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.

 

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.

Somewhere near you, a banana is in trouble.

bananas

Somewhere, in a fruit bowl near you, a banana is in trouble. Eric the Bananaman is busy, so it’s down to you and only you to save the day. Yellow capes at the ready, pants on the outside; you are the Banana Hero.

The banana is one of the most wasted food items. That perfect moment between too green and brown and squidgy can be hard to achieve. It’s a big shame to waste them, especially as they come all the way from the Caribbean or South America. This staple fruit comes with quite a carbon footprint when compared to locally grown apples or pears.

So how can you save that past its best ‘nana from the bin? Read on…

  • If you have the luxury of time, then you can’t beat a banana loaf and you certainly can’t beat Mary Berry’s. This is a lovely recipe for kids to help with (mine do enjoy squishing the bananas by hand so extra clean paws are a must!) and they will love the results too. It uses two bananas, if you only have one then try this choc chip version.
  • If you have not a spare minute, so busy you might cry, haven’t even had a shower this morning, then this is your option. Simply peel and slice the banana, put in a little bag (one per banana) and freeze. Then when you want to make a quick sugar-free smoothie another less crazy day, your banana chunks will be ready. Try this healthy banana and strawberry smoothie (it works well without flaxseed and using cow’s milk too). Simply chuck the frozen banana chunks into the blender instead of the fresh ones. It will go super creamy and chill your smoothie to perfection.
  • For another frozen banana idea, it has to be the incredibly virtuous dairy and sugar-free banana ice-cream. All you need to do is food process the frozen bananas until smooth and creamy. This blog will talk you through it, as well as giving ideas for other flavours to add. The children will hoover it up and think it’s a naughty treat, although you could legitimately have it for breakfast.
  • If the banana has gone so far that it is beyond human consumption (this is often the case with the forgotten one in the bottom of a rucksack) then you can still save it from being wasted. Wildlife visiting your garden or balcony will be glad of the energy. Read here about creating an autumn feast for butterflies before they hibernate. Or, for a winter option, simply peel it and put it on the lawn. Blackbirds do enjoy a nice ripe banana.

Now, however busy you are, there is no excuse to chuck a banana in the bin. I’ll put my yellow cape away… until next time.

Glorious mud (and quicksand)

sam and annie muddy

I was fearful I had over-hyped it to the children. ‘You are going to get muckier than you’ve ever got before,’ I had told them on our way to a Muddy Harbour ramble with the National Trust at Brancaster Staithe in North Norfolk.

As we set off along the coastal path they were not impressed; ‘there is not even one centimetre of mud here!’ my demanding son complained. ‘Just wait’, I replied.

Our guide, Nita, a Senior Learning and Engagement Officer with the National Trust, took us off the well-made, totally mud free path, directly onto the salt marsh. We tasted sprigs of samphire growing there, salty and full of ozone tang. Then it was time to cross some creeks. You could jump (fun and energetic) or slip and slide into them (properly muddy).

Nita taught us how to walk through the sticky, slurpy mud, resisting its pull by keeping moving. If your boot got stuck, you had to pull on your heel to break the seal. My silly shoes wouldn’t stay on, so I was soon barefoot. Dark, black mud sludging up between my toes like custard. A rather delicious sensation when you get used to it.

At bigger creeks, you could try and stay on your feet as you made your way down them or embrace the mud. We sat on our bums and slid. Hands, legs and bottoms were soon covered with the gunkiest gloop imaginable.

I had done it; my kids were officially muckier than ever before.

Along the way, we learnt about the wildlife of the salt marsh and how the tides keep it alive. We found shells and a mermaid’s purse. Then Nita mentioned the quicksand. ‘You won’t be able to go in it,’ I warned my children. ‘It’s dangerous.’

Actually, we were allowed in. The quicksand, formed by a freshwater spring coming up under the sand, was not too deep. Or so I thought. The one I jumped into went over my waist which I had not been expecting. The children loved letting it suck them down until I looked nervous and heaved them out.

quicksand

Finally, we waded across the main creek back to the staithe. We were a group of mucky, happy kids and grown-ups ready for a shower and a cuppa back at the Activity Centre.

My childhood was full of muddy adventures like this, but as a parent today I would have felt anxious doing it alone; there are very real risks with tides and overly deep mud – and I would have been terrified to discover quicksand more than a metre deep.

I feel very lucky that we were able to do this, and am very grateful it lived up to my promises.

There is one session left this summer holidays, on 26th August. Or you could check for low tide and go it alone… beware the quicksand.

My book is beautiful, and it is no thanks to me…

Book cover

Let’s get one thing straight… I don’t really ‘do’ aesthetically pleasing. My life is a little messy and random and most certainly does not look like it stepped out of the pages of a magazine. The food I cook tastes great, but if I presented it on Masterchef may be greeted by this comment; “It looks like a cat accidentally ate some chickpeas and has regurgitated them onto a bed of brown rice.”

In writing my book, I wanted to reflect the reality of messy parenthood combined with the aspiration to be green – which by its nature is sometimes about choosing the second-hand and the love worn over the sparkly new and bang up-to-date trendy alternative. I think I’ve achieved that ethos in the writing of the book, but what about the photos?

No one wants to see my unmade bed, even if it is organic cotton, and no one wants to see the slight stain on my top because I love it too much to chuck it away. A certain loveliness was required!

Luckily, my good friend and photographer, Phil Barnes, is very talented at making things look great. He was able to take the pile of knitted garments I wanted in the book and photo them just so, in gorgeous light, so they look brilliant. He has an eye for detail and composition that turns an everyday scene into something beautiful.

Clothes

In the photos, I took the liberty of wiping snot slugs off my children’s faces, but their clothes (and mine) are our usual assortment of second-hand and handed on items. The wonderful thing about taking photos in the countryside is that everyone looks relaxed and well, and the background is naturally beautiful, without me needing to primp or preen it at all.

Space

Next, the designers made it all fit together well, making sure that it is colourful and never too text heavy or boring looking.

So I am proud to say, that my book will be beautiful and that is thanks to Phil Barnes, the design team at Green Books and of course the Norfolk countryside.

All photos in this post are by Phil Barnes, who is available for family portrait photos, outdoors or in, and weddings across Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and beyond.

http://www.philbarnesphotography-portraits.co.uk

My book is available from the 8th October 2015 (still feels so far away!)

Children and real tools – really stupid or really important?

photo (9)

Gardening is amazing for children. Fresh air, exercise and learning about their world all make for wholesome fun but it can also do masses for confidence and motor skills. When they are under three, then a bucket and spade can keep them occupied for ages. But as they get a little older, they ‘wanna be like you ooh ooh’, and that means proper, grown up tools.

Sharp secateurs, long handled rakes and juddering pressure washers in the hands of impetuous, impulsive individuals may sound like a recipe for disaster, but if you want your child to stay interested in gardening past pre-school age then it’s time to, gulp, hand over the tools.

The Forest School ethos includes using real tools because they teach children responsibility and risk assessment. Of course, you’ll need to do the safety chat (never run with tools, keep away from others when you are working, don’t leave them on the ground and so on) and feel confident that your child is coordinated and sensible enough to handle something potentially dangerous.

Often, you will see a whole new side to your child when they feel trusted. Part of giving them this responsibility is stepping back and letting them get on with it – helicoptering over them while they work will frustrate them. Yes, your hedge may look a little odd when they have finished, but they will be glowing.

Accidents can happen – my son was given a penknife for Christmas (aged 6). He has cut himself twice and now has a healthy respect for the blade and actually listens to my advice on how to use it safely. I hope he won’t hurt himself again, but he might. You may not be happy with this level of risk, so choose your activities to suit your own views.

If you are prepared to spend a little money, then try slightly down-sized tools that fit small hands better, thus improving the safety and ease of use. Draper’s does a good range of young gardener equipment that is reasonably priced, such as spades and rakes. They feel ‘proper’ – no babyish plastic here but include features such as a wrist strap on trowels.

And at this time of year, with everything growing like a jungle, I need all the help I can get.