I don’t know about you, but I’m so much happier if I’ve spent a good chunk of time outside in the fresh air. It blows the cobwebs away, lifts my spirits to see the beauty of nature even on the darkest days and allows me to feel virtuous when I return inside to do something more sedentary.
Outside time is so much tougher to achieve this time of year. If you’re snuggled up next to a cosy fire, the thought of tackling high winds, rain and cold temperatures can seem less than appealing.
Getting your children wrapped up and moving out the door is doubly difficult. My two are fairly adventurous outdoor types, and yet there has been many a time when they’ve turned to me with incredulity to say, “seriously, we’re going out for a walk in that!”
“Yes darling, and it’ll be an adventure!”
Even though it can be hard to fight the voices of dissent (both from your children and in your own mind), the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in nature make it worth the effort, and more important now than ever given our new national lockdown situation.
Personally, I’ve found having a focus for our outside time and calling it a microadventure – a term coined by Alistair Humphrey to mean “an adventure that is short, simple, local, cheap – yet still fun, exciting, challenging, refreshing and rewarding,” turns it from a chore into something to be relished.
As such, here are five simple, autumnal microadventures that we’ve enjoyed recently, which can all be done during the lockdown period:
1. Walk or Run an Orienteering Course
My two love the challenge a spot of orienteering brings. The opportunity to bring out their compasses; test their spatial skills to work out where they are on the map and in which direction they need to go to reach the next post or plaque; and use their eagle eyes to scan an area for the next marker, are all activities they take great pleasure in.
And the feeling of discovering that red and white plaque on a post hidden amongst bracken, after following a compass bearing into the depths of a wood is genuinely joyful, eliciting whoops of delight!
Not only is this a fun geographical skill to learn, but it also teaches perseverance and tenacity.
We recently completed a course at Bedgebury Pinetum (you can download their orienteering courses for free here), and we completely failed to locate the first post. After much discussion about how the map must be wrong (the adults) and wandering around (the kids), I was contemplating moving to the easier course, but it was Bean9 who kept us going.
He categorically refused to give up, searching and searching until eventually we came across the second post, opting to continue from this point instead. Following a second navigational error (ahem, it was still early…), we finally managed to get into the groove of the course, and the Beans turned out to be much better than me at spying the hidden checkpoints, until with much excitement, we reached the final marker.
The British Orienteering website has a list of permanent orienteering courses available across the country (and here is the US equivalent). You can search the list by area or post code to find your local options and download many of the courses for free.
We’ve always opted for the more sedate option of walking the courses, but you could mix it up and run them instead. On the British Orienteering site, there are also virtual orienteering courses available to be completed with your smartphone or GPS watch. This requires you to download the MapRun app, which tracks your progress over the courses and even compares your times against other participants (something that would appeal to our ever so slightly competitive family!).
2. Chase a Rare Bird Species/Start a Bird List
My dad is somewhat of a bird fanatic, so on a recent visit I asked him to plan a birdwatching microadventure to help inspire my mini twitchers! He’s a member of Birdguides and part of his package allows him to search by area for all the recent rare bird sightings. Although membership to this site costs £49.99/year, they’re currently offering a free 30-day trial, perfect for the lockdown period!
There were quite a few rare species currently residing at Dungeness, at a local RSPB reserve, and two in particular – the Glossy Ibis and Pomarine Skua – which we were keen to see. So, off we set with telescope, binoculars and this Collins UK bird guide (if you buy this from the app store instead, you get the bird calls too) in hand to track these rare species.
We got off to a good start, with a sighting of a Cattle Egret, rare for the UK. And from the hide, the Beans ticked off quite a few species, including Widgeon, Cormorant, Lapwing, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall and Tufted Duck.
But then the rain came, in bucket loads, with a side wind that made it hard to stand upright… Storm Aiden had hit the UK! Not the best birdwatching conditions. So, we opted for a spot of from-the-car-birdwatching, before driving down towards the sea, to attempt to spy the Skua. Bean11 managed to spot a Great Egret on our voyage, but sadly that’s when our luck stopped. We battled with the wind and now hail (!) to walk down to the seashore but unfortunately all we saw was a great crested grebe bobbing about on the crashing waves! Not a skua in sight!
Not to be put off, we returned to the area where the glossy ibis had last been seen, but to no avail. According to Birdguide, just ten minutes after we left the spot, someone registered a sighting of them! They were nonetheless happy with the birds they’d seen, and we’d ventured outside despite the dismal conditions.
On our return home, my dad set up Bean11 an eBird account, an online worldwide database of bird observations, and a free way of recording an online bird list, with monthly, yearly and lifetime reports. She inputted her sightings from our mini expedition and every day since, has been popping out each morning with her binoculars to find new species to add to her growing list.
If you’re struggling to see and identify the birds, but you can hear their songs, there is a £3.99 app called ChirpOMatic (for Western Europe), which allows you to record the bird singing, and it will then analyse the sound and show you the top matches, along with photos of the bird. Or for a worldwide option, if you just wanted to check the species call to make sure you have identified it correctly, the free website Xeno-Canto has recordings of bird species’ songs from across the globe.
3. Go on a Night Hike
Going for a walk in the darkness, with your way lit only by the moon, and possibly a little torchlight, takes the excitement factor up a serious number of notches for children. It turns it into a proper adventure!
There’s something quite magical about being out on a clear night, with the stars twinkling overhead and the darkness almost providing a cushion around you. Your senses go into overdrive as you hear every rustle in the undergrowth, every hoot of an owl and maybe a quick glimpse of a bat swooping over your head or a pair of green fox eyes watching your progress!
Start safe initially and walk a short local route you know well enough to navigate with your eyes closed. But to add a little more adventure and take up the risk level, try a new route and attempt to map read in the dark, with the aid of a compass.
If you’re walking along any roads, don’t forget high visibility clothing and spare batteries for your torches. And plentiful snacks always make for a much more enjoyable walk with children!
4. Climb to the Highest Point on Your Local OS Map
Add a little bit of focus to your weekend hike, making it more appealing to your children. Last Sunday, we challenged the Beans to find the highest point on our local OS map. After much searching, they found the spot – 186m above sea level.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t where we thought it would be. Both MrJ and I both assumed it would be the local hill we sometimes run up if we’re feeling particularly masochistic! Instead, the challenge introduced us to a local and very beautiful area we’d not hiked before (and we have done many a walk and run in the neighbourhood!).
So, we planned a circular walk which led up to this trig point and headed out to reach our quest. It was a wet, windy and cold day and I’m not sure we’d have ventured out otherwise but having that additional motivation to reach the highest point in the area, propelled us out the front door.
I appreciate that we live in quite a flat area, so this wasn’t too arduous a walk for us. If you live in the Lake or Peak District, this would be significantly more challenging, but still a fun adventure. To make it more manageable, you could always park the car and start halfway up a hill/mountain or narrow your search area to just part of the OS map.
5. Cook Breakfast Whilst Watching the Sun Rise
One Sunday after the children had gone to bed, MrJ and I decided to add a little adventure into our Monday morning routine. We pulled out the camping stove; laid out warm clothes, coats, hats, gloves and hiking boots; readied a bag for the morning and set our alarm.
At 6:20am, we woke the kids (typically it was the only morning in the last year that Bean9 was asleep at this time in the morning!), told them we were going on a microadventure and asked them to get dressed quickly and jump in the car.
About 20 minutes later, we were sat on the beach cooking bacon and egg butties for our breakfast whilst watching the sun rise over the sea. Breakfast tastes so much better when eaten outside!
The kids were in high spirits at this change to our routine and the mini adventure was much enhanced by the arrival of four ladies who’d come down for a cheeky morning swim… It was so fun to watch and very much admire them splashing around in the sea like happy children on this freezing morning (and there’s another microadventure for the very hardy amongst us!).
We waited until it was fully light and then headed home to start our Monday work, fully refreshed and ready for the week ahead.
Although we opted for a seaside adventure, another fun alternative would be to climb a small hill and breakfast on the top, or lay your picnic blanket down in the middle of a wood or beside a lake to watch the sun break through in the early morning.