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