Imagine the scene: a group of primary school-aged children sit cross-legged on a huge khaki-coloured canvas under a canopy of trees in one of Wales’s most magnificent parklands, eagerly anticipating the morning’s activities.
It’s raining heavily but the trees that tower above them provide ample cover; besides, they’re all wearing old clothes, wellies and waterproofs, prepared for plenty of messy outdoor fun.
After some friendly introductions, Haf from Natural Resources Wales tells the children that in the next two hours they’ll be getting their hands even dirtier than usual: today, they’ll be making their very own mud.
You could sense the glee in the air as groups of two and three children scuttled off into the trees with their spades and bowls to start digging. It wasn’t long before they were happily adding water to the clay-coloured soil and mixing the gooiest concoction of their young lives; cake making this wasn’t. Even having to extract the odd worm from the mixing bowl didn’t distract our young adventurers from the task at hand.
It was the third time I’d taken my grand-daughters to one of the free morning activities at Tredegar House in Newport (and about their eighth overall session) and watching as they enjoyed a morning of absolute delight (throwing mud at a tree trunk was a particular favourite for the younger one) has prompted me to admit that even a blogger can get things wrong.
The campaign aims to get primary school children to try ‘outdoor adventures’ they’ve not experienced before at National Trust properties and locations up and down the country. Sign up and they get a sticker pack, summer trail and a map of wherever it is they’re going to start venturing into the great outdoors.
In my blog post, I stressed that while I’m 100% behind any effort which helps to get young children outdoors and active, the 50 things listed seemed to be things that children used to do naturally and without any adult prompting. Moreover, the activities themselves didn’t sound particularly exciting, leaving me with to conclude that the whole idea seemed rather tame and pointless.
Well, I WAS WRONG. If the excitement (and repeat attendance) at Tredegar House is anything to go by, the National Trust activities have been the highlight of many children’s summer holiday.
What I hadn’t factored in was the sense of fun that the leaders brought to the activities. The enthusiasm and energy shown by Juliet and Haf was definitely infectious and, within minutes, even the timidest of the children was hanging onto every word. At one session, an eleven-year-old boy hung back at first, looking as though he’d prefer to be anywhere other than keeping an eye on his younger sister. An hour into the activities and he was bounding around with the rest of them, won over by Juliet’s encouragement and cheerfully interacting with everyone.
The National Trust explains the rationale behind the campaign was ‘worrying evidence’ that people are losing touch with the outdoors. It added that ‘children, in particular, are spending 60% less time outdoors than their parents did at the same age’. To reverse the trend, the Trust decided to compile a list of easy and fun outdoor experiences ‘we think all children should be able to do before their twelfth birthday’. It was a gamble, this focus on good old-fashioned fun, but it seems to have been a huge success with children and parents alike.
I’m not sure that I used to throw home-made mud at trees forty-odd years ago but there was no doubt the children were having a whale of a time doing just that.
It was the same vibrant atmosphere at the woodland art session. After some initial reticence, twenty children were soon charging around under the trees, gathering natural materials they could use in their art studios. One of the nicest moments of the morning was when the whole group toured around the various studios admiring each other’s artwork. It was so sweet so hear small children presenting their work but everyone got plenty of applause for their efforts.
Outdoor music resulted in a whole array of musical instruments being made, including the elusive grass trumpet (I now know what it is!) and something much sturdier that looked like a cross between an abacus and a shot sling.
Not only were the children being entertained for two hours completely free of charge but they were taking home artwork and other items and being encouraged to complete some of the other 50 things listed in their scrapbooks.
This wasn’t too difficult for our own two. Fortunately, their grandfather has a large garden with a pond and mummy also loves the great outdoors. They spent a recent Saturday afternoon poking around in rock pools at Southerndown and have enjoyed short hikes with Harri and me.
Our girls are quite confident they’ll be able to complete the majority of the activities without any problem. Even as stickers are added to their scrapbooks, they are eagerly thinking up ways to achieve even more. I might even volunteer to roll down a big hill with them.
What the National Trust has proved beyond doubt is that if you provide a safe environment for children to explore woodlands, to make dens, climb trees and throw mud around, they’ll take to the great outdoors as readily as the ducks on the nearby lake. And hopefully, the education doesn’t stop with the children. Parents, too, must realise that their offspring don’t need to be wrapped up in cotton wool and entertained 24/7. Every single child, from three to eleven, seemed to be having a great time at Tredegar House… and there wasn’t a computer, an iPad or iBox in sight.
Whoever came up with the idea for this campaign deserves a massive pat on the back. And I’ll eat humble pie (or should that be mud pie!).