We are lucky to live in the countryside and to have so much green space to run about in. I love it. I love the birds singing, the seasonality, watching the garden come to life in May and living in wellies.
I’m always keen for the kids to enjoy the great outdoors. Sure I give them an iPad sometimes and they can play Toca Boca games on my phone, that’s fine. I am monumentally grateful for that instant moment of peace when I really need to get something done like cooking tea or a work email, but otherwise I love being in the garden and love to see them running around like lunatics. So I try hard to create fun for them outside and encourage them to get outdoors.
These are my top tips for getting the littlies off their devices, away from the Disney channel and into the great outdoors.
Don’t be afraid to get mucky. Invest in some wellies and waterproofs. Muddy Puddles have great kit which lasts and is a decent price. They have good sales too. Then get muddy, jump in puddles (Peppa Pig style) and enjoy it.
If there aren’t any muddy puddles, then you can always get out a watering can and make some. My kids will happily ‘water’ everything. We have a makeshift mud kitchen by the outdoor tap with a few bags of play sand and a lot of old cups and bowls which they will happily play with for ages making potions, adding handfuls of grass or building ‘fairy’ gardens.
When out on walks I don’t get them to skirt the mud I give them points for the muddiest boots and we don’t worry about it. In fact on a relatively fine day, any activity that could be deemed in any way messy can simply go outside, so if the kids want to paint, they can do it outside. If they want to make volcanos out of bicarb and vinegar, definitely outside! You can buy cute child size picnic tables like the ones you see in pub gardens but miniature. These are really inexpensive and we now do all slime squishing, painting and any other fun that could be thought of as slightly grotty in the garden at their table.
One of the things we like to do when the sun is shining is get all the chalks out and decorate the back steps. This is fun for them and gives me chance to sit out with a cuppa whilst I admire their handiwork. The pictures brighten the place up and make me smile all the way up til the next downpour washes it away.
We go for a lot of dog walks with our Labrador Chuck and this is something that the kids can really moan about so I have to dream up a lot of mad stories and occasionally bribes so that Chuckles can get his walks and stretch his legs. My daughter is six and very aware of the fact that we can end up walking a long way (to her walking a long way is longer than the end of the drive)! She’s prone to digging her heels in and refusing to come or declaring it the ‘worst day ever.’ One way to get her to come around to the idea is to use a bit of imagination and go exploring. I try to tie in some of her story books like The Enchanted Wood and we go up to the woods looking for characters in the book. Yes I do feel like a bit of a nit-wit scouting about for a man called Moon Face or angry pixies, but everyone is happy so all is well.
Borrow a Dog!
If you don’t have a dog, you probably know someone who does. This has been a brilliant solution for my friend, who has four young kids. So far she has borrowed our dog and another friend’s dog who lives around the corner. They love it, our dog loves it and so do I. It’s pretty good to have a day off and have an option for friendly faces to come walk him if we go out for the day and can’t take him with us. If you are thinking of getting a dog, it’s also a great way to see if a four legged friend will fit with the family.
There are lots of treasures to be found for kids in the great outdoors, no metal detector required! My daughter grabs all sorts of pretty leaves of all shapes and sizes, pine cones, impressive looking stones, the occasional dead butterfly. You get the gist. So to house all these fine treasures we have a tray in the back porch at home where they are all arranged and it looks rather botanical and decorative. I’ve managed to toss out some of the more revolting ‘treasures’ and organise everything else. It works particularly well when we go to the sea side and come back with a few shells to add to the mix. Happy memories.
This has been a lasting craze in our village. The kids paint and decorate rocks and hide them around the village. When they find one they take a picture with their rock and then re-hide it for other kids to find. It’s been a brilliant way to persuade my daughter to get out on a dog walk. I can remind her that she might find some rocks and that is enough to get her running for her wellies.
Find a Den or Build a Den
Kids love a den and we have a particularly good one in the garden inside a massive laurel / box bush. You can’t tell from the outside, but once you go in through a hole in one side, it’s like being in another world with a huge space walled in with gnarled branches. Loads of the larger bushes around the garden are like this and are great climbing spots for our two and their friends. We also built a den from hazel sticks and tarp that lasted a good couple of years (to my surprise).
Build a Bug Hotel
This is something my daughter dreamt up whilst I was busy at the yard mucking out and grooming. Sure she helps me out with my horse all the time, but is quickly distracted and likes to make ‘bug hotels’ with stones. She builds a structure and then decorates it with flowers and grass. She then loves to give me a guided tour of all the features she’s built.
Plant Some Stuff
Trying to plant anything with the kids is hilarious and mad cap. They absolutely love it and I’ve come to realise that a few quid on packets of seeds is a great cheap way to entertain them but….. it seems highly unlikely that anything will actually grow, other than weeds of course. We have a LOT of weeds. We’ve had some great fun with carrot seeds. My two will go through a packet of 2000 carrot seeds in no time. I have introduced the idea of drawing a line (drill) and placing teeny tiny little pinches of seed neatly along the line, just like we see Monty Don do it on Gardeners’ World, but it’s just not going to happen. Chuck all 2000 on the floor is the only method for us for a few years I reckon and I’m OK with it.
To be fair this year we do have a few carrots growing in our veg patch in a haphazard fashion. The patch is bonkers. We have a hand-me-down rotavator from my parents which we blast around it. Last year in the crazy heat wave the ground got so hard I couldn’t dig up our potatoes so they just got left. The ground baked to solid clay. This year we went to the garden centre and bought a few bags of ‘strulch,’ which seems to be mashed up straw. I though this might help a bit in terms of making the ground more erm ‘dig-able.’ To be honest we are just making it all up as we go along. The veg patch has stuff growing all over the place. We’ve planted loads of different things like courgettes, potatoes, onions and some strange curly melon cross cucumber plants. All this stuff seems to be alive, but not doing very much I have to say. I don’t think we will be self-sufficient any time soon although I do feel like it is the Good Life. We might be shopping for veg for quite some time yet. I had hoped in vain that having my little ones help grow some veg, they might actually be encouraged to eat it, but alas no. Tea time is still much like a bush tucker trial in our house and I wonder if it will ever change. At least they are outside though, making mud pies and sowing seeds.
There is one huge success in the veg patch, strawberries are our saving grace. We have bucket loads of them this year and I encourage their little alien ‘suckers’ across the patch to root new plants, then I grub up the older woodier ones, as they don’t last forever. This leads to a bumper harvest and I am hoping to put on a little strawberries and ice cream picnic play date where the kids can PYO and my two and I can get the ice cream maker out and make some ice cream to go with it.
I really like seasonal events like this for building hopefully happy memories for everyone. They don’t always go to plan, like the year of the ‘brown sick’ one Easter egg hunt or a huge project at work that got moved right into the middle of the annual end of year picnic I like to put on for the kids in my daughter’s class. That was a little bonkers and stressful, being on Skype to my Indian team mates trying to coordinate migration activities in a Spanish production system, whilst one of my daughter’s excited classmates was jumping up and down yelling ‘you a silly billy.’
There is a tonne of stuff you can plant, smell, harvest or just chuck about even with the smallest space and kids love to help out. Here are some great options:
Fruit and Veg:
Strawberries – as mentioned these are super easy, tough and throw out their own baby plants magically without any effort. We stuff straw underneath the budding fruit to give it a little soft bed to sit on.
Plum trees – our old plum tree is fantastic and gives us a tonne of fruit without much hassle. We planted a cherry tree and pear too, but nothing is as tough as the plum tree. Our cherry tree had loads of fruit on it, but it’s been attacked by everything by the looks of it and i’m not sure we will be eating any cherries until I find some time to google what to do and try to give it a hand.
Peas – the kids love podding peas. They are pretty easy to grow and at least my eldest will eat them. My youngest only ever wants to put them up his nose.
Potatoes – these are great for kids. They find it easy to put them in the trench we dig in nice even spaces and are very proud of the end result. They are fun to dig up and they will eat them hurrah!
Blackberries – I can’t sing the praises of the common blackberry highly enough. These tasty little fruits are everywhere around us in the Autumn and the kids can’t get enough of them. We eat handfuls of them and they run black mouthed from hedge to hedge. It’s the easiest way I know to get them outside.
Cosmos – the seeds are a nice size for kids to handle so they are easy to sow and pretty easy to grow. We’ve done them in pots and in the garden directly, plus into trays to grow seedlings and plant them out. They come in loads of colours and are really bright and flower for ages.
Wildflower packets – the kids love chucking seeds about so the big boxes of wildflower seeds are brilliant for this. It is best to prepare a patch if you can to give them a fighting chance. These are fantastic for bees too.
Sweet peas – again the seeds are a great size for little hands and you can start them off in long root trainer pots or we have planted them in the inside of toilet roll tubes as well. You are supposed to pinch the top two leaves out once they are established seedlings. Then plant them out in the garden and give them some support to grow up. Willow sticks are great (although can root and grow)! Kids like building structures and can then plant out the little seedlings and hopefully watch them grow and produce lots of flowers. The good thing with sweet peas is that the more you pick them the more flowers you get. My daughter loves picking flowers which I often tick her off for if she is picking from the flower beds, so these are ones that she can pick to her heart’s content.
Sun flowers – we can’t have a Summer season without at least trying to grow a sun flower. This year my step dad has started off dozens of Titan (the biggest sun flower). These have been distributed to the kids in the family and the competition is on to see who can grow the tallest one.
When my son was very little I loved taking him around the garden and offering him all sorts of plants to smell. For example: Lavender, Mint or Rosemary. All very easy to grow.
Obvious items to that you might want to avoid:
Some plants are crazy poisonous and are commonly found. In our garden we have tonnes of Euphorbia so I prune that with gloves when the kids are not around as the sap is really nasty and I tell them not to pick it. We have masses of Deadly Nightshade that I pull out the instant I see it. We have foxgloves and the kids love to watch the bees going in and out of the trumpet flowers but are not allowed to touch. We also have a lot of yew including a huge female yew tree that is extremely beautiful but has thousands of berries in the Autumn. This was particularly difficult with my son who puts everything in his mouth from snail shells to bird poo (arghhhh). I try to manage my stress and be rational with all these hazards and try to educate the kids as best I can. I was very proud one day when I heard my then five year old daughter shouting to her friend ‘no don’t touch that one, it’s got bad sap inside.’
Get Some Chickens
Now I understand this is going to be a bit of a stretch for some and please feel free to skip right past this, but if you have ever toyed with the idea of keeping chickens in your back yard I would say go for it. They are really easy to look after, give you fabulous eggs and kids love them. I am ‘chicken-sitting’ some rangers right now for friends who have gone on holiday. It’s hilarious watching my two year old son stomping around after them arms outstretched shouting ‘cuddle for yooooooo chico-letta.’ I’ve kept chickens on and off for years and years. Once you have a sturdy coop sorted and some space for them to scratch around in, they are very easy, amiable ladies to have around. There are plenty of different types to go for. I have a friend who is a designer and adores the gorgeous breeds, blue eggs and has become quite a collector. I prefer rangers and amber stars as they are good layers and friendly. I find it easier if they get used to human contact and being picked up and petted. Certainly the kids like petting them and the chickens get lots of treats so I assume it is a win win. I like to be able to catch them up easily to apply dust against mites as mites give me the heebie jeebies. Other than dusting them it’s really a case of keeping their coop and bedding clean, giving fresh water, layers pellets and treats. They are quite fussy so don’t give too much food as they leave it and that attracts rats. Keep food in a rat proof bin. There are lots of good resources for keeping chickens online and in the book shops. My advice is to keep it simple. They really are easy and lovely to have around.
Great Outdoors Play Kit
Our number one most popular purchase was a trampoline. Sigh, I know, they are massive and ugly and terrifyingly can blow away in high winds. Ours is weighed down by enormous rocks I rolled down the garden in the middle of storm Doris a couple of years ago. The trampoline was a sizeable outlay because we went for a spring free option as they have a great safety record and really last. I was fretting at the cost. We had just taken on a huge renovation project, I was pregnant and we simply didn’t have cash to spare to be frivolous, but my husband had just taken redundancy and was adamant that this was a wise investment and he wanted to treat the kids. Very adorable considering Alex wasn’t even born yet! I thought he was off his head. In the end he was right. I really hate to say it, but that trampoline has been fantastic for us, the kids, our friends, babies crawling and then toddling about within the safety of its net sides. A few years on it looks good as new. Plus anything that wears kids out is awesome in my book. My son now has enough energy for the entire family including the dog and the horse.
These are essentially ratchet straps like you see on lorries. Sorry I am probably massively oversimplifying this! But as far as I can see from the set I bought, it’s a strap with a ratchet that I’ve strung between two trees in our garden. You can get Ninja line kits that are for balancing that you walk like a tight rope and are fairly low to the floor, but I went for the monkey bar option as my daughter is obsessed with monkey bars. The line goes between two trees and is festooned with hanging bars, balled ropes and hoops that kids can swing along.
Leni’s nan bought some bug binoculars which are like giant magnifying glass goggles. The kids (hopefully gently) capture some unsuspecting bugs going about their business and then trap them in the goggles to have a closer look at their hairy legs. This was very popular.
When we were kids we had so many great spots with tyre swings, over streams and embankments, in huge old oak trees. We had BMX bikes we would ride all over the countryside to our favourite haunts. I fell in love with an up-cycled tyre swing fashioned into a horse and eventually found it at a good price and snapped it up.
Swing and Slide Sets
We’ve used the trees to hang button swings and tyre swings, but we do have one swing and slide set that we bought when we first moved in. Finally having a garden that we owned, not rented and was big enough, was too much to resist. We bought a sturdy wooden set with space for two swings and a slide. It came with bucket swings which we used whilst the kids were little and then progressed on to ‘grown-up’ swings and other attachments purchased separately like hoops to swing on. It has a rope to one side that the kids can climb up. It’s quite fun to drive to a stockist to try out all the different options. There is a very popular outdoor toy store near to Milton Keynes called Wicken Toys. Kids go there for a morning out. It’s basically a massive playground where you can also buy the kit. They will come assemble it for you if you don’t want to built it yourself.
There’s so much great stuff out there and kids don’t stay little for long, so get out there, get mucky and have fun.