It's time for children to get back to nature. Samantha Laurie highlights some great opportunities for outdoor play in Surrey
Deep in the woodland of Winkworth Arboretum, near Godalming, there is a small clearing with the smoky remains of a campfire circle and a dozen small shelters of sticks and bark.
“Hazel,” nods my guide, Jon Millington. “Perfect for den building…and whistle making.”
Tucked away from the bluebell and orchid-fringed pathways, this is home to a new type of children’s holiday camp – one based entirely outdoors where campfires, camouflage, blindfold trails, mud masks and tracking are the order of the day.
Wild Learning runs day camps for 5-12 year olds at five sites, including Winkworth, Gatton Park, near Reigate, and Holmwood Common, near Dorking. Only the most extreme weather leads to cancellation.
“Rain is good,” insists Jon. “Rain just means more mudslides and better shelters. We show them that it’s not the weather, but your reaction to it, that determines how much fun you can have.”
The camps are based on an adapted version of Forest Schools, a Scandinavian teaching approach most common in early years settings. Typically, it entails a six-week programme whereby children visit a local wild place once a week, gradually becoming familiar with it. Ideally, they continue to visit through different seasons.
Getting parents behind the idea is critical, says environmental educationalist, Cath Mukhopadhyay, who runs workshops for parents and children on Ham Common and in Richmond Park.
“Lots of parents are quite removed from nature. They don’t like the insects and bugs, or the dirt, and they pass that on to their children. If you can just get them over that, they really see the benefits,” she insists.
Outdoor play tops the agenda for the National Trust too. This summer it launches a roving team of super-rangers to teach children traditional play skills, such as tree climbing, stone-skimming and den building, across its various sites.
“It’s not so much what children know about nature,” says Jon Millington. “It’s what happens to them when they’re in it. We need to show them how to enjoy the natural world.
“Who is going to care for our woodlands and forests in the future if today’s kids have never played in them?”
Wild Learning in Godalming runs holiday clubs and ‘wild’ birthday parties for learning with the opportunity to get very muddy. Children aged 5 to 12 can do a day, a few days, or a week of running around outside. Activities include learning about knots, making wattle fences and constructing shelters.
They promise that every day will be different and parents regularly praise them for sending their children home completely exhausted. A standard day at holiday camp runs from 10.15am to 4pm for £37.50. Book five places for the price of four. Visit: wild-learning.net
Eastwood Nursery School in Roehampton, one of the most established urban forest schools in the country, is running a Forest School summer play scheme throughout the holidays at Richmond Park and in the grounds of Roehampton Univeristy. Children will spend most of the day outside and activities include camp fires, pond dipping, nature arts and crafts, tree climbing and wading in the river. Visit: urbanforestschool.co.uk.
A South Nuffield Farmer has recently converted his farm in Nutfield into a conservation area and is offering educational trips to local groups. Visitors to Bower Hill Farm can enjoy tractor rides, pond dipping and a picnic by the lakes. More educationally focused trips can include studying natural habitats and life cycles, even recording data. To book, call Guy Amos on 01737 822 639. For more details on the educational trips, visit: bowerhillfarm.co.uk