I was shocked to read some research by the UK Wildlife Trust demonstrating just how disconnected so many children are from nature and the Great Outdoors. Fewer than one in ten children play in natural areas, and today’s children are almost twice as likely to be able to identify a Dalek as tell the difference between a bee and a wasp.
The romantic notion of children roaming free is confined to the past; over the last century a child’s average range has shrunk from six miles to just 300 yards (275m). Much of this can be attributed to the increase in population and, of course, the rise of the motorcar, but it serves to illustrate the realities today’s children are under. Increasingly, indoor screen time has replaced outdoor playtime. The result is spiralling levels of childhood obesity and a day-to-day life that’s divorced from the natural world leaving our little ones more anxious, less able to concentrate and with difficulties dealing with stress.
Us humans are living, breathing beings, which means nature is essential to our mental and physical wellbeing. Respect for wildlife and the environment around us isn’t just good for nature, it’s good for us. Think of the services nature provides: food, clean air, raw materials, medicines – the list goes on. Instil in children awe and respect for nature, and surely they’ll grow up to cherish and care for it.
You don’t have to travel far to get started. You don’t even need to leave the garden! Our tiny patches of green are often more biodiverse than the surrounding countryside, with countless bugs, birds and other wild visitors to keep the young ones enthralled. There’s no secret to creating a fascination with nature and wildlife – just get them outside and interacting with it.
I’ll be the first to admit that ‘go outside and play’ isn’t necessarily going to win them round to the idea. So you’ll need to get creative. Here are a few ideas to turn your garden into a natural playground.
Quirky containers: Get them to plant up a container with a difference, whether it’s an old boot stuffed with sedums, a sink turned into a garden pond, or a reusable grocery bag brimming with herbs. Make sure the would-be container has drainage holes punched into the bottom, fill with potting soil, and sow or plant with abandon. Think outside the window box and get creative!
Build a den: Kids love den building. And don’t worry, you don’t need your own forest for this one. Help them to make a wigwam from bamboo canes then cover it with an old blanket to create a cosy outdoor hideaway. You could even create living willow structures using one-year-old willow stems or ‘rods’. Or train pole beans up a bamboo wigwam for an edible retreat.
Feed the birds: Younger children will love this simple project. Collect a few chunky pinecones to serve as your bird feeders, and tie a length of string to the top so they can be suspended from a tree. Smear soft lard or nut butter onto and into the pinecones – get the kids to push it right into every nook and cranny. Now roll the pinecones around on a tray of birdseed to coat the outsides. Hang your natural feeders up and wait for the birds to feast.
Make a bug hotel: Bug hotels of any type will boost the wildlife value of your garden while giving the little ones a sense of wonder as the six and eight-legged guests check in. The simplest bug hotels create accommodation for a wide range of bugs using a range of room furnishings, from straw to hollow stems to old tiles and rocks. Use old pots or watertight boxes as the shell, and place your hotel somewhere relatively dry and sheltered.
Deputy head gardener: Children love being given responsibility. So invite them to become your deputy head gardeners! As well as helping to sow, tend and harvest, they could try making plant labels painted on flat stones or scraps of wood; bird scarers from suspended clusters of old CDs or by making a homemade scarecrow; or pots for seedlings using toilet roll tubes, old yogurt pots and other kitchen recyclables.
Turn bug detective: Send them out a-hunting…for creepy crawlies. They’ll be amazed by just how many different types of bug they will find in even the smallest garden. Equip them with a magnifying glass and a spotter’s guide and challenge them to find as many different bugs as they can. Turn it into a competition if you like: who can find the most bugs in half an hour? You can find a handy bug identification guide on The Big Bug Hunt website. Get them to report the bugs they find while they’re there and it’s official: they’ll be citizen scientists contributing to major international research to better understand how and when bugs appear and spread.
Spell their name: Can they spell their name using materials found around the garden? Use old leaves, sticks, stones, feathers and other natural items to create a collage. Or sow seeds of fast-growing salad leaves that will sprout to reveal it, then get them to weed, water and harvest their name.
More time outside is guaranteed to bring out the love of nature that’s intrinsic to all of us. I’m sure you will have lots of other ideas for child-friendly projects. If you do, don’t forget to share them below.