Have you made New Year resoltions for the year ahead? Here are some you might consider making.
Watch buds burst. Gather some twig clippings or pick up some budding branches on a winter’s walk and put them in water when you get home. The buds will burst open after a few days in your warm kitchen. After the long cold winter they serve as a powerful symbol of change and renewal. The joys of spring are in this way shared with children; the scaly coverings of the buds begin to split in front of their eyes at the kitchen table, revealing folded, fuzzy leaves. Slowly the leaves will grow in size. What species of tree or shrub did you bring inside?
For Easter you could then decorate the branches with painted eggs.
Go wild food foraging. This is a skill for life and one that we’ve mostly lost. You’ll start appreciating plants that you previously considered mere weeds. Edible wild plants haven’t been intensively grown and shipped or flown to us from the other side of the world. They’re therefore not only nutritious, but represent the most sustainable food we can get into our bellies. It’s easy if you know what to look for and where to find it. So either arm yourself with a good book like Wild Food: A Complete Guide for Foragers by Roger Phillips,
or take one of the many introductory courses that are run all over the country to get yourself started. Laois Outdoor Education run workshops for groups that could set you and yours on the path to valuing dandelions and nettles like never before.
Depending on how much room you have, plant a native tree or sow some seeds. Consider it your legacy.
Go for walks on the wild side. If you’ve read any of my other blogs, you know that I firmly believe that children need to be outside if they are to grow up to cherish and protect the natural world. You can read more on this here if you like. This year take the kids to nature reserves and places where communities have succeeded in protecting landscapes and threatened habitats for the future. The people that work to protect these places, often promote their sites for educational purposes. One of my favourite of such places is Abbeyleix Bogin County Laois. Its story is one that is worth telling the kids: this beautiful area was going to be destroyed, but a community rose up to protect it. There are countless such places around the country and they are all worth exploring together.
It’s lovely to stroll through this oasis of calm in the city. If the weather turns against you, you can always shelter in the warmth of the beautiful Victorian glasshouses. If you’re taking the kids, bring along magnifying glasses for them to look through while they’re wandering through the wonderful array of flowers on display there, particularly the orchids. Through a magnifying glass all component parts of a flower become a kaleidoscope of otherwordly beauty. It is utterly absorbing.
Plan outings to some of the other 426 open gardens in Ireland.In her book The Open Gardens of Ireland, Shirley Lanigan, leads us on a grand tour of the open gardens around the country. I’ll just mention three here. Gardens like Altamont Gardensnear Tullow in Co. Carlow. Altamont has become a favourite spring destination with a snowdrop festival to enjoy in February.
I couldn’t write this without mentioning my local beauty spot Emo Court in Co. Laois. Around April it puts on a breath-taking show of bluebells that are not to be missed.
Shirley’s number one food producing garden is also in Co. Laois. Dunmore Country Schoolwhere vegetables, fruit and flowers are grown with biodiversity as the guiding principal. They offer courses to help you design your biodiverse garden from scratch. With a little help, maybe someday your garden could make it into Shirley’s book!
Hands down what I love most at this time of year is watching the birds in my garden from my kitchen window. Even though our feathered friends need our help throughout the year, providing them with food (and water!) at this time of the year is critical. Being entertained by their antics at the bird feeders will repay you in spades for your efforts.
Here are some tips for enjoying your garden birds this winter:
To make sure you get the widest variety of bird species, put out the widest variety of food in your birdfeeders. Peanuts and sunflower seeds are much loved by some species, while apples and cheese are winners with others. BirdWatch Ireland has lots of great info on their website to help you select the right foods. Your garden will soon be hopping with lots of happy squabbling birds.
So that the kids can join in in the fun, print off the Woodland Trust’s garden bird ID sheet and put it by the window for your kids to tick off when they see one of the species in the garden. The delight is epic when they manage to tick off a bird on the sheet!
Keep binoculars handy for closely observing the birds. It took me a while to cop the difference between a dunnock and a house sparraw, but with a set of binoculars even I could eventually tell them apart.
You might also want to give the birds somewhere to nest and perch if you have a garden. Planting native trees, shrubs and flowers whose berries and seedheads will supply the birds with food over the winter is incredibly valuable. Think rowan trees, crab apple trees, dog roses and letting your wildflowers, like dandelions and clover, bloom. Of course these plants will attract insects and these in turn will provide the young birds in your garden with food over the summer. And hey presto, you have a beautiful garden to boot. Win Win Win. Not only will your garden become a lovelier place to behold, but it will make a real difference to wildlife. They’ll now visit your lovely garden regularly while some of them might even call it home.
As a child being outside, inventing games, getting into scraps and running about is incredibly liberating. It makes us feel alive. It’s the stuff of fond memories and nostalgia. Of course it isn’t all about boisterous play, being outside is also about climbing a tree and being alone with your thoughts.
Children need to be outside to explore. Explore their own bodies as they run, climb, jump, cycle and tumble. Use their imaginations to turn sticks to swords and Bally-What’s-It into Tír na nÓg. They receive lessons in resilience as they fall, get up and carry on.
And yet, despite all the evidence of the many benefits of outdoor play to children’s health and wellbeing, these days childhood is increasingly played out indoors in front of screens, rather than in fields, parks and beaches.
74% of children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, (Persil, 2016).
This is a tragedy in itself, but it has wider more far-reaching implications. If a child has little or no interaction with the natural world, then how can s/he form a bond with it?
In a time of global warming and mass species extinction can we really afford a disconnect to develop between children and nature? After all they are the next custodians of Planet Earth.
It’s time for action: Curtail their screen-time and set yourself the challenge to be outdoors as much as possible. Discover the woodlands in your area for rambling; kids go free on OPW heritage sites; join your local Irish Wildlife Trust; or your local branch of Birdwatch Ireland. They run regular events aimed at children. You could join your local walking group to discover your area by foot. The possibilities for Outdoor Eduction are endless. Make that connection and have heaps of fun in the process!