It’s a bank holiday in the UK this weekend and with most of us still in lockdown we thought we would catch up with Alex Gregory, Olympian and author of Dadventures, and ask him about the importance of staying active with your kids during lockdown and what activities he would recommend:
We’re all going through something very strange. Over the course of the last few months we’ve had to adapt in ways we probably didn’t think we’d ever have to, and the thing is, the situation has been different for everyone. It’s not easy, whoever you are, but one way to make this time while we’re stuck at home more exciting is to have a home adventure!
It’s the best way for everyone, children and adults to join in together, ignite imaginations, expend a bit of energy and create some happy memories together. We all know how long the days can be when our children need constant attention. We all get stuck for ideas so, instead of reaching for the remote, here are a few activities that will entertain everyone and break up those long days into manageable chunks. Whether it’s on the balcony, in the garden or during your daily walk there’s something for everyone!
Much of what we do involves looking down. We look down to read, write, watch animals, find insects, build dens, carve wood, start fires and cook. When you think about it, we don’t spend much time looking upwards into the sky. But the sky is ever-changing. It’s dynamic space of swirling particles and molecules. Skies change colour and shape all the time, and so to have a very basic knowledge about the sky can mean that looking at it is much more interesting. If you know what you’re seeing you’ll notice things more. When you notice things more, you’ll become more interested in those things and want to learn more about them. When you know more about them, you’ll want to share your knowledge with others, which sustains this ever-growing cycle of interest and knowledge.
The sky is a mystery to children, and the source of endless stimulation to their imagination. As we grow older, our heads grow heavier and our eyes become diverted towards the ground. Why not have a go at changing that, and turning your own and your children’s heads to the sky?
What you need:
What to do:
1. Go outside, tilt your head to the sky and open your eyes.
2. This can be done any and every time you’re outside, whether you’re in the countryside or in the heart of a bustling city. Look up out of the car window or, even better, stop, get out of the car, lean up against it and look up. If you’re not too worried about the paintwork then why not spread a picnic mat on the car roof and allow your child to lie on their back and watch the sky.
What will you see?
+ Cirrus. These are the highest-forming clouds at 20,000–40,000 feet of altitude. I always think they look like wispy floating feathers high in the upper atmosphere. They are formed when warmer dry air rises, turning moisture into ice crystals, and they indicate a change in weather, where warmer air is moving in
on a front.
+ Cirrocumulus. Also seen at 20,000–40,000 feet. These are sheets of clouds made up from small cloudlets of ice and they might cover large areas of the sky, looking like fish scales or ripples. These distinctive shapes are made when turbulent vertical currents of air meet a cirrus layer. They often indicate a change for the worse in the weather.
+ Cirrostratus. These white, often transparent, thin wisps of cloud are the thinnest you’ll see. They can be used to predict the weather over the next 24 hours. They usually indicate that there’s likely to be wet weather on the way – either persistent rain or sometimes only a light drizzle, depending on the specific qualities of the cloud.
+ Altocumulus. These are mid-layer clouds made up of water droplets and ice, giving them an ethereal appearance, and are usually white or grey. They differ from cirrocumulus, which are white, higher up and generally smaller.
+ Altostratus. Usually featureless, these are thin sheets of cloud stretching out over the entire sky. Sometimes the sun shows weakly through them. They usually form when a thin layer of cirrostratus drops from a higher level, and they can indicate that a change of the weather is on its way. They often form ahead of a warm front; as the front passes, the altostratus layer will deepen to form nimbostratus, which will produce rain or snow.
+ Nimbostratus. These are dark, grey featureless layers of cloud thick enough to block out most of the sun. The rain or snow they bring will usually remain until the front has moved on.
+ Stratocumulus. These are the most common clouds seen at low levels in the sky and have clear, defined bases. They are indicators of a change in the weather, but can be found in all types of weather, from settled, dry weather to rain.
+ Stratus. These are the lowest-lying type of cloud, uniform white or grey, which we know from dull, overcast days. They sometimes appear on the ground as mist or fog. They can produce light drizzle if thick enough.
+ Cumulus. If a child were to draw a cloud, it would be a cumulus cloud. They are detached, individual cauliflower-shaped clouds that form when warm air from the surface rises and cools to form water vapour, which then condenses and forms cloud. If they continue to grow in height and size they’ll eventually turn into cumulonimbus clouds. Cumulus clouds indicate fair weather, but if they do grow into cumulonimbus clouds they are capable of producing rain.
+ Cumulonimbus. Everyone knows the look of these clouds. Tome they are magnificent, exciting, daunting cathedrals of water vapour towering up into the sky. These thunderclouds are the only type of cloud that can produce thunder, lightning and hail. Their bases can lie very close to the Earth’s surface but stretch high into the atmosphere. They often grow from small cumulus clouds over a hot ground surface and can also form along cold fronts where warm air is forced to rise over incoming cold air. They are associated with extreme weather and once precipitation begins, they’ll usually only last a short period of time.
I studied physical geography at university, and weather was a part of the degree I remember enjoying very much. University for me was more about fitting lectures and study around rowing training, but because the subject was of genuine interest to me I managed to learn a significant amount. Now it’s my job to pass that knowledge on to my children, which I try to do every time we go outside and I tell them to look up.
As you’re directing your gaze up to the sky, have a look to see if you can see anything in the shapes and patterns of the clouds. Most of the time, with the right cloud conditions, there’s something obvious that can be made out from the shapes that form up there. Usually it’s a strange creature or a face – let your imagination run wild! There are a number of really useful apps and websites available for identifying cloud types. The more you look and compare the clouds, the easier it will become to distinguish between them. Of course, there are cross-overs and similar-looking clouds. They aren’t always easy to identify, but it’s great fun trying! Give your child a mission to photograph the sky every day for a week. At the weekend collate all the photographs and identify them together, creating your own cloud-spotters’ guide. It may take a number of weeks to get a wide range of different clouds, as they are obviously weather dependent.
What you need:
+ Tin foil
+ Metal detector
+ Plastic collection bags/sandwich bags
What to do:
1. Provide approximate distances (in child’s paces, ‘lengths’ of a school playing field or similar, or metres) and compass directions to follow to get to the point at which the next clue is hidden.
2. Wrap objects in tin foil and hide them in the ground, under leaves or under non-metallic objects for your child to find with their metal detector. This could be a prize or the next clue.
3. Set challenges of things outside that they have to photograph along the scavenger-hunt route. Only when they’ve correctly found, identified and photographed all the items you’ve listed do they receive the next clue or prize.
4. Set them a route to follow on a map. Maps are wonderful things and map-reading a brilliant skill to grasp early on. They are fascinating pictorial views of the countryside, and learning the symbols and markings is great fun. Setting a route together and allowing your child to take you along the route is a hugely rewarding experience.
5. Set the route based on items they can collect. Leaves, interesting stones, wood, tree bark, pine cones can all be collected in a bag. If all the items have been correctly
identified and collected they have successfully completed the scavenger hunt.
Using a combination of some or all of these ideas you can create an incredibly interesting, exciting and varied scavenger hunt, in which your child has to use their brain as much as their energy in order to complete it!
As you and your child become increasingly accustomed to the process of a scavenger hunt you can start adding in extra components to make the hunt even more exciting. Switching between a clue they have to work out, a clue or item they have to find, even a challenge they have to complete before you give them another clue, is a great way to extend and enhance this game. My dad was a master of treasure hunts. For years my birthday parties would involve long hunts over miles and miles of countryside. Up and down hills, across fields, along rivers, up trees and straight through woods. A clue or riddle would lead to the next point, and so on until we eventually found the prize. This would sometimes take all day to complete. His clever little cryptic clues were difficult but we always managed to get a hint out of him as he followed on behind, sending us off in the right direction. It was so much fun and such a thrilling way to spend the day.
SETTING AN INSECT TRAP
I’ve always been fascinated by insects and indeed would go so far as to say I love them. They’re incredible creatures that thrive all over the world, sometimes in the most hostile environments, and are the most diverse and ecologically important group of land animals. Nobody knows exactly how many different insects there are, although it’s estimated there are as many 30 million different species of these weird and wonderful creatures. One of the most useful things about them is that they’re absolutely everywhere. You can always find an insect, and so wherever you are in the world there’s entertainment to be had. In a city centre, leaning against a wall or waiting by a bus stop with a hedge behind you – have a look, peer into the undergrowth or between the cracks in a crumbling wall, as there’s always something there to spot.
An easy way to discover what you have in your garden, front yard, local park or woodland is to set a small insect trap. It’s quick to make and costs nothing except time.
What you need:
+ A glass jar or clear beaker
+ Some bait
+ A small spade
+ One large, flat rock
+ Three small rocks
What to do:
1. Find a spot on the ground in a place where people don’t usually walk. Under a rock in a flower bed is a great place to start, or in a quiet corner of the garden.
2. Dig a hole as deep as the glass jar or beaker.
3. Place your bait in the jar or beaker and then put it in the hole and adjust it so the top of the jar is in line with the surface of the soil or just a fraction below.
4. Compact the soil around the top.
5. Place the three small rocks around the embedded jar on the soil surface and carefully place the large fl at rock on top of them to prevent rain getting in. You’re done!
6. The trap is set. Now leave it alone for a few hours or, ideally, overnight.
7. Check the traps the following morning.
This is a great activity to do on a Friday afternoon, providing a perfect and exciting pretext for getting up and out on a weekend. If you’re organised, you can get a whole load of traps set in different parts of the garden, park or woodland – wherever you have easy access. It’s interesting to put a range of food in the jar or beaker to see what it attracts. Different bait will draw different insects, but even if you don’t use a food source, you’ll catch something. Also try to notice which insects live in the habitat where you set your traps. Grassland, for example, is likely to contain different species to woodland.
Muddy hands, dirty knees, fresh air and fun together. And don’t forget to return the insects back where you found them.
I’d suggest taking a white tray or bowl so that you can study your trapped insects. Once you’ve pulled the jar or beaker from the ground and had a good look through the glass, tip out your finds into the tray or bowl to have a further look from a different angle. The light white enables the usually dark insects to show up really well. From there you’ll be able to talk about them, identify them and maybe, if you’re all in the mood or have the time, draw and photograph them.
+ How many legs?
BUILDING A TINY KITE
I was shown how to build incredible little kites by my travelling Australian relatives. On their way around the world, they’d sell their home-made kites on the streets of towns and cities and at festivals, and make a great deal of money. I was fascinated by the mini contraptions, but the most amazing thing to me was how well they’d fly, how high you could get them and the fact that you didn’t need much wind for them to take to the air.
What you need:
+ Stems of straw, reeds or strong grass
+ Coloured tissue paper
+ A cotton reel
What to do:
1. Collect a handful of straw, thin dry reed or strong long grass from whatever source you can find – riverbanks, gardens and fields. The material must be light and rigid – the lighter the better.
2. Cut a piece of straw 15cm in length and another piece 10cm in length.
3. Cut a piece of tissue paper in a ‘kite’ shape 15cm from top to bottom, 10cm at its widest point.
4. Very carefully and sparingly glue the pieces of straw to the paper, the longest piece first and the shorter piece across the middle at the widest point.
5. Cut two thin strands of paper 50cm long, 1.2cm wide.
6. Carefully stick these two long tails to the bottom point of the kite.
7. Tie one end of the cotton reel to the centre point where the two strands of straw cross. There may be a small gap that the thread can be pushed behind to tie on to the kite. Make sure this is secure.
8. Allow the glue to dry. Once dry, it’s time to set the kite into the air.
9. Choose a dry day when there’s a gentle and steady breeze. If the breeze is too weak, the kite won’t lift off; too strong and the kite will rip apart.
10. The tails are important to stabilise the kite, so experiment with their length. Too long and the kite will be weighted down and won’t fly well; too short and the kite will fly uncontrollably, spin and sink to the ground. Better to start with a longer tail that can
be easily cut.
11. A gentle flutter and movement from side to side is ideal.
12. As the kite is only attached by a single thread, you won’t have control over its flight.
13. With a long cotton reel you can really get some height on these kites.
14. Use a rock, fence post, tree branch or a shoe to weigh the end of the line to the ground and simply leave the kite dancing up there in the sky.
These kites are so quick, easy and cheap to make you could spend 30 minutes one day making a number of them. The next time the weather is ideal you could take them all out and set them all flying together, tying them up along a fence or something similar. Why not have a go at adapting the design of the kites to see which one works best. It’s extremely satisfying seeing your little creation right up there against the clouds, and if you tie them off it enables you to share a moment together as you lie on your backs in the grass looking up at your kites flying around on wind power alone. I have very happy memories of flying these little kites out in the garden. They’re completely safe and will cause no damage if they fall or crash. If they blow away they’ll very quickly decompose and cause no harm to the environment. Using nature to provide entertainment is important – here you’re utilising a breeze to create a moment. You can start talking about how to use air currents and your child’s imagination can be stimulated with stories of flying creatures and explorers.
COOKING OVER A FIRE
Cooking over a fire is the best. The smoky flavour that wood smoke brings is, as we all know, something much sought after, even in Michelin-starred restaurants. So why not create your own restaurant outside on one of your adventures. I remember heading back to school as a youngster and telling my friends that we’d had our dinner cooked on a fire in the woods. No one believed me, but I was so excited and proud that we’d done something so unusual. It’s the perfect thing to do on a summer’s evening after school or on a warm weekend. It doesn’t have to take long, but the thrill of heading out with a parent into the garden, woods or a suitable piece of land and starting a fire on which to cook dinner is something that will never be forgotten
What you need:
+ Fire-lighting equipment
+ A frying pan/metal container/grill
+ Food to be cooked
+ A knife
+ An oven glove/damp cloth, to protect hands
What to do:
1. Light a fire in a suitable location.
2. Once the fire has been built and a good supply of glowing embers has formed, cooking can begin.
3. Flatten out the embers and lay the frying pan or other metal cooking utensil on top.
4. Keep a close watch throughout the cooking process – resting objects on fires can be dangerous. As the wood burns it will move, potentially causing accidents.
5. There are endless complicated set-ups you can invent using sticks, rocks, wire – anything non-flammable you can find – but a couple of green logs placed on either side of the embers is pretty good for resting a frying pan or a metal pot on.
6. When moving cooking utensils, consider how you’re going to hold the cooking pot and its metal handle once they’re hot. An oven glove or damp cloth will be needed – there’s nothing worse than painfully burnt hands when trying to have a good time!
SMOKEY JOE’S FRY-UP
What you need:
+ A little vegetable oil
+ 4 sausages
+ 4 rashers of bacon
+ 4 eggs
+ 10 small mushrooms
+ 4 tomatoes
+ 4 slices of bread
What to do:
1. As rustic as it comes, start by frying the sausages in a few drops of vegetable oil in the frying pan nestled into the fire’s embers.
2. Once the sausages are golden, add the bacon until cooked on one side. Flip them over, then crack the eggs into the pan in the gaps between the sausages and bacon.
3. In any other available gaps add the mushrooms and tomatoes, which should all get drawn in and connected by the egg white.
4. Continue to fry until everything is cooked to taste.
5. Cut up the food into portions in the frying pan and slide each portion out on to a plate. Quickly add the bread to the pan with a little more vegetable oil. Fry both sides and add to the plate when golden brown and crisp. The most delicious, crusty, smoky breakfast right there in the fresh air – what a fantastic way to start the day!
Of course, this is just one simple recipe – but it’s a great start. A full stomach in preparation for a night under the stars or a day of adventure is just what we all need. Tweak this recipe to suit your needs and become familiar with cooking over a fire – it does take a bit of getting used to, but the results will improve with practice. We won’t all be as good as my friend the Croatian chef, who was indeed a natural and who instinctively knew, after years of practice and experience, what would be happening to his food and when.
All of these fantastic recommendations can be found in Alex’s book, Dadventures, which you can purchase here!