The world needs young nature geeks

They say that whatever issue you have with a toddler, you can multiply by ten for the teenager. Whilst inspiring tiny children about the great outdoors has its challenges, they are nothing compared to trying to keep young people involved with and excited about nature as they hit the often rocky, hormonal years of teenagedom.

I know from personal experience that even the most rural, idyllic childhood doesn’t prevent a rapid descent into nightclubbing and alcohol – who has time for nature then? My children are a while off that, but I wonder how I will keep them connected to our natural world.

Wonderful campaigns such as the Wildlife Trust’s ‘Every Child Wild’ and the work done by The Wild Network help the parents of younger children to embrace nature. Whilst there is no deliberate exclusion of teenagers from these projects (and much remains highly relevant), there is a focus on reaching out to younger children. To then lose that connection in the fug of the teenage years seems such a tragedy.

Time in nature is vital for everyone’s health and well-being and in the turbulent, exam-packed teenage years, stress relief and green exercise are just what the doctor ordered. Despite all the medical evidence, society still thinks it is more normal for a teenager to be holed up in a darkened room on social media than roaming the countryside with a pair of binoculars.

A more worrying aspect is the bullying that young people can experience if they are into nature. Being called a geek, nerd or twitcher can be the least of it. In a world that values material consumption and the quick thrill of the digital, choosing to spend time, often on your own or with the older generation, can mark you out as an odd ball.

A Focus on Nature is a youth nature organisation aiming to address this. It offers a community for young people who love nature, as well as looking at the wider issue of disconnection of teens from our natural world. The website is full of stories of young conservationists getting out there and not just connecting with nature, but taking real action.

Wildlife charities do offer teenage options for involvement. The RSPB’s Phoenix membership provides Wingbeat, the only environmental magazine written by teenagers for teenagers, and opportunities to become part of and blog on the Phoenix forum. For those interested in volunteering or work experience, most conservation charities can give exciting and varied opportunities that could lead to a career in conservation.

With social media, there is a platform ready and waiting for our tech savvy teens. We would all benefit from more young voices to shock us oldies out of our comfortable complacency and to make caring about our planet the norm, not the geeky exception.

Teenagers need nature and green spaces in their life. It will bring them fun, stress-relief, new friends and turn them into true custodians of our world.

It’s been a while (ahem) since I was a teenager and I don’t yet have my own, so I’m very interested in your thoughts and experiences on this important issue.

 

First published in the EDP and EADT.

 

Eco-gifting for the family

Are you one of the smug people who has nearly finished their Christmas shopping? Or are you a last minute, dash around the shops type? Either way, you are currently being bombarded by marketing galore.

Constant emails and cutesy catalogues will try to persuade you that all women desire purple silk underwear or fluffy ear muffs. Meanwhile, the man in your life absolutely requires a designer leather iPad cover embossed with his initials and the children will have a Christmas to remember ONLY if you buy them their own body-weight in overpriced, branded plastic.

We will all receive items that we don’t want or need and we will all spend a bit more than we should have done. Whilst our bank balances can hopefully recover in the New Year, it’s not so rosy for the environment because all consumerism has a direct impact on the planet. Now I’m not so mean as to suggest we don’t give presents, my children would still be crying by New Year’s Day if I was that horrible. However, burying them in an excess of new possessions doesn’t do them any favours.

Over-gifting your kids can result in them acquiring a spoilt, entitled attitude, not looking after their new toys properly and expecting even more next year. You know what over-gifting looks like: the child is swamped by presents which they open in an increasingly mechanical, zombie like way, finding it hard when the supply eventually stops.

To try and rein myself in (because it is so easy to get carried away) I love the gifting advice that goes ‘Want. Need. Wear. Read’ and try to apply it to shopping for the kids.

Want
A present is never wasted if it is what someone really, really desires. If you have no clue, then ask, or at least give vouchers rather than buying them the thing you secretly want. Yes, Dads with that Star Wars Lego, I’m talking to you!

Need
So it’s a little more on the boring side, but for children this is where the more sensible purchases come in, such as a new duvet set, furniture for their room, hairbrush or swim kit. Although my cousins were given toothpaste every year – I think that may be taking it a bit far.

Wear
Much as I love a festive jumper, giving it on Christmas Day means it is hardly going to be worn. If you must, then size up so growing children can wear it the next year too. Onesies, special dresses and organic cotton pjs make excellent choices here.

Read
The gift of a book is the most wonderful of all. What could be more perfect than giving them a whole world, for you to read together or for older children to discover alone? I don’t think anyone can have too many books.

Stockings
What about stockings? That’s helping Father Christmas plan your child’s stocking obviously. I try and keep to the above rules when, er, suggesting ideas to the elves. That is, something from each category of: want, need, wear, read – but we do have a whole stocking to stuff.

Eco-friendly ‘consumables’ are great filler options, such as Fair-trade organic chocolates, dried fruit, an all-natural bath bomb or lip balm, or shower gel. I also feel Santa should always provide useful items such as pants, tights, vests and socks.

When you are tight for time, it is easy to just grab the nearest available items, however eco-unfriendly. Don’t worry though, I’ve collated some green and thoughtful stocking ideas that will help!

Baby and toddler stocking ideas
I honestly wouldn’t go crazy for this age group – a couple of nice, eco-friendly toys and then a few practical items will be plenty.

I love these lovely sustainable wooden grasping toys by EverEarth.

A gnome leaf stacking toy.

Felt animals (3+).

Wooden letters for the bedroom door, like these.

Wooden cars (these mini ones are 3+).

Cutlery and plate sets.

Gorgeous Stockmar beeswax crayons.

Primary age stocking ideas
Eco action trump cards – a fun way of learning about taking care of the environment.

Mini boxes of a favourite ‘treat’ cereal.

Learn about natural energy sources with a potato-powered clock.

A new water bottle – this one is made from recycled plastic and has a charcoal filter.

A wind-up torch.

Wooden jewellery.

A flannel with their favourite character on.

A grow your own carnivorous plants kit.

Lavender and wheat filled teddies, that can be microwaved and will make the bed all cosy (so you can turn the heating down).

Teenager stocking ideas
A bead and hoop necklace, fairly traded and made from all natural materials.

Star wars origami.

These gorgeous birch candle holders.

Vouchers – probably iTunes.

An adult colouring book inspired by nature.

Pretty glass earring dish.

Slightly crazy, but low eco-impact, face drinks mats.

Who says money doesn’t grow on trees? Grow your own money (plant).

I also enjoyed these eco-gift suggestions from River Cottage HQ, and don’t forget second-hand items are perfect too. Now is also a great time to take any outgrown toys to the charity shop so someone else can benefit!

Above all, don’t go overboard on the pressies, do get out for some fresh air and do remember that possessions don’t bring happiness, it’s all about being together in your very own crazy, unique way.

Kate Blincoe is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Parenting (Green Books) and is a freelance writer.

Taking the stress out of going green

den2

Photo by Phil Barnes

It was an identity crisis moment. Sitting sobbing on the bedroom floor with a crying baby and another soiled cloth nappy that had splurged all over the baby, carpet and me. I’d had enough. I was obviously a terrible mother and now the eco-warrior in me had died too. Pass the disposables, sod the planet I was just trying to get through the day.

My baby’s bottom shrank overnight as the bulky reusable sat in the corner glaring at me and the slim, weird smelling disposables changed the way my child felt to cuddle. It had just been too hard; the cloth nappies had not fitted properly and I’d run out of the cash and will to do anything about it.

Then that good old parental favourite, guilt, jumped on to my back like a big ugly monster, taunting me with phrases like ‘those nappies will never biodegrade you know’ and ‘you are condemning your child’s planet to be a landfill site’. Still, my baby was happy and I gradually found my way through those early crazy months. I did feel sad though, not to be in the green parent tribe.

Once the brain fog had reduced I realised it wasn’t so black and white. There are in fact at least 50 shades of green. Anyone who has ever written a birth plan knows that from the very start, parenthood is about compromise and constantly reviewing your expectations. So what if I wasn’t using cloth nappies, there was so much I was doing right.

I found a green lifestyle that would make my family life better, happier and healthier, not worthy, guilt-filled and exhausted. This meant changing things that would benefit us and letting fun and family activity be the guide. I learnt that with the right information, even cloth nappies could have been easy, but hair shirts and hand-knitted muesli would be strictly banned.

Here are my top seven ways to be greener, happier and healthier without the stress:

  1. Make intelligent swaps.

That means using British grown rapeseed oil instead of imported olive oil to save carbon, whilst enjoying the bonus that it’s also lower in saturated fat, higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and cheaper. Also, it is easy to ditch marine polluting laundry detergent and opt for the wonderfully freaky soapnut shells. They are the dried fruit of the soapnut tree and clean clothes brilliantly without polluting or upsetting sensitive skin.

  1. Don’t be afraid of using technology to lure children outside.

Whilst we need to create a balance of screen time and outside time, it can be helpful to harness the power of the app for a fun activity. Try treasure hunting with geocaching, star gazing with an app like Star Walk and using the Wildtime app for nature inspiration.

  1. Do a better job of reusable nappies than me.

I totally messed up because I didn’t know some vital information.  For example, it’s best to try out a few different types before you invest in the 20 or so that you’ll need. Some types just won’t be the right shape for your baby and having loads that don’t fit will be disheartening and expensive.

  1. Make your milk feeding green

Breast feeding is best for the environment and your baby but that knowledge doesn’t help you when it doesn’t work for emotional, physical or logistical reasons. Step away from the guilt and make sure your bottle feeding is as green as possible. For example, you can buy safe glass baby bottles and make sure you keep your kettle de-scaled for efficient boiling.

  1. Learn a few tricks to cut your food waste

Did you know, the banana is one of the most wasted food items which is made worse by the fact that they have come all the way from the Caribbean or South America. Here are my tips for being a banana saver!

  1. Care about carbon, but don’t be ruled by it.

Get the basics like insulation sorted, try not to choose clubs and activities that involve lots of driving, choose local products with limited packaging, but then be kind to yourself. There is much, much more to being a green parent than carbon counting.

  1. Make your outdoors space count for wildlife.

Plant a pot with lavender to provide nectar, put up some bird feeders and have a messy ‘nature reserve’ corner with a stack of logs and sticks and long grass. Now is also the right time of year to plant some wildflower plugs such as oxeye daisy, corn poppy, ragged robin. These will bring colour and life in even the tiniest space.

So don’t be an eco-worrier; forget the guilt, take some fun steps and be an eco-warrior instead. There are happy green days ahead.

Our £25 family holiday

suitcase

We’ve just had a lovely break in the sunny (?) South East, in a well-equipped four bedroom family house, all for the grand sum of £25… and that was just our travel costs and a bathmat (more on that later).

This wasn’t a rental property but a successful house swap with friends, who also have two young children of similar ages to ours. Whether you are being thrifty or not, a house swap is a brilliant way to have a change of scenery and an eco-friendly UK based holiday.

For a start, the second we entered the ‘new’ house, the children’s eyes lit up. There were toys galore, all different to the ones at home, and all free to be explored without awkward negotiations with the rightful owner. There were fun bedrooms, decorated for kids and all the paraphernalia you need for little ones, such as child size chairs, plastic cups, a paddling pool and bath toys.

From an adult perspective, we had everything we required to eat in without taking the whole cupboard with us. Stuff like olive oil and washing up liquid that you take for granted at home but can’t do without when self-catering. I helped myself to a can of sweetcorn from the cupboard which saved us going shopping for vegetables one evening and a coffee machine kept us perky too.

It was also very handy on the animal front. We swapped our four assorted mammals for their two friendly cats. No pet-sitters were required, and we enjoyed the regular photo updates which kept us reassured.

There were of course some negatives. It was certainly more work than rocking up at a holiday home. Before hand, I couldn’t help but see my home through the eyes of guests and had a de-clutter session. The slightly mouldy bathmat just wouldn’t do, so I replaced it. There was also the double hassle of changing all the sheets and towels before leaving and then wanting to leave the borrowed house in a fit state for our friends’ return to their home.

Halfway through, my friend sent me a panicked text saying there was a huge crack across my hob that she hadn’t noticed before, but she would buy us a new one if they’d caused it. The crack has been there six months, so all was fine, but it was a little reminder that you really would feel terrible and if you trashed something in your friend’s house.

Still, any minor inconveniences were way less annoying than paying hundreds for a holiday rental. I also feel oddly closer to my friend. I’ve lived her life for a little and slept in her bed, kissed my children goodnight where hers normally snuggle and cuddled her cats. Now when we have one of our long phone chats I’ll be able to picture everything so clearly. And all for £25.

Life’s not a race, it’s a slow dance…

worm2

Photo by Phil Barnes Photography

I’ve hurt my knee. I’ll pause there to allow for the violins to play because I can’t deny it, I do feel rather sorry for myself and expect everyone else to as well. I’m usually one of those busy, rushing, clock-watching people. Always telling the kids to hurry up and catch up. Only now I’m not.

There is one advantage to living life at a gentler pace. You see so much more and appreciate so much more of the world around. As local naturalist Mark Cocker recently wrote, taking a more leisurely pace brings fascinating natural encounters, in his example a weird longhorn moth; “Almost at every step in this season something remarkable makes our acquaintance. Perhaps it is because as I get older I walk slower and have more encounters of this kind.”

Children too, take life at a different pace, one minute haring at break neck speed, but then suddenly stopping to look at things that interest them on life’s journey. When you want to get somewhere with young children, it can be infuriating that the snail on the wall must be studied in detail, and then the red spider mites on the pavement must be counted (impossible). Yet when you switch off that permanent internal clock, always tick-tocking noisily away, then crouch down and look too, you can have an entirely different experience of life, one that is rich with little moments of discovery.

Slowing down is good for us on many levels. Firstly, it’s about doing things properly; quality over quantity. It’s about slow food that is locally sourced and cooked from scratch. It’s about breathing deeply and calmly rather than the short, shallow inhalations that make many of us feel permanently anxious. It makes us nicer people to be around too – we listen more and give other people a little more of ourselves before the next thing claims our attention.

Secondly, it is vital for the environment. Faster travel is generally more polluting (I’m willing to make an exception for train travel here). Taking the self-propelled, slower option will always save carbon and be more sustainable. You can learn to love the journey rather than just the destination.

Slowing down means taking a moment to feel the sun (or rain!) on your skin and to smell the air. Look up into the sky and see if you can see any birds like swifts or swallows up high, and to find out what the clouds are doing. Are there flowers on the grass verge, or insects? Connecting with nature takes time, but not much. It is all around us, wherever you live, but we choose to rush on by, checking our phone as we go.

Many of us are missing out on a lot. I still expect those violins to play when I mention my knee troubles (it really does hurt you know), but I’m hoping that even as it heals I’ll keep my pace gentle and not waste my time by rushing.

First published in the EDP and EADT

Farmers’ markets and first world problems

Feeling overwhelmed at a farmer’s market truly is a first world problem, rather like the milk frother on your coffee machine breaking, or your heated car seats giving you a sweaty bum. It’s easy to see these markets as the preserve of the wealthy; just for those who don’t have to think about whether the courgettes would have been cheaper elsewhere.

Bear with me though, because there is much more to a farmer’s market than occasionally overpriced produce. For a start, it doesn’t have to be a more expensive way of sourcing your groceries. Yes, there is often artisan sourdough bread priced at £7 a loaf, but there are also fresh fruit and veggies available for less than average prices.

Even better, whilst haggling in the supermarket would get you ushered to the door, at a farmers’ market it is permissible to ask for a better price if you buy more, or to cheekily enquire whether a lemon or bunch of herbs can be thrown in for free. Also, if you visit towards the end of the market you can get some great deals – store holders don’t want to take it all home with them. It’s a useful tip to take cash for easy transactions and to avoid spending more than you planned.

Compared to your supermarket, the farmers market is also fabulously eco-friendly. All produce should be seasonal and locally produced, so you won’t be tempted by blueberries from Chile. Buying seasonally should also help keep your grocery bills down and ensure that your food is super fresh because it won’t have travelled across the globe.

There will often be much less packaging too, and you can further increase your green credentials by taking your own bags.

Meeting the producers will also rekindle your connection to your food. Instead of shoving it in the trolley like an automaton, we are more likely to ask questions about provenance, recipe ideas or just have a good old fashioned chat. The traceable nature of most products means you are far less likely to end up with horse in your lasagne.

Farmers’ markets are both a playground and a school for children. They will love the colour, noise and array of produce (especially when tasters are offered) and will learn masses about their food too.

A few years back, chef Jamie Oliver reported that many children can’t identify even basic vegetables. Kids that visit farmers’ markets will get a head start in their food education. Not only that, but they can order and pay for you (working on their confidence, social skills and mathematics). After such an input, they are far more likely to eat the item you have bought.

Realistically, the farmers’ market is unlikely to replace the dreaded supermarket trip, but it can certainly complement your normal shop. It is an outing rather than just a chore and something the whole family can be involved in. But what to do with the artichoke you just bought? That’s definitely another first world problem.

First published in the EDP and EADT