Tuesday 9 September 2014

Nature Baby: Celebrating Summer

Finally a summer without pyrotechnic vomiting, hyperemesis, croup or builders. I'm no longer waddling and Culturebaby is no longer really toddling; and whilst Culturetot is in the "put me down I MUST crawl" phase and despite moments of toilet training carnage, we've been rather more mobile than previous years. I'm choosing to believe reports that we have an Indian summer on the way and with this in mind here's a little celebration of our top ten nature-themed summer activities that we are continuing to enjoy this year. We'd love to hear some of yours:

1. Toddler Gardening

 In celebration of the fact that we have a usable garden again we decided to try a spot of planting. Whilst I can't say we'll be having a bumper harvest, and our peas (once looking promising) were a casualty of neglect during our summer holiday, we've managed to sprout some strawberry, pepper and carrot from seed indoors and we've been growing tomatoes and raspberries outdoors. The latter pair have been lucky if they've made it to ripening with the enthusiastic Culturebaby plucking them as soon as they have shown any sign of colour, but she's loved it - the watering, the harvesting and the munching. A perfect accompanying read has been the newly re-worked Miffy's Garden, published in May as part of the Thoroughly Modern Miffy re-launch. Miffy, rather like Culturebaby, experiences gardening for the first time. She learns about how plants grow and experiences the wonderful satisfaction of delivering a home grown carrot to the dinner table. We have some way to go with our little sprout, but hopefully we'll get there too... Culturebaby, like all two year olds, for whom stickers are the universal currency, has also very much enjoyed her My First Garden Sticker Book from Usborne. There is something about the tactile nature of stickers that seem to help her take in their contents. She's developed quite an impressive gardening vocabulary and this series of activity books is great because she can do much of it herself.

2. Pond Dipping

I have the very best memories of pond dipping in our local canal as a child and, delighted to discover a wetland wonderland very close to our home, we've revived this (rather retro) activity. It features on the National Trust's brilliant list of 50 things to do before you're 11 3/4 (a campaign to remind us that some of the best childhood fun can be found discovering nature), and we've had a couple of immensely enjoyable afternoons (frankly just as satisfying for us adults) catching and examining fish, beetles, waterboatmen and worms, exploring habitats and rescuing kamikaze Damsel flies from drowning. All you really need is a pair of wellies and large tub and a net. On arrival find a safe spot and fill up the tub with pond water first. Once you've fished, turn the net inside out into the tub and ensure very gently that everything has been transferred. Encourage the children to spot and describe what they can see swimming in the water or skating along the top. Always remember to pop your finds back safely exactly where they came from. Here's The Woodland Trust's useful identification sheet.

One of the most stunning nature books I've found recently is Walker Book's award winning, amazingly illustrated ode to nature in all its forms from seasons to animals, to every toddler's favourite activities. Nicola Davies, in A First Book of Nature, has captured the joy of discovery with her beautiful verses and descriptions. The joy of eating a tomato straight from the vine youhave tended; the batting of a moth's wings; the Rurrrrppp of a frog; the pleasures of den building and berry picking; and the utter excitement of pond dipping.

3. Miniature World Summer Play

One of Culturebaby's favourite forms of play is recreating worlds with miniature items; whether a picnic, adventure or trip to a museum, our adventures are replayed again and again with her little characters. With this in mind, far and away the most successful of my DIY projects this summer has been the creation of a summer sensory basket for her to investigate.

I laid down a green felt base for grass and added fabric climbing flowers strung with battery powered fairy lights (I always supervise). I then added a small picnic basket containing a mixture of felt and wooden fruit and vegetables. (Happily Culturebaby isn't perturbed by the scale, or that the leek would feed a Happyland character for a lifetime). I made a flowerbed from brown felt and provided felt and jewelled flowers for her to arrange. I also included a small pot tea set and picnic rug, peppered the foliage with some of Safari's brilliant Safariology life-cycle models of bugs, added a little metal bucket to collect items, a few characters and other summery garden things. Culturebaby has also improvised as she has gone along. Flowers have become food, butterflies sugar and this little world has been everything from Mr MacGregor's garden to a scene from The Wind in the Willows. This basket has been played with almost every day, and sometimes for hours. I can't quite bring myself to dismantle it yet.

4. Discovering The Wind in the Willows

A childhood love was for Kenneth Grahame's beautiful and timeless tale of the Wind in The Willows. One of the wonderful things about being a parent is unearthing and rediscovering such gems - these worlds inhabited in our juvenile imaginations and somehow now part of us - and sharing them with our children. It is always surprising and emotional when you see them gripped; falling in love with your childhood friends, pouring tea for Ratty, or tucking naughty toad up in bed. I've been really impressed with a set of Usborne picture books I bought which provide an illustrated first foray into a range of classic books and fairy tales. The set of twenty includes stories as diverse as the Nutcracker, the Railway Children and The Secret Garden. Their version of the Wind in the Willows is perfect for Culturebaby and she loved it. After several readings we then watched the wonderful old animated film and with delight I realised it was time to take her back to the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, where the visitor is taken on a journey through the entire book. Using large models, audio guides for older listeners, moving parts, a real caravan for children to play in and even wind in the wild wood, the magic of the book is captured so well. One circuit was absolutely not enough and we actually had to return twice in a month.

The Museum also created a brilliant themed play space for the summer holidays with jigsaws, musical exploration, physical games and puppet theatres, magnetic fishing and even Mr Toad's car to ride. Several activities were accessible and engaging for Culturetot and even the Culturegrandparents had an excellent time slinging hoops and dressing up.

5. Learning about Life Cycles with Butterflies and Bugs

This year we have been growing our own butterflies, which has been a really interesting experience. The process lasts around a month. In the true form of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the little nippers, who arrive in the post, rapidly increase in size over the first week. After a few days the chubby chaps begin to move their way to the top of their habitat and (if you are lucky) before your eyes they start to hang from their ceiling and (I did not know this!) emerge from the skin of the caterpillar to form a chrysalis. After all five are attached, you move them into a hatching net. Again, it came as a slightly unnerving surprise, that the chrysalises shook and twisted when they were disturbed.They were not hatching early as we initially thought, but do this as a defence mechanism to ward off predators. How clever. On hatching we fed the butterflies fruit and after a couple of days we set them free. One of the five had an under formed wing and couldn't fly, so we also ended up with an unexpected pet for rather longer than we anticipated...

We are lucky enough to live near Butterfly World, which I reviewed here when Culturebaby was one. At present 'world' is a slight exaggeration, but nonetheless, a trip to this great centre with its colony of ants, creepy crawlies to hold, stunning gardens and tropical butterflies, is an exciting and educational experience for toddler and adult alike, and can easily take a whole day and more to explore. We've been a number of times, and there is always something new to discover. On our last trip we had a guided tour of the insect houses and those rather braver than I did some handling. We also visited the scene of recent carnage, where one of their two ant colonies appears to have munched through a power cable and fried themselves. Discussion around this also led us to discover that the queen ant in a colony, though rarely seen, can grow to be the size of a mouse! We also love the gardens there. You can meander through Wonderland and gardens fit for Brobdingnag, and play I-Spy with native butterfly species.

One of the best hands-on resources we have found for learning about life-cycles have been Safari's gorgeously tactile Safariology models. These come in four or five parts and show the development of a range of bugs and animals from egg to adult. Culturebaby loves playing with these, and ordering them is a great game - especially when you mix up a number of sets. They also serve as great inspiration for a child's own model making...

6. Size Sorting with Pine Cones and Windfall Apples

This simple activity was initiated by Culturebaby. She's really enjoyed collecting fruit as it drops from the tree, running around gathering pine cones and sticks and has always been a fan of packing items away into little boxes and sorting things. I just provided a few containers and she really enjoyed ordering and counting them, making pretend meals and generally experimenting with their properties.

7. Camping, exploring and messing around in woodland:

This summer we've been doing rather a lot of exploring woods and playing with sticks; we also made the, perhaps insane decision, to do three nights glamping in the Scottish Highlands as part of a holiday to Scotland and the Lake District. It took us a few days to recover, but for Culturebaby the experience has left a wonderful impression on her. I also introduced her to another childhood favourite - the classic film Swallows and Amazons. I was amazed that she watched it all the way through and loved it. It's such an idyllic description of how childhood should be with its camping, sailing, friendships, freedom and innocent antics. Ever since we've been rigging up tents in the lounge, cooking on imaginary stoves, and the camping kettle has been firmly commandeered for play.

8. Berry Picking

From the moment Culturebaby realised she could eat the raspberries growing in our own garden, and blackberries growing in hedgerows, berry picking has been a favourite activity. She's a fruit bat at the best of times, but she was utterly delighted to discover that this (largely impossible for mummy to regulate the consumption of) source of wonder was available at her fingertips for much of the summer. Many of her clothes are now daubed with murky purple blobs but she's thoroughly enjoyed her scavenging antics.

I'm generally not a fan of introducing computers to little ones, but we have been sent a really clever and beautifully illustrated little animated book to explore on this theme that has been a real hit with Culturebaby. Bilberry Baby, created by Amanda and Chloe Rodham for The Society for The Promotion of Flourishing Fruits of the Wild, follows the work of a cute little character as she nurtures a patch of bilberry bushes. Using animated illustrations, the story teaches us about the creatures and plants that can be found in moorland habitats like that nearby my parents' home. Featuring the real calls of birds and facts about edible plants I had never even heard of, I learned a lot from it too. There are also a few lovely dress up, gardening, colouring and other activities at the end. It has been a winner for waiting rooms and has definitely provided some inspiration for activities in our next trip to the windy north...

9. Discovering Gardens

There is little better in life than exploring gardens on a sunny day. I believe that one of the best value memberships that a family can own is to The National Trust, and this summer my favourite new discovery was Gray's Court in Henley. With their garden after stunning garden, Culturebaby found herself in a maze of ancient wisteria, corridors of vines, and a fairyland of coloured flowers and vegetables of numerous varieties. The photographs say it all.

10. A Spot of Experimental Archaeology

We've been learning about the Egyptians this summer and we ran a little excavation in our sandpit. We also stumbled upon the fascinating Scottish Crannog Centre on our tip to Loch Tay. Crannogs were Iron Age Round Houses, suspended over small man-made islands at the edge of the Lochs. One such site has been reconstructed and can now be explored (in costume if children wish). The enthusiastic staff demonstrate everything from woodwork and spinning, to how to light a fire using wood and leather. It was a fascinating insight into the history of Scotland, and how people once used their natural resources so successfully.

Disclaimer: We were sent copies of A First Book of Nature, Miffy's Garden, The Usborne First Garden Sticker Book, Bilberry Baby and The Safariology Sets via Asobi Toys for Review Purposes. We were also invited along to Butterfly World for our latest visit for a blogger's view. As always all opinions are my own.

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