Adventures in Nature
I love an adventure, but the trouble with adventures is that its hard to fit them in when you have a family, a busy worklife and a limited resource of time and money, so like many people I know I have been inspired by the book Microadventures . Its author Alistair Humphreys is a fully fledged moutaineering, Amazon-canoeing, rufty tufty type of guy, but here he advocates for a simpler, closer to home sort of adventure, taking the spirit of new, exhilerating experiences and distilling them into the weekend, day or even few hours that you may have at your disposal. Sounds perfect!
So in January a few of us, met in the pub and committed to a year of Microadventuring; twelve do-able mini adventures that would take us out of our comfort zone and open ourselves up to simple challenge and new discoveries. We made a list of ideas including wild camping, wild swimming and mapless exploring (and some other ideas which maybe don’t quite stand up in the sober light of day!) and got our diaries out. Perhaps the easiest on the list was a full moon walk, so we checked the calendar and arranged to meet at St Ives estate at the next full moon, 3 February.
As eight excited adults and children standing in the car park, we were a little disappointed that the only light in the sky was the orange glow from nearby Bingley and Bradford beyond it. We all know this woodland well, being the site of many of our dog walks, family bike rides and some of Get Out More’s forest school programmes. Even so setting off into the woods it felt eerily different; far quieter and still than in the daylight hours. A hazy moon peeped out of the clouds just long enough to feel like a good omen. With eyes not used to the dark, we found our feet were feeling their way, understanding the path from the rise and fall of the ground. We stopped to listen to the woodland sounds but there was still too much traffic noise and giggling to feel we had immersed ourselves in the nocturnal woodland just yet. But later on as we crossed a snow filled field up towards an abandoned barn, a hooting owl silenced us and soon there seemed to a woodland full of owls screeching and hooting to each other, perhaps warning each other of our presence. Familiar sights became strange shapes looming out of the darkness; the silhoettes of horses, a vast electricity pylon. Walking along a rough track we saw the lights of a car and stepped to the side to allow it past, but it spookily made no noise as it approached. Only as it passed us was it clear it was a couple cyclists riding two abreast, looking surprised to see families out walking at night.
We tried to tell the children stories of the ghosts, giants and the legend behind St Ives’ peculiar stone coffin, but they ran ahead to wave at us from a bridge, when suddenly the moon cleared the clouds and cast clear shadows on the ground, creating a cheer from the group. We stopped to admire its reflection on the ice of the coppice pond and shared a warming nip of last of September’s plum vodka. The children were happy with a handful of sherbet pips and making strange pinging sounds by skimming pebbles across the ice.
By now with our night accustomed eyes and the bright light of the full moon, we had become totally confident walking through the woods, taking the darker path back to the car park and admiring the shapes and colours of the moon shining through the branches of the bare winter trees. Back at the van, we tracked the movement of stars with our fingers and identified the constellations we knew as we waited for the kettle to boil and cook the Pot Noodles which we had brought as our post-adventure feast. As adventures go it may be of the micro micro variety, but it still felt like an exhilerating and refreshing thing to do on a Tuesday evening in winter. It made me realise than the dark nights of winter do not have to mean hibernating indoors; an evening’s stroll at night helps me to see the ordinary world in a different light and feel all the more alive for doing it.
Do we take our attitudes to nature for granted? Recently I’ve become more aware of cultural differences in perceptions of the outdoor environment. Kirklees Council has commissioned Get Out More to engage the community in the development of Dewsbury Country Park. This former landfill site is about to become the largest new woodland in West Yorkshire, one of the sixty Diamond Woods, marking the Queen’s Jubilee. The large green space sits sits smack in the middle between the urban and ethnically diverse communities of Ravensthorpe, Dewsbury Moor and Heckmondwike, although our conversations with local people tell us that most people aren’t even aware that the country park is there. Myself and Tom have been running outdoor sessions through the summer and autumn leading people to the site, showing them what they can do there and asking for their opinions for how they would like to see it developed to make them more likely to visit in future. The feedback is an interesting insight into society’s attitudes to the natural landscape.
Many people, especially women, say they feel unsafe, which is understandable given the stories we hear in the media and the evidence of anti social behaviour (litter, graffiti, vandalism and evidence of drinking etc) that is common in urban parks. But ironically it is the lack of people around that also contributes to this sense of insecurity and if we can get more people to use the country park, the safer it will feel. Dog walkers use the site regularly, but dogs themselves are can also be an issue; dog mess and uncontrollable dogs can make off-putting hazards. Walking my own dog in Keighley I have noticed how many people shy away when they see her coming. I had assumed it was straightforward fear of dogs until a Muslim lady on one of our group walks explained to me that in her culture a dog is considered unclean and if one touches your clothes, it is necessary to change them before prayer, which I hadn’t considered before.
Going for a walk in the countryside as a leisure pursuit seems as old as the hills, but is a relatively recent phenomenon which was ‘invented’ by eighteeneth century asristocrats, to the exclusion of almost all but the leisured classes until in the 1930’s the Kinder Scout trespassers fought for rights of access for all . You would be hard pushed to find a cheaper, more egalitarian form of exercise, but going for a walk still retains the air of a middle class, white pursuit. I had arranged to meet a local walking group to show them a route to the country park that they may enjoy on their weekly meets. When the group of fifteen women turned up, about one quarter were wearing flip flops or high heeled shoes. It turns out the walks they were used to were all on urban pavements. They were as shocked at the mud and puddles I lead them through as I was at their choice of footwear for walking! Hats off to the women though: they stayed the full route, carrying the pushchairs over hills and stiles. Their feedback about the need for buggy-friendly footpaths will be help make the country park more accessible for people with different mobility needs too.
Growing up in a village, in a family that enjoyed being outdoors, it is useful to be reminded that people engage with the natural environment from different cultural viewpoints. What seems natural to some may feel alien to others and it is important not to make assumptions. A good case in point: on the same walk mentioned above I was showing the women how to make a fire so we could have a cup of tea. From the comments overheard round the fire, it became obvious that some of the women had grown up in Pakistan cooking all their meals over an open fire, and knew more about the process that I did.
With the Olympics about to close I’m already anticipating the gap its going to leave in my life. Normally I hardly ever watch sport, but for the last 2 weeks I have been glued to the television enjoying seeing the best of the world’s sportsmen and women compete and, like most of us, have taken huge pride in seeing how well Team GB have done. We’ve even been lucky enough to visit to the Olympic park after securing some tickets for the track cycling. (We saw Chris Hoy and Laura Trott compete in their first rounds for events they eventually won – I can honestly say it was the most exciting thing I have ever spectated!) All of this has left me examining my difficult relationship with sport.
Most of my family did well in sport, but I was the exception, proving fairly mediocre in most things I tried. I showed early promise in swimming but when it came to secondary school and having to train regularly to stay in the team, I didn’t have the committment. I quite enjoyed games, but not being gifted at hockey, tennis or netball, lessons soon became a became more endurance than enjoyment and like many teenage girls I went off participating in sport, and wasn’t above making up excuses to get out of PE. Then some enlightened teacher invited a few of us to go rock climbing and suddenly I realised you don’t have to compete against other people to enjoy the thrill of and stretching your body and mind and that outdoor pursuits can be a real buzz. This opened the door to canoeing and mountain biking and these days I most enjoy hiking and wild swimming as a means to get the blood pumping and clear my mind of any stress and pressure that builds up indoors.
The much publicised London 2012 goal is to ‘inspire a generation’ and I am completely behind that idea but hope that within the drive to get children participating in sport we do not lose sight of the bigger goal; to get everyone actively enjoying physical exercise as a healthy habit for life. Not everyone can make it as the next Mo Farrah and Jessica Ennis but they shouldn’t be put off being active if they don’t have the talent to make the team. An hour in a gym would bore me to tears but I’ll walk up mountains all day for the pleasure of it. Likewise children who claim to not enjoy PE at school, run, climb and scramble around the woods for hours at forest school without even realising they’re exercising.
Competition is important; I doubt our gold medalists were inspired by the non-competitive school sports days where ‘everyone’s a winner’ but nor should any child be trying to bunk off school for their dread of coming last, as a friend of mine recently reported about her daughter who I know to be a highly adventurous and able outdoor girl. Helping children to turn their natural instincts for active outdoor play into regular enjoyable activity as they become teenagers and lifelong lifestyle habits as adults should be our ultimate goal. Yorkshire athletes did really well at the Olympics (we’d have come 11th in the medal table if we were a country!) and I’m sure our wonderful landscape has had a hand in motivating them to run, swim and cycle to greatness. The Olympics has inspired me to encourage more sedentary adults to join me in getting off the sofa and enjoy being active outdoors, rather than the face the embaressment of lyrca or the tedium of exercise machines at the gym. But right now I’m off to settle down on that sofa and watch the closing ceremony. Well done Team GB!
I don’t know when they became minibeasts. They were creepy crawlies when I was a child, then became insects or invertebrates if we wanted to be more accurate about it. But minibeasts is the term children are now taught and I like this as the catch-all term for everything from worms and snails through ladybirds and bees to spiders and centipedes. It gets you out of the messy business of having to count numbers of legs, but the term ‘mini-beast’ also makes me think of them of smaller versions of larger animals and puts me in mind of herds of woodlouse grazing dead logs like antelopes on the savannah or fierce ladybirds stalking their prey like lions, which is no bad thing.
Minibeasts is now firmly on the primary curriculum so there’s lots of opportunities to incorporate minibeast hunting into an outdoor session. Equipping them with magnifying glasses, trowels and plastic pots and sending them off to dig holes, turn over rocks and peer under leaves, it is always fantastic to hear their delight at what they find. Adults coming across the Big 6 on a safari would not get as excited! Going on some mini beast hunts with some 4, 5 and 6 year olds recently I noticed how reactions split into 3 camps; the fearful who scream at anything that moves, the curious who want to pick it up and hold it and the bloodthirsty who want to kill it. The sequence usually goes something like this; Curious finds a beetle and manages to capture it in her hand, she shows her trophy to Fearful who screams and tries to run away, but then inches back to have another look. Bloodthirsty comes over to see what all the fuss is about. When the beetle drops from Curious’s hand onto the ground, Bloodthirsty stamps on it before it can escape. Curious is now furious and Fearful becomes tearful.
The challenge for the adult is bring together these three perspectives to a position where we can learn about the animal and its habitat while still being respectful of it and its need to go about its business. Feeling afraid of tiny creatures and wanting to needlessly kill them can come from the same position; disgust. Adults naturally react badly to finding small creatures in the wrong place (e.g. in the house, in food or in their children’s hair!) so children pick up ideas about mini beasts being dirty pests. But in the great outdoors its us that are invading their space so its an opportunity to learn about their fascinating world and how each slimy slug, wriggly worm, scuttling spider and burrowing beetle has a critical part to play in the life of the woods. I’m not great at recognising all the different species so sometimes take a book or reference cards out to help with identification, but mainly I’m happy if our explorations just help children be more comfortable around minibeasts and caring for the world around them. Trouble is persuading some children to show a little less love and attention. Many are the worms and woodlouse we’ve had to rescue from being made a ‘nice house’ in an empty yogurt or carried home in a cardigan pocket full of fluff.
What would playgrounds look like if children could build them themselves? Maybe something like The Baui, an adventure playground in Hamburg, with its huts, towers, bridges and ladders that the children had created from scratch. I’ve just got back from a study trip with Meynell Games, looking at play and playwork in Germany where I’ve been inspired by some truely great practice. At these construction playgrounds children are given wood, tools, nails and free reign to build the playspace as they chose. The concept is not unique to Germany. There is one, The Big Swing, not far from me in Eccleshill, Bradford, but its the only one I know of in West Yorkshire whereas in Hamburg and Berlin there seems to be one in every neighbourhood. Thousands of children and young people are able to spend all their free time hanging out in these freeform playgrounds that they’ve made for themselves.
We visited a wide range of play settings and saw the importance these city cultures place on quality play opportunities. The school playgrounds we saw were not designed by children, but the landscape architects had consulted with them first and incorporated their ideas into the plans. What results in an exciting space that offers engagement and challenge; 7ft walls to jump off, steams to play in, hillocks to roll down and secret hiding places where the teachers can’t see you. It’s enough to send the Health and Safety Officer into meltdown, but its actually had a positive effect on accident rates; there are more accidents but they are a lot less serious i.e. bruises and grazes not broken limbs and concussion (a fact duly noted by their insurers). When you think about it, when all you have to play in is a rectangle of tarmac you’re more likely to climb the walls that surround it or run across it at full tilt to find some level of challenge. As may people are now recognising, taking managed risks is important to gain an understanding of ourselves, stretch our abilities and consequently learn to challenge ourselves in other areas of our lives. If children are wrapped in cotton wool and don’t learn to manage their own risks, as young adults they may play it too safe or take unacceptable risks through a poor awareness of danger.
There are some brilliant examples of exciting and challenging playspaces in the UK but the ubiquitous primary-coloured swings/slide/climbing frame combination is all too familiar wherever you go in the world. Having grown up with these we might ask ourselves ‘what’s the harm in fixed equipment and safety matting?’, but the trouble is we also grew up with playing outdoors, building dams and dens and generally running free whereas today’s children are much more supervised. The school playground or the park offers the most free play many children get, so we need to make sure it offers variety, risk, challenge and flexibility. We need a wide range of materials, heights and surfaces, we need loose parts which can be arranged and rearranged according to the game and most of all, we as adults need to feel confident in allowing children to managing their own risks. Its time to stop playing it safe.