Natures playground

Summer holidays are the perfect time to have fun and be creative with your kids outdoors.

In a world dominated by plastic toys and action-packed media, it is sometimes agonisingly difficult to entice children out into the natural environment. All too often, you hear: ‘but there’s nothing to do’ or ‘there’s nothing to play with’.

Sound familiar? Counteracting the negative image that many children have of nature as being dirty, wet, cold, slimy, dangerous or boring isn’t always easy. It takes creative thinking, a lot of patience and a willingness to get ‘down and dirty’ with kids and show them just what can be done with a handful of sticks and a blob of clay.

Nature is really a playground if one learns to recognise the ‘toys’. Valuable lessons in awareness await any child who dams a creek, climbs a precariously hanging branch or discovers the tapestry of a newly-hatched spiderling nursery on a gorse branch. There are also moments of stillness, beauty and reflection, which are important for the development of the mind, body and soul.

As Mark Pickering, New Zealand author and outdoor enthusiast points out, nature is “a reminder that our daily lives actually depend on natural, not human forces”. And we cannot forget Henry David Thoreau’s description of the wilderness as a “tonic”.

Try these nature-loving ideas out next time you’d like to get the kids outside for a breath of fresh air! And remember that doing it with them, not for them is the key.

flax wand

The stalks of native flax or harakeke are a wonderful material for children to use. They are soft enough that a child can push small shells and twigs through the outer bark easily. Collect pieces of broken shell and help them create a wild wand that will transport your child into their crazy world
of imagination.

clay pots and figurines

Clay occurs naturally in many places. Have a hunt around your locality, especially on beaches and riverbanks, for a sticky gooey mix. Then try sculpting little pots or people. Use small pebbles, shells, twigs and leaves for decorations.

stick people

Often the first ‘people’ children draw are stick figures. So why not make some real stick people? Again, harakeke or flax stalks are ideal for this. Children can push twigs into a long ‘body’ piece for arms and legs and then dress their figure using shells, feathers, seaweed or leaves. Make the whole family ‘stick’ together!

harvesting wild plants

Get yourself some wild weeds and have a wild feast! There are many wild, edible plants in New Zealand that are quite safe for children to experiment with. Often you will find them growing in your own backyard. Examples are young dandelion leaves, chickweed, sorrel, land cress and puha. Many flowers are edible too. Nasturtium, heart’s ease, borage, calendula and yellow mustard flowers are just a few examples. Encourage curiosity and caution at the same time by taking along an identification book. Go out for
a wander and gather a wild salad together. Suggest a pot of wild weed and flower tea. Find a cosy spot outside to have a wild tea party!

stone painting

This has to be one of the oldest art forms known to humans. All you need is a beach or riverbank with round smooth rocks to serve as your canvas. Make your own natural paints by grinding up earth, berries or clay and adding a little water. Experiment by using brushes from twigs, strips of flax, shells and feathers, or take along your own brushes and paint.

tree planting

Fostering a sense of connection and pride for one’s involvement in the natural environment is obviously one of the main goals of getting outside. What better way to do that than by planting a tree? A child not only gets to choose a site, dig a hole and plant their tree – they also get to watch it grow. Make tree planting a special event. Your family could plant a tree on each person’s birthday. If you don’t have space to plant that many trees or live in a rental property, ask around friends and family with lifestyle blocks or farms. They may be more than happy to have you enhance their property with more trees.

making leaf crowns
Who wants to be king or queen for one day? Here’s a great way to create a crown together. First, gather up some suitable leaves. Big, long leaves are best, preferably green, although it is possible to use dried autumn leaves too. Then you need a little pile of strong twigs, broken into 4cm lengths. Now ‘sew’ your leaves together by poking the twigs into two overlapping leaves. Press the twig gently in and down, then back up through to the other side. Decorate your crown with flowers and feathers for a truly royal experience!

cooking over a fire

Cooking over an open fire is a great way to teach children about safety around open flames, as well as being super fun. (It’s important with this outdoor activity to respect fire regulations in your local area. If you are not sure what these are, phone your local council.)

Here’s a quick and easy damper recipe. Damper is also known as stick bread. Once you’ve made the dough and got your fire going with a nice bed of glowing embers, wrap a piece of dough around the stick in a sausage shape. Then hold it over the fire to cook, turning slowly so that it cooks evenly. Once it has turned a nice golden brown, take it off the stick and put a knob of butter inside it or a squirt of tomato sauce – delicious!

Damper Dough

For four people, you will need:
2 cups of flour
1 tsp of salt
2 tsps of baking powder
dash of vegetable oil

Mix into a soft pliable (but not sticky) dough with water.

If you want to try something a little more ‘gourmet’, you can add potato flakes, curry powder, cheese or some dried herbs to the mix.

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