With the summer holidays about to start, outdoor writer and mother-of-two Rachel Crolla gives her top picks for free outdoor activities to entertain the children close to home.
As the long-awaited summer holidays begin, the cries of ‘what are we going to do today?’ soon start and children’s expectations can be alarmingly high. With a long six weeks stretching out before you, here are some ideas to foster a spirit of adventure and get the kids having fun in nature’s playground without breaking the bank. Most of them can be done with very little planning just about anywhere in the country.
Go on a midnight hike
It’s a well known fact that staying up past bedtime is massively exciting. The summer holidays are an ideal time to cut your kids a bit of slack. Wait until nightfall and plan a short spooky walk on a route you know well on good paths. Take headtorches and a midnight feast. Make sure you stop, turn off the torches, stay quiet and open your eyes to the wonderful night skies and your ears to the sounds of the darkness.
Cycle with the ghost trains along a disused railway
There is a growing network of traffic-free paths on dismantled railway lines across the country. They provide safe and often spectacular short rides. The beauty of cycling with younger kids is that you can walk at a decent adult pace while they ride and their bikes are also easy to fling into the car boot. Older kids will easily clock up a few miles but parents need to have their own bike to keep up. Go on the Sustrans website to find a traffic-free route near you.
Journey into a forest to master the art of stick whittling
Whittling can really capture the imagination of children. If the wonderful word ‘whittle’ means nothing to you, it is simply carving a large stick. Go on a woodland walk to choose the perfect specimen and reach your whittling destination. Start off using a potato peeler scraping away from the body and downwards to remove the bark. Older children will relish the responsibility of progressing onto proper penknife whittling. The Woodland Trust’s website has more information on safe whittling for kids.
Kids of all ages love showing off their climbing moves. Set some ground rules and pick a place with smaller rocks and flat terrain where you can support from below. Encourage traversing challenges and finding different ways of getting up and down easy boulders. Families who really enjoy this activity may want to invest in a bouldering mat - you may then spend all of the summer holidays bouldering! Potential bouldering venues can be found by looking at the crag location map on the UKClimbing website.
Find the fuel to start your own fire and get cooking
Go on a ‘chumping’ hike in a wooded area to find dead wood from six different types of trees to us as kindling. Children very rarely get a chance to start their own fires, but the countryside is not the place to do this. Take your kindling back home to make your fire in your garden (if you don’t have a suitable one, a friend or relative probably will or get a fire bowl suitable for small gardens). See if the children can use their kindling to get the fire going themselves. Teach them how to use matches, spills and tongs safely or get a flint to really spark their imaginations. Corn-on-the-cob, marshmallows and jacket potatoes cooked in foil are all tried and tested fiery foods that you could cook on your fire.
Hone your navigation skills
Let your children lead you on a hike and give them a head start on navigation. Pick an easy route that they’ve never done before with a clear objective such as a summit, cafe or picnic spot and give them some tips on using a map or app to get there. Lots of praise and subtle ‘clues’ when they veer off course should inspire them to become a mountain leader of the future.
Scale a mountain
This one may need a little more planning but your child’s mountaineering abilities may well surprise you. Some children who can’t be coaxed to walk half a mile to school will spring into life when faced with an uphill expedition, especially if they have to use their hands to scramble up rocky paths. Pick a place with an interesting summit and be realistic and flexible – it doesn’t matter if you get all the way up!
Go on a fishing expedition
Serious fishing requires permits and equipment, but a net and bucket will do for an expedition to fish the shallow waters of the local stream or beck. If it’s safe to do so, get in and walk upstream, fishing as you go. When you reach a beach or grassy bank, check out who has netted the best catch. Take a nature spotting book and magnifying glass to identify what’s in your bucket or phone-loving older kids can use apps instead.
Go high altitude kite flying
Kites can provide a good incentive to walk into the hills. Pick a hill or mountain to go up and see if you can be the highest kite flyer around. Kites are light enough to take anywhere and even very young children can join in. By getting up high, there’s usually enough breeze for a kite to take flight and there are fewer things to restrict you. Pocket kites without poles are the most packable.
Unleash your inner ape and go tree-climbing
Make sure that the primal art of tree-climbing is not lost to the next generation. Pick a walk with some wooded areas and tell your kids they are going tree-climbing. Once you start looking, it’s easy to spot suitable trees for children of any age. Most kids are remarkably self-limiting and can learn to assess risk and descend what they have climbed with a safe pair of hands beneath them. The textures, smells and sounds of the trees make for a cool sensory experience.