This time of year is perfect for spending quality family time by getting out and about together, making the most of where you live. It’s a brilliant season to enjoy the beauty of nature, and there are plenty of ways to imbibe culture and atmosphere too.
head to the coast
With such a rich and varied coastline, it makes sense to take our kids to the beach as often as possible. Depending on where you live, you might be able to capture some of the old-fashioned delights of building volcanoes and sandcastles, dangling a bait-catcher from a wharf and looking for the silvery form of sprats, or running from the ‘chasing’ fingers of the tide at a surf beach. Kids seem to have an innate passion for the environment, and it’s great to encourage their knowledge of the natural world by pointing out some of the features of a particular ecosystem: such as the way dune-grasses hold sand dunes in place, stopping them from blowing away, or the presence of mangroves in estuaries, which purify the water and help to create a nutrient-rich environment for young fish. Time spent running sand through your fingers, and finding treasures such as driftwood and shells, can make up some of the most relaxing and magical memories of childhood. Dressing for the weather, rather than visiting the beach only on warm days, means your children will get to experience the coast in all its moods, providing a more complex understanding of the world and allowing them to develop a deep sense of connection with the ocean.
bush, streams and rivers
Even if you don’t live near the coast, chances are you live near bush, rivers, lakes or wetlands. They don’t have to be grand-scale, world-famous tourist attractions; the scrappy-looking bush reserve down the road can seem like a jungle of mystery and adventure to a child. You’re likely to see fantails, or hear tui, and to find critters in the leaf-litter. If you’re at a wetland, keep an eye out for pukeko, which hold their food in one foot and nibble delicately. You might be lucky enough to find an eel in a stream. Did you know that eels live in our streams for about 35 years before they are ready to reproduce? At which time they leave for the Pacific Ocean, swimming for six months straight before they reach spawning grounds near Tonga.
Don’t wait for a kindy or school trip to organise trips on public transport or to museums; do it yourself. Bus trips are cheap and provide lots of interest as people get on and off at different stops. Talking about what you see builds a child’s knowledge of their area and how things work – shops, schools and motorway overpasses can all be seen from a different perspective on a bus. You’re offering your child the chance to develop their confidence as a citizen as they learn the system of waiting at a bus-stop, giving money to the driver and holding a ticket. Try bussing to somewhere you’d normally take the car and enjoy being able to focus on being together – pointing things out and chatting, when normally you’d be concentrating on driving, finding a park and beating a fast-track to your destination. Trains have an added element of excitement; younger children often need reassurance and lots of cuddles when experiencing the noise and bustle of a train and train-station. If you live near a ferry, make a point of catching it somewhere at least once a year. It feels like being a tourist in your own town to sit on the outside deck of such a fast-moving vessel, looking for familiar landmarks from the water and often, in New Zealand, enjoying our gorgeous islands. An ice-cream and a wander around is a good enough reason to make the trip – it’s all about the journey and taking time to enjoy what’s on our doorstep.
They’re more expensive, but for a treat, vintage steam trains are worth seeking out. Often run by volunteer train enthusiasts, these train trips are just right for kids – usually taking about half an hour each way, with a stop at an atmospheric, retro-styled tearoom or cafe. They’re made special by drivers and conductors who make an effort to look the part, chatting with children and clipping tickets ceremoniously. Steam trains travel slowly through gorgeous countryside and you’re often allowed to stand outside and enjoy the view.
Lighthouses also make a trip-worthy destination. They’re located in wild, out of the way places, which means the drive there is beautiful – and once you’re there, there are stunning views in every direction. There’s usually a climb from the car park, which can make for adventure or protest (depending on the day and the child), but makes the view all the more breathtaking when you get there. And there’s something appealingly ‘Famous Five’ about scrambling around inside an old wooden building with such an unusual shape, learning about shipwrecks and flashing lights and storms.
a bit of culture
Finally, don’t neglect to make use of any local museums and art galleries, even if they’re of the humbler variety. A quick pop-in to your local can be more enjoyable than a mammoth day trip to a famous institution. Play a simple game of wandering around one room and choosing your best artwork or exhibit. Offer scaffolding vocabulary to help your child discuss what they see, such as “My best one is the painting of the boats. I find it so relaxing to look at,” or “I wonder why that lady in the picture looks so sad.”
Farmers’ markets, orchards, berry or apple picking gardens, regional parks, botanical gardens, pet shops and zoos are also places you can make a stimulating, sensory-rich excursion out of. We live in a country that is rich with beauty and the projects of passionate, creative people. It just takes a bit of effort to get outside our routine and look with fresh eyes at the many possibilities that await us.
Try bussing to somewhere you’d normally take the car and enjoy being able to focus on being together – pointing things out and chatting, when normally you’d be concentrating on driving, finding a park and beating a fast-track to your destination.
Stephanie Chamberlain taught English in NZ and the UK for 12 years before becoming a mum. Having published several educational resource books with Pearson and her own start-up, Thematic Resources, she also blogs about children and nature at www.outdoorplay.co.nz.
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