Family walks can be among the best of times; they may also be some of the worst. If the kids get bored or mutinous, far from home on a rain-soaked moor, then things will go downhill fast. So what can parents do to keep children enthused on a long day outdoors? This series of articles by Forest School practitioner Ed Docwra looks at outdoor games and fun things to do on family walks, borrowing some ideas from Forest School and other forms of outdoor learning. Armed with a toolkit of activities, a few foraged leaves and twigs, and some of the gear already in your rucksack, you should be able to keep the kids entertained for hours. They might even pick up the rudiments of outdoor skills along the way.
Spring has sprung and the new buds and flowers are starting to appear. There is lots to discover for little eyes and noses out in the fells and woods at this time of year. Consequently we're concentrating on a number of activities using the senses this season, as well as a great game to help develop kids' balance and agility on steeper ground.
Do you ever take a flask of hot drink out with you on spring walks, when there can still be that chill around? If you don't you're missing a trick, and I don't just mean a nice warming brew out in the hills. Most flasks have a lid which can be used as a cup, and this is all the kit required to make Smelly Cocktails!
Once you've finished drinking your chosen brew (hot blackcurrant is our favourite) get the children to start collecting natural ingredients that they find as you walk. Give them a good sniff and discuss the smells before they add them to the cup. Once it's full get them to find a stick to give their cocktail a good stir so as to release all the smells. Pass it around and talk about what they like the smell of and what they don't, before letting them name the perfumed mix. Then on the count of three throw the contents over their shoulder and release the smells back into the countryside. This game is particularly well suited to the flowers and fresh leaves of spring - though do ensure that no rare wildflowers end up in the mix!
Parkour seems to be really popular right now and I suspect most older youngsters will probably know what it is. So why not encourage them to have a go at their own mountain version? For this, dry spring ground works better than the snow and slippery mud of winter. Get the kids to move as creatively as they can along a chosen route, vaulting stiles, leaping from boulder to boulder, hopping up little rock steps or pulling and holding crazy shapes on rocks and mounds. The movement skills and balance that they work on will help make them more aware of their body and how they move in the hills. Just make sure they don't go onto any hazardous ground where a slip could result in injury.
To help your child work on their balance, coordination and foot placements try a game of Donkey. This has the knock-on benefit of also taking their minds off ascending a steep section of the route. You'll require a steep-ish bit of hillside that perhaps crosses some boulders or a few rock steps. And again, dry springtime ground beats slippy winter terrain. The rules are simple: you have to try to ascend the identified section of your route without putting any hands down. For every hand that touches the ground you get a letter of the word Donkey, so that by the time you get to the top you can all compare and see who is a Do who's a Donk and if anyone is actually a full-blown Donkey. At times children can be very determined, so for this game it's a good idea to put yourself in a spotting position behind them as they ascend so that you can protect any slips.
If someone's already wearing a buff or scarf, then what better use for it than as a blindfold? Guide a blindfolded child (a great activity in itself as discussed in the winter article) to something that would make an interesting photo. This could be anything: a tree; a great sweeping panorama; or a close up of a trickle of water seeping over a rock or an insect on a branch. Raise the blindfold for a second or two (the camera click) and then lower it again. The sudden blast on the senses is quite astounding, and it is great to watch what children take each other to look at.
Add a zoom lens to Camera Clicks by holding up a magnifying glass, for a sudden ultra-close-up of budding leaves, the structure of a flower's petals, mini-beasts or rock crystals. This could of course be a magnifying glass that the child has carried with them expressly for the purpose. What, you don't regularly carry a magnifying glass? Hang on: What about a compass? The baseplate of any decent hillwalking compass will include a small magnifying glass, so you should already have the requisite for this impromptu game.
Nb. For some ideas on child-friendly walking routes see this destination article: Ten Fab Family Hills.
Mountain Leader and Forest School Practitioner Ed Docwra is passionate about getting children outdoors. He also runs specialist children's outdoor retailer Mountain Munchkins, which provides outdoor kit and equipment specifically for children.
When not working at the Mountain Munchkins store Ed can be found delivering Forest School sessions to local schools and community groups or out training with Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue Team, of which he is a member.
You can book him for a Forest School session here
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