Looking after grandchildren and keeping them amused doesn’t have to involve expensive days out – with a little imagination, there’s plenty of fun to be had in the natural environment.
Making the most of outdoor space is free, and it has the added bonus of having a great effect on your mood, too. Research by mental health charity Mind shows that regular contact with nature not only reduces stress, but also brings families together, creating lasting memories.
When advice website thegrandparenthub.com asked grandparents what they most enjoy doing with their grandchildren, they found that for 88% it was playing games and for some 80%, it was outside play – always a great excuse for you to rediscover your inner child. ‘My granddaughter Molly often tells me, “You’re really silly, Grandad, but I like it!’” says veteran playworker Mick Conway, 67.
Becoming a grandfather for the first time
Start by making the most of being at home – your garden is a natural playground with endless possibilities to keep children busy and entertained. Think about what the children are interested in and then let them take the lead – you’ll be amazed at how inventive they can be.
‘Give them an old sheet or a cardboard box and they will soon create their own den or imaginary world,’ says Sophie Bolt of campaign group Play England.
If your garden is big enough, why not have your own Garden Olympics? Set up an obstacle course and have races round the lawn; and get a tape measure out of the toolbox for the long jump. Make medals to give out to everyone who has taken part.
Think back to your childhood enterprises and introduce children to the pleasures of making potions and ‘perfumes’ by filling a jam jar with edible or fragrant things from the garden – herbs, lavender, rose petals – then adding water. Getting them to design labels for their concoctions adds an artistic element to the project.
Creating bug habitats or hedgehog houses will appeal to younger children, especially if they can monitor the creatures that turn up at different times over a period of days.
Of course, helping with the gardening is a brilliant way to get outside. Children can get involved with watering and weeding – though be prepared for a few mistakes along the way – and most importantly, picking! Ask them to help you make a pretty bouquet of flowers from the garden, or to pick fruit or vegetables that you can then cook together.
Safety tips for grandparents
Head further afield
Plan a visit to a wood, a beach, the park. Think about what you can do there. Each setting has its own unique way of igniting children’s imaginations.
Anne Read, 67, from Devon, who has two granddaughters aged six and ten, agrees. ‘Outdoor adventures are all about using the imagination. We often weave in little games or stories, such as looking for a Stick Man, like the one in Julia Donaldson’s book, when we’re collecting sticks to build a fire and cook sausages for lunch,’ she says. ‘Doing this teaches the children how to make a fire safely and cook on it. Best of all, the kids enjoy it – food really does taste better outdoors!’
Take the same approach at the beach by seeing what ‘treasure’ you can find. If there are larger, flat stones around, it’s fun to make faces by putting shells, stones and seaweed on them for their eyes, nose and hair, etc.
In the city, there’s lots to do in the park beyond slides and swings. ‘Go on expeditions to examine flowers and insects – or to identify birds and their songs,’ says Sophie Bolt. Go on a leaf hunt, looking for different shapes and sizes to take home and do leaf rubbings. Or take paper and crayons with you and do it on the spot.
Walk this way
As adults, we often enjoy the simple pleasure of a walk through the countryside or along the coast, but this is usually something we’ve grown to love. If the younger members of your family are reluctant to join you for walks, it’s time to rebrand the concept!
The Wild Network, a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to ‘re-wild childhood’, has plenty of ideas to disguise a boring old walk. Instead, tell the children you’re going on a ‘blindfold tour’ and take it in turns to be blindfolded and discover more through your other senses – what can you feel, touch and smell? Its ‘journey stick’ game involves finding a stick and tying to it all the items that you find during a stroll – feathers, leaves, moss and the like.
‘On walks, we liven things up by leaving little arrows made out of twigs on the ground for those lagging behind to follow,’ says Anne Read. ‘It’s fun to lead them to a place where we’re hiding and then jump out and surprise them!’
Older children and teenagers
It might take different measures to get more ‘mature’ kids outside. ‘Try encouraging them to help with garden jobs with the incentive of extra pocket money,’ advises Amanda Gummer from toy and activity specialists Fundamentally Children.
‘If they’re interested in design and colour, get them to help plan a garden border. If it’s machines that appeal, show them how to use garden or DIY tools.’ If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could build a treehouse or garden den together. Amanda continues: ‘They’ll be more inclined to get involved if they feel they’re being treated as grown-ups.’
For children who have outgrown playgrounds, outdoor gyms can be a great alternative. Many enlightened local authorities have installed gym equipment such as cross-trainers, arm-and-pedal bikes and rowing machines in parks, giving you the chance to exercise in the open air. And it’s free – no membership required!
Dilemma: my granddaughter wears revealing clothes
These days, they are so much more than purveyors of plants and lawn seed. Many have pet corners with reptiles, rabbits and exotic birds. ‘Garden centres are places of wonder to a small child. If you ask my three-year-old grandson where he wants to go, he usually asks to go to a local garden centre where he can feed the huge koi carp – 50p well spent,’ says retired civil servant Jan Titcombe, 67, from Bromley in Kent.
Arts and crafts
When it’s tipping down outside, that’s the time to put all your naturally foraged items to good use. Buy a cheap scrapbook and glue in all the things you’ve found. Do leaf rubbings or get the paints out and decorate stones you’ve picked up. Websites such as Pinterest can be a great source of creative ideas and projects.
Try taking a step back in time
Children are fascinated by stories about when you were the same age as them. Go through old photo albums or, if you’ve kept some of your old toys in the loft for nostalgia’s sake, get the boxes down and unpack them. Traditional games and rhymes can be good fun. ‘Think about how differently we played in our childhood – and teach them games you played,’ suggests Mick Conway.
This article appeared in the August 2018 edition of Saga Magazine
Informative, in-depth and in the know: get the latest entertainment news, interviews and reviews with Saga Magazine.