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.
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.
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.