We’re all going on a night walk

It seems that once the clocks go back we migrate inside each evening until it’s light again the next morning. This is certainly true of our family. However, after spending an evening outdoors I’ve realised we should make an effort to get out more in the dark.

I help run a wildlife group for children, which usually meets on Sunday morning. However our recent event was an early evening session so we could experience nature at night. It was a very popular meet-up with one of our highest ever turn-outs!

We’re lucky to have the use of a small enclosed nature reserve. It’s on an industrial estate so not exactly a country haven but even on this small patch of green I’ve seen foxes, woodpeckers, deer and stoats.

Holding the skipping ropes so we don't lose anyone
Holding the skipping ropes so we don’t lose anyone

Our evening started with a quiz about nocturnal animals, before setting off for a walk around the reserve. We asked the kids to keep their torches turned off so that we could become accustomed to the darkness. Although we know the reserve well the kids all held onto some skipping ropes to ensure we didn’t leave anyone behind.

Setting off on the night walk
Setting off on the night walk

Once away from the street lights we asked the children what they could see and hear.  The reserve has an lorry depot next to it, so there were plenty of lorry noises to be heard. However we also heard tawny owls twit-twooing in the trees. After a while we started to hear the leaves falling from the trees too.

We’d hoped to do some star gazing but it was an overcast evening so we headed back and played a game where one person stood blindfold in the middle of a large circle, and had to listen out for the other children approaching them and trying to tag them.

Onto the Forest School area. Here we’d set up another game to find all the letters hanging from trees and work out what the word spelt (nocturnal).

Getting the campfire going!
Getting the campfire going!

The best part of the evening was next – hot chocolate and roasting marshmallows around the campfire. It’s a standing joke between the group leaders that we’ve managed to co-incide our previous campfires with the hottest days of the year so it was great to watch the flames on a cold autumnal evening for once.

Toasting marshmallows - with smoke in his eyes!
Toasting marshmallows – with smoke in his eyes!

Want to go on a night walk?

  • Your local wildlife trust or nature reserve may organise wildlife spotting evenings.

Alternatively, why not organise your own? I’ve put some pointers below:

  • Keep it short. There’s no need to walk several miles.
  • Keep it local. This is not the time to explore a new area. Only visit an area that you’re familiar with in the daytime. Choose somewhere that you know is safe – avoid places with deep water, steep drops or parks with dubious night time activities!
  • Take a torch and mobile phone. Ensure other people know where you’re going. If possible find other families to walk with.
  • Go out early. It’s dark by 5pm in the winter so this is an ideal time to go out.
  • If it’s a clear evening check out my 10 things to see in the night sky post.
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10 outdoor activities to enjoy this winter


snow1

Looking for inspiration for outdoor winter activities? Sometimes it’s just too easy to sit around indoors. Instead, why not choose an activity from the list below and head outside with the family.

1. Bird watching

Winter is a great time for viewing birds as they can be seen more easily when there are no leaves on the trees. It’s also the ideal opportunity to spot one of my favourite bird sights, large flocks of starlings swooping and swishing through the sky before they settle down to roost for the evening. This spectacle can often be seen in towns, but why not head out to an RSPB reserve to watch them?

2. Orienteering

A great sport for all of the family, whatever your age. Small children can be carried in packs, toddlers and pre-schoolers can complete a string course, whilst the older ones can take their pick of colour coded courses. You might get a little muddy in winter but at least the nettles and brambles have died back at this time of year. Check out my post about orienteering for families to find out more.

3. Snow fun

There’s nothing better than a day outside in the snow, whether it’s sledging, snowball fights or walking through knee deep snow. Children generally need little encouragement to get them outside once the white stuff starts falling.

4. Go on a treasure hunt

There are several companies which offer treasure hunt packs for most of the major towns and cities. We had fun completing a family spy trail in Oxford which you can read about here.

Alternatively, you could always create your own treasure hunt. For example, take photos of buildings in your town to identify or places in the local park.  Print them out on a sheet and hand to your kids to spot. You can make it as hard or as easy as you wish, so it’s suitable for a wide range of ages.

5. Visit a wood

One of my favourite times to visit woods is in winter when you can kick your way through all of the fallen leaves. Trees can still be identified by their shape and bark even when they haven’t got leaves, so why not go on a tree spotting walk? The Nature Detectives website is a great resource with free ID sheets, games and crafts to complete.

6. Explore the night sky

The early evenings in winter are great for sky watching.  From Orion to the international space station, there’s always something interesting to see. My top ten night sky spotting suggestions can be found here.

7. I-Spy books

The books of my childhood! I’ve just checked out the I-Spy website and am amazed to find 60 books covering a whole range of topics, including places, vehicles, nature and travel. They’ve even got an I-Spy Football Grounds book (not sure they had that one when I was a child). We’ve taken an assortment of these on holidays and days out and they’re great to get kids interested in the world around them.

8. Go on a picnic

It might sound mad but a winter picnic can be great fun, and you probably won’t need to fight others for the best picnic spot! Wrap up warm and take flasks of soup, hot squash for the kids and tea/coffee. Choose a sheltered spot and take something waterproof to sit on too.

9. Scoot

Our kids love to scoot, and will happily scoot much further than they’ll walk. The trick is to find a flat, smooth surface as they’ll find it hard if the path is rutted or muddy. Cycle routes and canal paths are often great for this, as long as your kids are old enough not to scoot into cyclists or fall in the canal! Additionally, some playgrounds have scoot or skateboard parks for older children to show off their tricks and stunts.

10. Go to the beach

Another activity that is just as good in winter as it is in the sunny months. You’ll need your wellies to paddle, but beachcombing finds and rock-pooling are often better in winter. Keep safe though by staying away from rough seas and cliff edges which may have been weakened by winter storms.

I hope you find something that inspires you on the list above; if you have any further suggestions please do leave a comment.

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Exploring the night sky with kids

Some of my most memorable evenings have been spent star-gazing. Many years ago I sat around the campfire on an African safari marvelling at the stars. I hope that one day my kids enjoy a similar experience.

In the meantime, winter evenings are the ideal time to get outside and explore the night sky with your kids.

What do I need?

  • A clear dark sky. Light pollution is an issue in much of the UK but even if you live in a city you’ll be able to see some objects once your eyes have acclimatised.
  • Warm clothes, as a clear sky in winter usually means frost.
  • A pair of binoculars if you have them. You don’t need a telescope!

Top 10 things to look for in the night sky

This list is always going to be rather subjective, but I’ve picked some favourites I’ve enjoyed looking at with my kids.

1.The moon

The moon
The moon
Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The easiest thing to spot in the night sky! But have you ever looked at it closely? Take a look through your binoculars.

The moon’s surface is full of craters from asteroid impacts. These can still be seen as the moon has no atmosphere to protect it and there’s no erosion to wear them away. You should also be able to see the lava fields. These look like large expanses of sea, hence they’ve been given names such as the Sea of Serenity.

You can demonstrate how craters are formed to your kids by getting them to drop marbles from varying heights into a tray of shallow flour.

2. International space station

The space station is usually visible for a couple of minutes each night and shows as a small dot very high up moving across the sky. It’s the third brightest object in the sky so visible from most places. Check out when you’ll be able to see it by adding your nearest city into the NASA website.

The NASA site is a great resource in general so if you want to watch a video of life on the space station or find out about onboard experiments this is the site to visit.

3. Saturn

There are numerous websites which will help you locate the planets, as this changes depending on your location and the time. My favourite is Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun. You can see Saturn through binoculars but will need a telescope to view the rings.

Saturn Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Saturn
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn is one of the gas giants, so named because it’s made mostly of gas. As with the other planets in our solar system (except Earth) Saturn is inhospitable to life with atmospheric winds of 1,100 miles per hour and storms that last for months. On the plus side it does experience seasons and its summer lasts for 8 Earth years although it’s still incredibly cold!

4. Comets

Comets are large dusty balls of ice and rock which usually live a long way out in the solar system. We can see them if they head towards the sun as their trails become visible when the heat from the sun turns the ice to gases.

Comet  Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Comet
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Halley’s Comet is probably the most famous comet but it’s not due to return until 2061. However, new comets are identified each year so keep an eye out in the news for future spotting opportunities. In the meantime check out the photographs from the historic landing of the Philae lander on comet P67.

5. Venus

Venus is a little smaller than the Earth and the closest planet to us. Although it’s a rocky planet it’s very hot and its atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide. It also has more volcanoes than any other planet in the solar system.

Venus is the second brightest object in the night sky which makes it relatively easy to find. As it orbits close to the sun it will either appear in the west in the evening or rise before the sun in the east. It can sometimes even be seen  in the daylight.

6. Orion

The well known constellation of Orion is best seen during the winter months. The simplest way to find it is to look for its belt of three stars in a row, and then spot the hourglass shape of four stars around it. Underneath the belt (on the ‘sword’ of three further stars) you may also be able to spot the Orion Nebula, home to many young stars. You can find a map here which should help with finding Orion and the Orion Nebula.

One of the stars in Orion, Betelgeuse, is a red supergiant nearing the end of its life. When this happens, at some point in the next million years, the star will explode in a huge supernova.

7. Meteor showers

These are usually caused when a comet orbits close to the sun and the Earth passes through some of the ice and dust.  This can mean you see lots of ‘shooting stars’ in a short period of time, but my recent experience is that meteor showers tend to co-ordinate well with cloudy nights!

There are several meteor showers each year, although I tend to look out for the Perseids in mid-August and the Leonids in mid-November. They’re not always at kid friendly times though, quite often the best viewing will be after midnight.

8. The Plough

Probably the easiest group of stars to recognise, the seven stars that make up the Plough look rather like a saucepan with a long handle. Something that many people don’t realise is that the Plough isn’t a constellation in its own right, instead it’s part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

The Plough is a useful starting point for finding other constellations and stars.  For example, Polaris (the North Star) can be found by tracing a line up from the two stars on the saucepan end.

9. Sirius (the Dog Star)

The brightest star in the night sky, and one of the nearest to us after the sun. It’s relatively easy to locate, by drawing an imaginary line down from Orion’s belt.  It can be found pretty low, just above the horizon.

Although you’ll only be able to see one star (Sirius A) in your binoculars it’s actually a binary star and has a second much dimmer star (Sirius B) orbiting it.

10. Pleiades (the Seven Sisters)

The Pleiades can be found in the Taurus constellation, which is directly above Orion, you can find a map here. The Pleiades is a star cluster, containing around one thousand stars. At least six of these are bright enough to see without a telescope.

Seven Sisters
Seven Sisters
Image credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech

Most of the constellations have a Greek myth associated with them. Pleiades is also known as the Seven Sisters, and the story goes that Orion, the hunter, chased after them for seven years. Zeus changed the sisters into stars, but Orion became a constellation and still chases the sisters across the sky. I’ve seen several variants of this story but I enjoy it all the same.

More info:

There is a plethora of books, websites, courses and kit related to astronomy, some of varying quality so check reviews before you purchase! Ensure that whatever you buy is going to be the right level for your experience.

  • For younger children I think the Usborne books on space are hard to beat.
  • For adults and older children, I’d suggest looking up your local astronomy club here. Many will offer sessions for beginners, and all will have observing evenings.
  • The other piece of kit I’ve found really useful is my iPhone app, which helps with identifying the constellations. There are several apps available so check out the reviews to decide which one is best for you.
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Orienteering for families

A teacher at secondary school introduced me to orienteering, a sport which combines cross country running with navigation skills.  In the intervening years I’ve dabbled with it a few times, but have never been seriously involved with the sport. However, after taking part in a “Try Orienteering” event recently I’ve remembered just how much I enjoyed it all those years ago!  It’s a great way to get outdoors, and as there are courses available for all abilities it’s a sport the whole family can take part in.

Courses are often set in woodland areas, although you’ll also find them in parks and around towns. My event, organised by Thames Valley Orienteering Club, took part at a location used for outdoor laser quest so there were some interesting additions to the usual woodland scenery, namely helicopters, rockets and old jeeps!

A rather unusual control!
A rather unusual control!

Orienteering courses can be permanent or temporary for one-off events. Either way, the aim is to navigate your way around a set of controls marked on a map in the quickest time possible. Controls are marked with orange and white flags or wooden posts on permanent courses. You record you’ve found each one by either clicking with an electronic timing chip (dibber) or writing down the letters on the posts.

Checking in at a control
Checking in at a control

Upon arrival at the orienteering event you need to register and choose which course to complete. You’ll receive a pre-printed map for the course you’ve chosen and a list of control descriptions. The courses are colour coded to indicate difficulty, ranging from white (easiest) through to brown (challenging and long). For a beginner family group I’d suggest starting with a yellow course; these are usually up to 2 km long and the controls are located in obvious locations along tracks.  At beginner events you’ll find plenty of club volunteers to help you choose a course and decode the map.

Orienteering map, compass and dibber
Orienteering map, compass and dibber

As you’ll see from the picture above, the map looks nothing like an OS map as the scale, colouring and symbols are all different. Most walking OS maps are 1:25000, orienteering maps are much more detailed and have a scale of 1:5000 or 1:10000. If you’re used to walking maps this can mean you sometimes travel much further than you need to, at least until you get used to them.

The colours indicate how easy or hard the terrain is to cross – yellow and white are easy but avoid dark green areas unless you fancy fighting with dense vegetation! The map symbols are more detailed than usual with, for example, icons to represent pits, tree trunks and telegraph poles.

Orienteering control
Orienteering control

You should visit the controls in the correct order. The control descriptions on the map give you an extra clue to help you find them, for example “north side of path”. Before clicking your dibber on the control double check that the numbers or letters match those on your map. If you register at the wrong control you’ll be disqualified!

At the finish it’s important to check in at the final control, and then hand back your dibber. You’ll usually be given a print out of your results and can check your placing on the relevant club website later in the day.

The finish post
The finish post

So how was my course? I had a great time completing it, although couldn’t find one of the early controls which was rather annoying. Even more so when I eventually located it and realised I must have been near enough standing next to it about 10 minutes previously. I also realised how tricky it can be running whilst negotiating fallen branches, brambles and muddy spots. I was very glad I’d worn old clothes!

 More info

  • To learn more about orienteering visit the British Orienteering website.
  • There are orienteering clubs all over the UK. The event I attended was run by TVOC, details of their further events can be found here.
  • Permanent orienteering courses are usually administered by the local orienteering club. Maps can usually be obtained from the club, visitor centres or sometimes downloaded off the internet. A list of courses can be found on the British Orienteering website linked above.

Cost

  • Fees vary between events. I paid £5 for the entry above, children were £2. This covers the purchase of the map and rental of the dibber.
  • You don’t need any special gear to take part, just old trainers and long sleeved clothes. Once you progress onto the harder courses you’ll need to buy a decent compass, these cost around £20.
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