Toyota asked naturalist and adventurer Steve Backshall to come with exciting outdoor activities for the school summer holidays this year. He went all out. Take a look.
Steve Backshall, presenter of Deadly 60 and Expedition with Steve Backshall, is also a father of three and passionate about outdoor activities which encourage children to be free in nature.
As Steve says, “For many parents, bug-hunting and pond-dipping are reminiscent of their own childhoods. For others, new outdoor activities help increase knowledge and appreciation of the natural world and help entertain kids during the long school holidays.”
Steve’s trusted wild adventure companion is the new Toyota RAV4 Plug-in Hybrid SUV. Ideal for a UK staycation or adventurous family days out, it offers low emissions and drives by default in all-electric mode. Covering up to 46 miles on a full battery charge, it also automatically switches to hybrid electric mode when extra power is needed.
All-wheel drive is standard, so it’s perfect for countryside driving. Plus it comes with a selectable Trail Mode to help negotiate more challenging off-road conditions. And it’s also spacious with plenty of boot space for naturalist kit, picnics and spare clothes.
Build an A-frame den for outdoor activities in the woods
Dens can be used as hideouts or for birdwatching or simply as somewhere to shelter when it rains. Whatever you use it for, building one is a fun family activity.
How to build an A-frame den with your kids
- Find two trees close together with low-ish forks and put a long straight branch between them.
- Use material you find on the ground to build up each side of the den, propping sticks in a row against the long branch.
- Use smaller, bendy sticks to weave in and out of the upright sticks.
- Build until the den looks a bit like a tent shaped basket.
- Finish by packing leaves, grass, or moss on top to fill in the gaps.
Go on a nature treasure hunt in the forest
One of the most common parenting challenges is getting kids to keep walking on a country walk. A treasure hunt is a great way to do this.
Think of easy things to find in the area where you’re walking. Then set everyone the task of finding nature’s small ‘treasures’. It’s amazing how far kids will hike with a bit of incentive. Scoring arrows into the mud or sand or make arrows with sticks or stones as you walk also encourages reluctant little hikers!
Foraging is one of summer’s classic outdoor activities
Blackberry picking is a good introduction to foraging for kids as the fruits are easy to pick because they tend to grow at a child’s height.
You’ll find blackberries mostly beside paths or hedgerows and kids can learn to identify ripe from unripe just by the colour. Obviously the entire family will enjoy the harvest. Although gather enough and you could make a blackberry crumble, another fun family activity for young foragers.
Discover the fun of a butterfly hunt
A butterfly net, or sweep net, is a fun way to find out what is living in a park, field, or meadow. Plus, over the summer holidays, you’re likely to catch bush crickets, moths and butterflies.
How to catch and release butterflies and insects
- Sweep the net lightly through the upper sections of grasses in the colourful bits of a meadow. Be careful not to damage wildflowers.
- Put the collected insects in a ‘pooter’, a little pot with two straws attached.
- Suck on one straw and the insects are gently whisked into the pot for examination. There’s a valve on the human straw to avoid getting a mouthful of ants!.
- Use a hand lens with x10 magnification to identify insects and examine them in detail.
- Always remember to release everything you catch safely back into the wild.
Add bird spotting to your outdoor activities this summer
According to the British Ornithologists Union, 574 different bird species have been spotted in the British Isles. Kids can learn to identify them by sight using a guide to British birds or sticker books. Sound is another fun way to spot birds. With a free app like BirdNET you only need to record a few seconds of birdsong on your phone and it identifies the bird.
Take the Wildlife photography challenge
As Steve says, “Everyone has a camera and learning to capture a moment in time through a lens, how to frame a picture and when to take a photo, are lessons that require a child to slow down and connect with nature.”
How to inspire your kids
- Smartphones are fine for taking pictures of mini-beasts, or sunsets, or capturing the dew on a spider’s web.
- Encourage kids to identify a subject, place it in the centre of the shot and make sure the light falls on it.
- Set a photography project, such as taking photos of 10 things beginning with the letter ‘P’ or five things you think an animal would want to eat.
- Once you’re hooked on wildlife photography, you could think about investing in an SLR camera.
- Big lenses let you photograph birds and deer from a distance and take wildlife photography to a whole new level.
Set up a wildlife camera trap
Camera traps have transformed naturalist pursuits especially now that easy-to-use, compact HD video camera traps are reasonably priced.
How to set your first camera trap
- Classic subjects are badgers, which are shy, nocturnal creatures.
- Set a camera trap near a badger sett and the results can be spectacular.
- Choose a sett entrance that’s used a lot. It will have the fewer cobwebs across it and the most teddy-bear-like footprints at the front.
- Think of the height of a badger when setting the camera, don’t aim it too high.
- Make sure the shot is wide enough to see more than the animal running in and out of frame.
- Don’t position your camera where it could be damaged or stolen, or in the way of people or wildlife.
Turn a woodland walk into an animal detective story
Steve thinks just about every ramble can be turned into an animal detective novel. “Tracking has drama, secrets and the potential to experience an animal you may never see, to feel you are walking in their footsteps.” Challenge your kids to look for things like a discarded nutshell, a feather, an acorn, an animal print, or evidence of animal feeding areas and animal trails.
Learn to use an Ordnance Survey map
With a GPS in everyone’s pocket, map-reading is a dying art. But learning to see the relief of the land from its contours is a skill that saves time and could save a life in the future.
Map reading for beginners
- Micro-nav is fine for navigating short distances, following a compass bearing.
- Give your kids a six-figure grid reference for a point of interest.
- Choose a tower, or a footbridge over a small stream, to plot on the OS map.
- Give them a compass bearing, or another grid reference which they need to find, then follow the bearing to the next grid point.
- This can be challenging. Even in a city park, if you are a degree out on your bearing, you could end up lost.
Discover the fun of Pond dipping
Steve recommends swimming pool nets for pond-dipping, as they’re sturdier than seaside fishing nets.
At a pond or river, get kids to sweep the net through the water in a figure of eight movement to catch as much as possible. Then empty the contents onto a tray or into a jam jar.
You’ll find vertebrates such as newts, frogs, and small fish, by sweeping around reeds. For invertebrates it’s better to sweep the river or pond bed. Remember to tip everything back into the water when you’ve finished.
Steve and his wife, two-time Olympic champion and triple world champion rower, Helen Glover, spent their respective childhoods exploring the Surrey heathland and Cornish beaches. They’re keen to share their experience of simple ways to get families to explore the outdoors. The UK summer staycation activities here are just a few that you’ll find in Steve and Helen’s new book, Wildlings: How to raise your family in nature, published by Two Roads.