One of the most memorable things that emerged making Project Wild Thing, our new documentary, is the importance of letting children be independent and think for themselves.
So I am really pleased that, rather than asking adults, the National Trust has turned to children all over the UK to ask what should be in the ‘50 things’ list this year.
As the self-appointed marketing director of nature, I want to provide children with the best reasons and resources to get outdoors – but, at the same time, I want to avoid being prescriptive. That’s another reason why this list is so useful. It is a brilliant jumping off point from which to discover your own natural adventures.
We tested a lot of the ‘50 things’ ideas on children when we asked them to try out our Wild Time app. Check it out here: http://wildtime.projectwildthing.com/
Here are the top 10…
Climb a tree
While filming Project Wild Thing, we met a 12-year-old boy who had never climbed a tree. How do I do it? he asked. Just climb, we said. His whoop from the top branch was amazing.
Roll down a really big hill
I’m doing a lot more rolling down hills nowadays. Thankfully, my children are still young enough not to be embarrassed. It is just not done for a grown man to roll down a hill – but it should be. My children love the movement, the sense of lack of control (sometimes bordering on panic), and the brilliant sense that you can be teleported from the top to the bottom, unchanged, except for being dizzier and grass-stained. I love it too.
Camp out in the wild
When children camp, there is just thin fabric between them and fairy tale wolves and monsters. Their imaginations cut loose. Fear is really important – yet we’re culturally hooked on protecting children from feelings of powerlessness. Camping is cheap, thrilling, and fun – a rare combination…
Build a den
Children spend so much time fully occupied with TV, computers, phones and toys that they rarely get time to relax in a quiet space. When they create that space themselves, they revel in the sense of achievement and control. I have watched children who struggle to concentrate for a moment in a classroom focus for hours on den construction – and then just sit and watch the world with the gentle focus that only a natural environment can provide.
Skim a stone
There are major prizes on offer in my family for stone-skimming. Each hop is a chocolate button. I get most of them, of course. There have to be some perks of being over 11…
Run around in the rain
Will some kind philanthropist please provide a free waterproof and pair of wellies for every primary school child in the UK? When we asked children what put them off the outdoors, the weather was always high on the list. But they didn’t concoct this mental barrier to going outside. They learned it from us, their rain-shy parents. They absorb our worries and fears. In the last year filming PROJECT WILD THING, I’ve been soaked to the skin more often than in my previous 40 years put together. I am still a bit scared of getting a cold and frustrated about washing the mud out of 4-year-old ears. But the cackles of delight as rain drums on their cagoule hoods makes it worthwhile. My best game is to encourage the children to shelter under a thin tree, then shake it hard to dump a thunderstorm of droplets from its leaves onto us.
Fly a kite
One of my most treasured film clips is of my 81-year-old mother and my 5-year-old daughter crying with laughter as they repeatedly crashed my new kite into a hill. When I was a child, my kite broke every other flight. Now, for £10, you can get a virtually indestructible kite that can lift a child off its feet in in a force 4. I reckon you can get easily 100 hours of pleasure out of that. Do the maths. It works out better than any other toy. The reason my daughter can now identify a lapwing is that one chased our kite. It was probably protecting its nest (sorry bird-lovers). She asked what’s that bird that flies like a raggedy bat? I wasn’t sure, but my mother knew. And now we all do.
Catch a fish with a net
One, two, three, four, five. Once I caught a fish alive…. You know how it ends. But it doesn’t have to be just a nursery rhyme. It can be an accurate journal of next weekend.
Eat an apple straight from a tree
Before supermarkets, we had to be a bit more resourceful when it came to food. It was mostly sourced locally and sustainably and we knew where, precisely, it was coming from. Now we barely spare a thought for its origin. When I was young we picked apples from the trees that overhung our suburban route to school. Once September came, we would plan our blackberry excursions. I was really amazed at how few children have tried a wild blackberry or apple. And watching the progression of feelings as they do is hugely uplifting. As their fear of dirt, or poison, or bugs gives way to pleasure at the taste, you can see them joining the (sadly) increasingly exclusive club of people who know that there really is such a thing as a free lunch.
My 4-year-old son was obsessed with guns, knives – any kind of weapon. But by introducing him to conkers, we’ve managed to introduce an element of plant biology into his violence.
Scare your parents
This isn’t on the official National Trust list, but is my own personal plea. If you are under 11¾, please go outdoors and, by having fun, try to scare the bejesus out of your parents at least once a week. If you can’t expose the insanity of our risk-averse culture to them, no one will.