.”

What are the easiest and safest things to forage?

“At this time of year, apples, crab apples and plums are abundant and are easy to find even in urban streets. And of course, this is peak bramble season too. Mushrooms require more caution, for obvious reasons, especially when you are foraging with children, but with a good guide books (always use more than one), and by following the check list on my site (detailed below), there is no reason why you shouldn’t find delicious edible fungi.”

For safety reasons, it’s best to encourage children to spot them, but not to touch or pick them. 

Here is John’s safety checklist:

1. Never eat any fungus if you are not absolutely sure of its name.

2. Never take any notice of old wives tales about silver spoons, or whether or not you can peel it, or if it grows on wood it’s OK and so on. These are all rubbish.

3. Familiarize yourself with the poisonous species such as the Death Cap and the Yellow Stainer.

4. Use your books carefully, making sure that the descriptions and the photographs (and the key, if it has one) all agree with each other.

5. Always use more than one book.

6. Always gently lever unknown mushrooms out of the ground and handle them with care. This will preserve important characters for identification.

6. Always try a little of a fungus the first time you eat it to check if it agrees with you.

7. In general you should cook wild fungi as some are quite poisonous raw.

8. Don’t mix up your known edible finds with your unknowns in the same basket.

9. As with fireworks on 5th November, only one person in any kitchen should be in charge.


And in case you’re wondering, John identified the specimen in my picture (above) as Dryad’s Saddle: ‘edible, but not very tasty’.

This month’s most coveted

As someone who baulks even at Hunter prices, these are de trop £££. But whilst we’re splashing about in our £15-off-Amazon jobbies, we’ll be dreaming of these little rubber beauties, tapping into memories of years spent in regulation 90s teen DM 16-holers. Ilse Jacobsen wellies, £110 www.ilse-jacobsen.com/en-uk



Mid August. Heart of the school hols.


We’re looking out for…..

Shooting stars. Still surfing the stardust of the Perseid meteor shower, despite the fact that it was mostly too cloudy to see much where we were. Before it peaked, Wildmum spotted a Disney-calibre shooter from a friend’s balcony on the South Coast, but  cloud cover later meant that there was little to be seen in the days that followed. Spent more than one evening, expectant sleepy child in lap, squinting up through the clouds to try to work out if any of the twinklers were moving.  Hope you were luckier! All the excitement refreshed our passion for the planets though. We love the Sky Above App (69p, itunes), which allows you to use your smartphone to identify constellations and planets directly above you. It’ll do till our telescope fund grows….

Click this

Looking for somewhere fun and new to play near you? Check out Play charity Play England’s interactive ‘play map’ where you can explore parks, playgrounds, and play areas all over the UK: http://www.playengland.org.uk/map

Wild wisdom on…..mindful parenting


You’re ankle deep in a bladderwrack-filled rockpool, looking for crabs, or mid-den build in the woods, when you feel the tantalising buzz of your iphone in your back pocket. Do you a) re-focus, zone it out, and carry on playing, or b) check it, quickly, but then find it hard not to text back/ check your instagram feed/ respond to that work email you forgot about earlier? Ever wondered what a more mindful mum does in the same situation? We asked Guinevere Webster, clinical psychologist, mother of three and mindful hypnobirthing teacher with Mindful Mamma www.mindfulmamma.co.uk for her advice:

  • ‘People often think small children are incompatible with practising mindfulness. But Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, who literally wrote the book on mindful parenting (Everyday Blessings, published in 1997) talk about how children are resident zen masters – they will show you how to live in the moment and provide you with countless opportunities to practise mindfulness. For me the biggest obstacle to mindfulness in parenting is the same as the difficulty with mindfulness in any context – it’s so different from our habitual mode of operating, it requires commitment to keep practising.’ 

So what’s the key?

  • ‘Acceptance: mindful parenting is about accepting our children as they are – and accepting ourselves too – without judgement, with compassion. The increased awareness of your own and your child’s emotions means you can skilfully select a response to your child’s behaviour, rather than an automatic reaction you might regret later.’

Are you a believer in mantras and mini meditation as tools for mindful parenting?

  • ‘It doesn’t need to be that formal. There are numerous times every day for informal meditation practice – waking up to the present moment as I feed my baby, brush my daughter’s hair, chop vegetables. Coming to my breathing as I feel my frustration rise while the kids dawdle getting ready for school. Cultivating compassion for myself and my children as I reflect on a not-so-fine moment of mothering. And so on.’

What does the psychological research show about parenting mindfully?

  • ‘Research by US psychologist Larissa Duncan suggests that mindful parenting can help parents to cultivate family relationships with their children that bring more fulfillment and joy, increasing the parents’ satisfaction with their parenting skills.’

Do you advocate switching off mobiles and computers when you are with your children?

  • ‘Children learn so much from watching us, and I’m keen not to model over-use of electronic devices because I’d like them to rely mainly on their own resources for play and creativity rather than electronic ones. So I do try to limit my use of my mobile and computer when I’m with my children. We also have no wireless in the house which is a way to define time at the computer. But this is a personal thing, and each family will know best what approach works for them.’

What’s the best way to fight distraction as a parent and become more present?

  • ‘Simply tuning in. Make the intention to use the moments when your child connects with you as wake-up calls to the present. Nothing snaps you into the now faster than the sound of your baby’s laugh or the touch of your small boy’s hand as you cross the road.  These moments, often so ordinary, are the true rewards of parenting – the joy is in being present for them.’

The Mindful Mamma Hypnobirthing Classes


Mindful Mamma Hypnobirthing is the perfect way to prepare for a confident birth. The original one day class combining mindfulness and hypnobirthing. From £99.

This month’s most treasured…..


On the aesthetic front, it’s fair to say: no great shakes. But to the newby camper/ sleepless parent these little fluffy wonders are a lifechanger. They’re fleecy bands with comfortable earphones inside: just attach a wire to your MP3 or phone and drift off to whatever you like (waves, music, the shipping forecast on loop). Gotta love a product that calls itself ‘pyjamas for your ears’…. £28.60 from http://www.amazon.co.uk

July. Heatwave. Finally!

BART is celebrating Earth Day and our every day blue skies in two ways.

School’s justabout done. Woop.

We’re looking out for….

Berries. Find them in a hedgerow, garden, or pick-your-own near you now. Brambles aren’t ready yet, but we’re especially excited about the teeny, uber-sweet alpine strawberries, delicate raspberries and gently perfumed loganberries ripening now. Last year, the Loganberry plant we bought for £2 in a car boot sale fruited so much, it made eight jars of totally delicious jam (all of fifteen minutes to make). The satisfaction delivered an entirely disproportionate rush of domestic pride that lasted well into September.


Moths. Forget the ones that eat your clothes, currently banqueting in a jumper draw near us… There are thousands of native species and they do a great job pollinating flowers and feeding baby birds, just like their blingier daytime relatives, but without the fairytale PR. These nocturnal wonders are under-appreciated, and it’s time to redress the balance. A spot of moth-gazing is a good way to pass the time on hot nights when children wake up, grumpy and sweaty, and won’t settle. There’s a brilliant species guide at http://ukmoths.org.uk/ We like the look of the Scarlet Tiger, Yellow Shell and Purple Bar varieties, flying now, although the wet June means there are likely to be less of them about than usual. Light a candle, sit outside (ideally near a night scented plant, such as honeysuckle or jasmine, where they like to feed on the nectar) and wait…. Glass of Rosé optional.

Wild wisdom on…. Outdoor swimming

Weeds tickling your toes, the smell of fresh mud, the silvery glimmer of a fish tail. Freshwater swimming and paddling is a great (and often more accessible) alternative to a long, hot drive to an overcrowded beach. From city havens such as Hampstead Ponds in London or Salford’s Watersports centre, to deserted rural spots you can have to yourself, there are plenty of places to explore. But how can your persuade squeamish littlies not to mind the squelching underfoot and what’s the best way to ensure your freshwater adventure is a pleasure for you as well as them? We asked wild swimming guru Daniel Start, dad of Rose, 2, and author of Wild Swimming: 300 Hidden Dips in the Rivers, Lakes and Waterfalls of Britain (Wild Things Publishing, £16.99) http://www.wildswimming.co.uk/wild-swimming-new-book/ for his top tips:


‘Set clear boundaries for children and make sure any current is gentle. Even shallow sections of fast-moving water can knock you off your feet, so be especially cautious with non swimmers.  Remember, the shallower or narrower the riverbed becomes, the faster the water will flow (hence the expression ‘still waters run deep.’..)’

‘Create an adventure narrative. Use the words from well-loved bedtime stories to make the sensations exciting (‘squelch squirch’). Talk about the swishy, silky weeds, and the cool, refreshing water. If they really don’t like the feel of mud underfoot, or if you are walking over slippery rocks, try some water-friendly shoes that they can wear to swim and paddle in’ (see this month’s most treasured, below, or try some rubber-soled plimsolls).

‘Avoid swimming in urban areas unless water meets the Environment Agency’s bathing water directive. Check at http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk before you swim if in doubt. Waterborne diseases such as Weil’s disease (from bacteria in rats’ urine), is more likely to be found in urban water.’

‘Try some pond dipping whilst you’re by the water. Pack a few different containers (light coloured margarine tubs are great as children will be able to see what they’ve caught). Look out for ‘water scorpions’, underwater predators who hide under leaves and ambush tadpoles, and diving beetles (who dive to catch small fish, and can also fly).’

Want some ideas on where to go for your swim? Check out the Wild Swimming map at http://wildswim.com – enter your location and watch the spots nearest you pop up.

This month’s most treasured

Waterproof sandals

Designed so you can wear them in the water, US brand Saltwater’s sandals are officially the comfiest summer shoes around, for grownups and children. We love the gorgeous range of colours and the fact that after three years of use, the navy ones Wild Mum has look almost new, despite forays into rockpools, muddy riverbanks and a whole lot of pavement pounding. If we didn’t already have the mini red ones for our toddler, we’d buy these, from www.jcrew.com.  Find the grownup ones for £49 at http://www.toast.co.uk.

June. Not that anyone’s told the weather.

2013-06-10 11.24.49

Midsummer, solstice time

We’re looking out for…. The last of the wild garlic for delish DIY pesto (find it in woodland all over the UK, you’ll smell it before you see it, and the pretty white flowers are edible too).

Elderflower blossom everywhere from city parks to country lanes. Just add the flower heads to sugar and lemon zest to make a syrup, then strain for your own cordial. We like the recipe on BBC Food.

Cuckoo spit bugs. These little green bugs, called froghoppers, suck the sap of plant stems, creating lots of bubbles. Great for budding biologists to inspect under a magnifying glass.

Baby fledgling birds, downy feathered, and out on their first sorties, from wood-pigeons to starlings,  blackbirds to robins (without their red breast, that comes later)…

Wild wisdom on….. camp fires

Each month, I’ll be asking an expert for the lowdown on something fun to try. For our first post, Lucy Baile, who runs Fern forest school in Somerset and leads playwalks for families shares her tips for building a brilliant and safe fire with small children. Her rules apply whether you want to light it in your back garden, or further afield (make sure you ask the local council or landowner for permission first).

lucy fire

‘Before you start,’  says Lucy, ‘it’s important to ensure you’ll be able to quickly and safely extinguish your fire should you need to. And always make sure you have permission to light one if you are on public or private land that is not your own. Call the council, or check with the local landowner first.’

‘Keep a small, old baking tray in your backpack – it makes a fantastic, light and dry base for a fire, and keeps it contained and small. You can also cool it down quickly by splashing it with water, ready to pack up for next time.’

‘Create a safety barrier with stones or string and explain that children can look at the flames but should stay behind the barrier. With small children, the language that works best is positive. If you say ‘don’t touch the fire,’ they may just hear ‘touch the fire.’ Instead, say ‘sit there for a good view, or ‘stay behind this stone/ sit on this log to be safe.’

‘Use wild dried nettle stalks or dried out cow parsley as kindling – it’s everywhere. Or if it’s a bit damp,  a few balls of cotton wool make brilliant firelighters.’

‘Build a ‘waffle’ fire, with scrunched up newspaper, cotton wool or natural dried kindling at the bottom, criss-crossing four layers of finger-width sized twigs (ask your children to help find the sticks and do the ‘snap’ test to check they are dry enough to light).‘

‘Older children can start adding a twig or two to the fire once it has been lit, under your supervision. Teach them to move towards the fire slowly, go down on one bended knee when they get close (this ensures stability and makes a quick exit easy).

Find out more about Lucy at  www.fernforestschool.co.uk

This month’s most treasured

What with this being a cold, wet, sort of summer, I’m attached to my thermos. In my mind, I’m filling it with nourishing miso, or fresh mint from the garden. Back in the real world, it’s strong coffee. Perfect for keeping sleep-addled parents going on drizzly days out. Love this one from Hello Kitty for Liberty

Hello, thanks for looking me up!


A recent poll for Unicef UK found that British children crave outdoor play and quality family time above all else. But with work pressures on parents, the whims of our weather and the daily to-dos of family life, it can be hard to find the time and space. In an age where toddlers can operate touchscreens with alarming aplomb and it sometimes feels as if nothing is sacred (loo breaks, meal times…) when it comes to the finger-twitching siren call of our smartphones, we’re all craving a break. I think being outside, with the sun, wind and rain on your face (and the little faces around you) is the best antidote there is.

With this blog, I want to share info and inspiration for parents, carers and teachers everywhere, whether you’re bang in the middle of an inner city (where I grew up), or somewhere more remote. There are loads of amazing mini-woods and wild areas in parks all around the UK, and there’s plenty of outdoor fun to be had in the backyard too.

I’ll be asking forest school practitioners, educational psychologists and likeminded parents for their take on fun, outdoorsy things to excite and inspire small souls, even when it’s chucking it down and your jungle is an urban one.

Check out the Pinterest board at http://pinterest.com/wildlearning/go-wild-outside/, or drop me a line here with any ideas you’d like to share or things you think I should write about.