Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Category: Everyday Adventures

The Benefits of a “Nature Spot”

For the past couple of years my son and I have spent regular time at a small stony beach on a stretch of riverbank about a 15-20 minute walk away from our home. It’s a peaceful place, punctuated only occasionally by fishermen and the odd dog walker. It’s been a regular destination for us since we moved to this area, but a couple of years ago I intentionally adopted it as our “nature spot”, which we make a habit of walking to at least weekly. We might pack a picnic to eat there, take the paints and sketchpads to do some drawing, collect some seeds, cones or feathers for our seasonal nature display at home, spend some time just sitting quietly and observing, paddle or throw stones in the river or collect and take home litter discarded by others. We’ve visited for the past two Harvest Moons to see our nature spot after dark and at the Spring Equinoxes for a celebratory fire. Sometimes we’re down there a several times a week although if we’re away or have other plans we might not make it for several weeks at a time.

Collecting leaves, berries and seeds for our indoor “nature table”.

Finn paddling in the river with hundreds of tiny fish stranded in a shallow spot as the water level decreased.

Spring Equinox picnic at our nature spot.

Before having children I would preferentially walk somewhere new and different but not always being able to walk far or fast with a wee one in tow, I began to appreciate the benefits of getting to know our local surroundings in a more intimate way and to enjoy anticipating what we might see on regular walks to the same place. As we observe the exact same wildfowl we saw a couple of days previously we start to form more of a connection with them. We often observe our resident heron, the same pair of swans, a male and female mallard. With more of an awareness of our local geography we’ve started to name and map the different locations we walk through to get to our nature spot; kindling wood, the old Beech, watercolour bay, disappointment wood. We now know where the wild plum tree is hidden, where to find crab apples and a tiny lone gooseberry bush. We’ve become more observant and in tune with the seasons, knowing when to expect the first snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells, when the hawthorn, beech and ash leaves come out and when we can first expect elderflower or rowan to blossom. And occasionally I’ve been rewarded with something really special that I never expected to see like the otter who I chanced upon floating down the river a couple of metres away from me when the river was highly swollen last winter. He stared at me inquisitively as he floated past then dived under and swam slightly upriver of me where he floated down to scrutinise me once more before letting the river carry him on his way. On our latest visit to our nature spot last week we spent some time identifying and observing a Dipper that would dive in the river then surface and fly to feed one of it’s young left squawking on a tree branch on the other side of the riverbank.

Creating minibeasts from beeswax plasticine based on our observations of bugs found at our nature spot

Finn’s observational drawing of a daisy found close to our nature spot

Exploring Nature With Children

Something which inspired us to incorporate an intentional nature spot into our weekly rhythm was reading Lynn Seddon’s e-book Exploring Nature with Children. I’ve found this to be a practical, comprehensive and inspiring resource for becoming better aquainted with our local natural environment. Although we’ve not followed Lynn’s curriculum as intensely or regularly as I would like (particularly in the summer when we’re away on other adventures and with Finn still being quite young) we’ve found it helpful to use Lynn’s suggestions to give a purpose to even a short walk or winter picnic. Last year we participated in an organised nature swap, which involved being paired up with a family living on the outskirts of London and sending them a selection of natural objects and information about our own nature spot. In return we received a parcel from our paired family containing pressed flowers, cones and sticks from their local trees. We were particularly surprised to compare the difference between the sparse pollution tolerant lichen on a stick from a London plane with the richly lichen covered branches from our local oaks.

What’s special about a nature spot?

Our nature spot is similar to the concept of the “sit spot”, which I first came across in the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Evan McGown and Ellen Haas, inspired by the American wilderness awareness schools in the tradition of Jon Young and Tom Brown and their mentors. They highlight the importance of a sit spot as a location where you go regularly to observe and study what you see on a day to day basis. Going regularly is important as it means you’ll get to know this spot at different times of the day and through the seasons. Ideally you would visit every day, but realistically I know our family would never manage that! Even just visiting once a week you’ll get to know the trees, the plants and when they flower or when you can expect to see migrating bird life. After a year you can compare from season to season and with the previous year and begin to form a connection between climate conditions and the animals’ behaviour.

Our children are taught about caring for the environment in an often abstract way, in relation to far away places like the Amazon rainforest or to endangered species like Arctic polar bears, yet have next to no understanding of their own local environment and what wildlife they might find there. Environmental awareness and stewardship should really start on our own doorsteps as observing, forming connections and understanding our local wildlife and environment makes us more likely to want care for our own local environments as well as further afield.


How do I choose a nature spot?

Ideally your nature spot might comprise an area of open grassland with woodland or trees and a river or lake to take advantage of maximum biodiversity. More importantly though your nature spot should be close enough to home where it’s not too much trouble to get to on a regular basis, so a spot in your local park, wasteland or back garden is just fine.

When you’ve chosen your nature spot, it’s really just a matter of observing as attentively as possible. Observe any wildlife and what they do and keep a journal which you describe your observations and further questions. Encourage little ones to draw or paint what they see as this encourages them to observe them even more carefully. Draw and measure any animal tracks you find. Pay particular attention to the birds who react most visibly and audibly to anything going on in the area and learn to recognise their calls. Encourage young children to sit and listen quietly, even if just for a few seconds at first! For inspiration get a copy of Lynn’s e-book and integrate some of her ideas and suggestions into your week. Or if all this seems too much, just use your nature spot as a habitual excuse to get outside, even if just for a short while to immerse yourself or your family in nature on a more regular basis.

Observational drawing and painting of autumn leaves found at our nature spot.

Our nature spot in winter. Still ideal for picnics but we do most of our drawing inside!

The Realities of Adventures with my Son

Don’t believe everything our photos would have you believe, adventures with Finn rarely involve a smiling, happy mother-child combination for long. There are moments of absolute joy, but those are interspersed with many more moments of frustration, exasperation and tears, a little like the everyday journey of parenting really.

I was recently asked in an online interview  if our adventures always go to plan. I gave a vague response along the lines of “well, none of our adventures really go to plan but that’s the reality of adventuring with kids”. True, but I honestly couldn’t come up with any concrete examples, just this vague feeling that things never quite happened as I would have liked them to. It was only a few days later, still pondering the question that I recalled some of the minor disasters we’ve had.

It would appear that when it comes to our adventures I develop temporary amnesia. When we return from an adventure and friends ask how it went, I always reply that we had an amazing time. I’m not lying, I just think my memory must block out all the little things that didn’t quite go to plan. Such as how I’ve cried for the first four days of a week long trip, wondering what on earth I was doing, how I’ve nearly exploded with rage on many occasions and have had to battle to keep my own anger under control (with various levels of success) while Finn expressed his, how exhausted I’ve been listening to Finn’s chatter and stories of ancient Greek and Roman battles for close to three hours of walking because I knew as long as he was engaged in a story he’d be happy to keep going. My untrustworthy memory had replaced all the challenges with a sort of warm, fuzzy feeling of contentment.

Finn’s introduction to camping, aged 6 months was at a beach camp site in north west Scotland for a friend’s wedding. On the journey up I started to feel ill and spent the night in an exhausted stupor between the tent to breastfeed Finn and the toilet block to throw up. The selective amnesia kicked in and we returned home from that trip thinking about how much fun it was camping with a little one. So, the following year we were camping again, in the north of Scotland. We’d been at a friend’s house party and had not long retreated to sleep in a field in our tent when Finn woke us up with a spectacular vomiting extravaganza. We mopped up as best we could with any spare clothes and a couple of borrowed towels and were then promptly treated to a repeat performance. His sleeping bag was covered, along with the sheepskin he slept on. Now after midnight, packing up and driving over four hours home was not an option so there was nothing to do but try and get some sleep amidst the stink.

When Finn was two, I must have had a flash of misguided enthusiasm and decided it was time for our first camping trip together, just the two of us. On our first night I pitched up in Ullapool, ready to take the early ferry to Stornoway the next day to camp on the idyllic white sandy beaches of Uig on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. I won’t go into details (it involved a lot of tears), but we lasted all of a night. I couldn’t cope and retreated to my mother-in-law’s house a couple of hours drive away. During our camping trip to Orkney last year, there was no such easy escape. After our trip I wrote “at times, our trip felt like I was stuck in a social experiment or reality TV show. One where two strong willed and stubborn characters were thrown onto an island in a tiny tent to see what chaos ensues. There were highs and there were lows. There were several meltdowns a day. There were ample opportunities for me to practice mindfulness and patience. There were moments where the experiences I was seeking were at odds with what Finn wanted”. Eight months on and the despair I surely felt at the time has been replaced by fond memories of our experience.

By now you’re probably wondering why on earth I bother at all? It’d be a lot easier to stay at home and watch the telly would it not? Well, I often question my zeal myself. On our recent trip to Hadrian’s Wall, hiking in cold, wet and windy conditions and Finn and I arguing over some minor point, I snapped and told him that was it, I couldn’t do this adventuring any more, no more trips just the two of us. In that split second I meant it, but the minute the words were out of my mouth I knew it was a lie. I knew that as soon as we returned home I’d be hatching plans for our next mini-adventure. Finn knew it too. “But you’ll forget mum” he said, recovering himself and smirking, “you always do”. Back to why I persevere with our adventures… Last week as I was hurrying Finn to the bus stop (and he was idly observing something in the roadside ditch) he stopped short. “Mum” he pondered, looking me in the eye, “I love everything we do. Everything we do is such fun isn’t it?” “Absolutely!” I replied with only a blip of a hesitation. Well, maybe that’s all the encouragement I need. A childhood full of fun is surely worth a few parental tears and frustrations along the way? Although it would appear that Finn suffers from the same affliction of temporary amnesia that I do.

So if you’re feeling disheartened by your own less than joyous outdoor family experiences, remember, in all those happy smiling photos, we were probably arguing passionately with each other not five minutes earlier. Take heart, you’re creating some wonderful family memories and your kids are probably actually having a lot of fun, even if you aren’t.

Walking with the Moon

I was disappointed that the cloud cover was too extensive to see the latest Supermoon on November 14th. Over the past few weeks Finn and I have been embracing the darkness by heading out on a few lantern-led night walks and we were looking forward to a moonlit stroll on Tuesday.

Our night walking adventures began with intention last year when we headed down to our local nature spot by the banks of the upper Clyde river to watch the rising of the Super Harvest Blood Moon and it’s red tinted reflection on the water. We took head-torches, but only as a backup; we didn’t use them. My intention was for us to experience our well trodden walk from a different perspective, one that embraced all of our senses as we are usually so predominantly reliant on our visual awareness. It’s surprising how different a familiar place can feel under the cover of darkness.

Moon Walk 2

Finn enjoyed that first evening microadventure so much he started to request a night walk a couple of times a week. Knowing Finn, it was probably just a guise to delay bedtime. But more often than not I’d agree and we’d head out, well dressed up, on a mini night-time adventure. On clear nights we’d star gaze, searching for the few constellations with which we were familiar and learning new ones as time went on. We followed the progress of the moon and learnt about the moon’s phases, we developed our night vision and awareness by seeing how far we could walk without resorting to turning on our torches and we noted how different it was on a moonlit compared to a moonless night. We admired our moon shadows and listened to the sounds of the night, our hearing becoming more heightened as our vision became more restricted.

Moon Walk 5

Moon Walk 3

It was an extra special experience to head out after a snow fall. We had snowball fights in the dark and could easily spot and identify animal tracks in the snow that would not otherwise have been visible. It surprised us to see how many different animals were prowling around so close to home, which we otherwise unaware of.

So as the nights draw in ever earlier, we intend to embrace the encroaching darkness by exploring the night time environment and all it’s magic.

Moon Walk 4

Grey Mare’s Tail

One of last week’s adventures led us to the Grey Mare’s Tail Nature Reserve, with one of the UK’s highest cascading waterfalls. As the crow flies, it looks only a short distance from Biggar to Grey Mare’s Tail but getting there involves a rather more lengthy detour around the hills of the Southern Uplands including a car-sick-inducing stretch of winding road down the Moffat Water Valley.

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The last time I walked these hills was over 10 years ago as a PhD student accompanying a group of undergraduate geography students on a field trip. Glacial geomorphology was never my strongest subject but feeling nostalgic for my academic days I couldn’t help but point out to Finn the spectacular example of a hanging valley. I felt a twinge of pride as Finn seemingly appraised the scene and exclaimed “let’s just stop here for a moment mum and admire the view… Of the car park”. Oh well, maybe Finn’s not quite ready to follow in the footsteps of his geographer mum. But wait. As he raised his stick and pointed it down the valley, I followed his gaze. “Yes, Finn! Can you see the deep U-shape of the valley that was carved out by a glacier?” “Actually, I’m following that car with my stick until it disappears round the bend”. Yes, well, give him a few years…

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Is it a U-shaped glacial valley? No, it’s a car park!

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Finn bounded up the steep but well constructed footpath clinging to the gorge with ever changing views of the cascading waterfall. Then he stopped to admire a large beetle in his path. And so began The Great Grey Mare’s Tail Beetle Rescue as I was instructed to remove every single beetle (and there were many) off the path to avoid them being stepped on, even those who had already suffered the fate of feet. “They’ll more quickly decompose into the earth off the path mum”. Maybe biology is more his thing?

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Another beetle saved

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Hide and seek in the hummocky moraine

Then the heavy rain started. Now Finn is not usually too bothered by the rain but he does object to putting on his waterproof outer-layers. I’m quite happy if he wants to get himself soaked down at our local park but it’s a different matter up in the hills where a cold, wet child is a danger. On this occasion I won out in our battle of wills but Finn made it quite clear for the next 40 minutes that he was unhappy about the outcome. On nearly every one of our walks we go through a stage where Finn complains about the wet or the heat or the path or lack of path. However, if I’m able to see the whining through with patience and calm something always then catches his imagination after which he’ll walk (or run) for hours without complaint. It’s a bit like having a bored child at home. If you can resist the temptation to intervene, they’ll eventually have a flash of creativity and start a project that will keep them engaged for ages. On this occasion Finn’s flash of creativity was discovering the myriad little drainage ditches along the path, most of which contained water which could be conveniently flicked at mum with the clever wielding of his stick. This very stick was one found on our previous walk to Loch Enoch and which has accompanied him on our adventures since. It’s Finn’s equivalent of a multi-tool.

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The ‘stick’

Another picnic in the rain

Another picnic in the rain

People we meet are often surprised to see a such a wee person out in the hills and apparently enjoying himself and he’s always complemented on his fine choice of waterproof clothing. Our hikes along the more popular paths often become quite social occasions as we stop to chat to everyone we meet and to befriend every dog we pass. Close to Loch Skeen, the highest large, natural upland loch in the Southern Uplands, we met a group of National Trust for Scotland employees and volunteers making improvements to the footpath. On our return leg they were very interested to hear Finn’s opinion of the completed repairs. “Good” was Finn’s eloquent response. In return for his valued input he had his photo taken for the NTS twitter page, resplendent with his green jacket and ever present stick.

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As I walked the meandering path through the hummocky moraine I was lost in daydreams of my student days so was surprised when we finally stumbled upon the tranquil shores of Loch Skeen. Cue a lot more splashing of water until Finn eventually deduced that splashing the water into the wind would just result in giving himself a soaking. Maybe that was the idea but rocks and water were all that were needed to detain him at the loch side for an hour and put a big grin back on his face. The clouds parted and we were suddenly bathed in sunlight as we made our way back down the gorge, Finn long having forgotten about wanting to remove his waterproofs.

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Winter Picnics

It might seem a strange time to be writing about winter picnics in the middle of summer, but given our latest picnic earlier this week was spent sheltering under a tree huddled up in fleece and waterproof jackets, winter doesn’t feel quite so distant. This past winter certainly felt particularly long and wet, conditions conductive to curling up in front of the fire all day. Despite the ongoing gloomy weather outside, I was determined to make the most of getting out on some mini-adventures with Finn. Enter the Winter Picnic.

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Without much conscious thought or planning, I discovered through hindsight that the best way to have fun in the cold and rain was to go out for picnics (honestly!). We must have averaged at least one picnic a week over winter, mostly at our nature spot down by the river (more about our ‘nature spot’ in a future post), sometimes further afield. Sometimes a simple snack and flask of hot chocolate, sometimes a more elaborate affair involving a full spread complete with candles and Christmas crackers. We had picnics to celebrate New Year, the Equinoxes, Mother’s Day or just because.

I discovered that ‘Let’s go out for a picnic’ elucidated a great deal more enthusiasm from the wee one than ‘Let’s go out for a walk’. Even when ‘picnic’ only meant a quick snack while out on a much longer walk. And somehow, it soon became ingrained into the rhythm of our week. The act of picnicking became a regular habit and so easier to implement with my son who all through the winter was struggling with transitions, especially leaving the house.

Our picnics had a surprising impact on me too. Scottish winters are long and dark with a corresponding impact on my general mood. But this year, as January and February dragged on, I wasn’t, as I usually am, pining for the summer. I just kept thinking we’d go on another picnic. I realised I was fairly happy and content with where we were at that moment, without wishing away the winter for the summer. I put it down to the picnics.

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Winter Picnic Tips

Don’t forget a flask of hot chocolate, herbal tea or soup. You’ll want something to warm you up. Your picnic can be as simple as hot chocolate and biscuits or take lunch – hot soup or stew in a thermos, finger foods or cook something at home, wrap it foil or something insulating and eat it warm at your picnic spot. I’ll be honest, we pretty much take the same food we do on a summer picnic but with the addition of a flask with a hot drink.

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous take a Kelly Kettle or similar, a simple firestarting kit, mugs, tea bags/hot chocolate powder and optional marshmallows to toast after you’ve made your brew. Don’t forget to take some dry kindling along to get things going if it’s been wet. 

Don’t forget plenty of warm, waterproof clothes. Even if it’s not raining, waterproof over trousers are a good idea if you’re going to be sitting or kneeling on damp ground. I always take a spare pair of gloves for my son who normally manages to get his first pair soaked through in about five minutes after leaving home.

Don’t let the rain (or snow!) put you off. Stay close to home so you can bail out if everyone’s getting miserable and even if it’s a very quick walk you’ll feel better for it and it’s a great way for kids to get some fresh air and outdoor time.

A picnic rug works well for dry days but given our wet climate I never go on a winter picnic without a couple of foam ‘sit mats’, picked up at an outdoor shop years ago for £1.50 each.

 

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