Tuesday, 5 August 2014


Only just into August and the blackberries are big and ripe and READY! I've had Mum staying this week, she has Alzeheimers - that's a wholenother blog post! -and she loves to walk so on Wednesday we met up with my friend Sue and her Grandaughter Jasmine to do a bit of blackberrying. Sue lives on a new estate in Corsham which has lots of lovely wild walks nearby so we headed off with bags for blackberries and bread for the ducks.

We soon found some big fat blackberries and picked those that we could reach vowing to come back with a walking still to pull the top ones closer another day. Mum kept striding ahead seeming to forget that we were there but she did stop at each road and junction of paths to ask which way so I relaxed a little!

It was a hot, hot day and the ducks on the pond were hiding so we walked round by the horses and gave them a bit of bread. We also found loads of plum trees along the path which will be great in a month or so.

Jasmine was rather pleased with her bag of blackberries and when we got home Sue had made some blackberry muffins to have with a cup of coffee.

I love free food and have noticed hundreds of nibbled hazlenuts strewn across the road on my morning walks. I have a hazel tree in the garden too but the squirrel always gets there before me.

I've been growing veg this year too. I have a couple of gro-bags with tomatoes in and two old kitchen cupboards on their backs with spinach and a courgette plant. I also have a two raised beds which have mange tout and sugarsnaps in but the kids don't know about those so I eat them when I'm watering!

This morning Mum went home and I had a Tots and Twigs session in the park. I had had no planning time with Mum here so took some plastic bags and decided to do some foraging. We're lucky enough to meet in the Community Garden at John Coles Park in Chippenham (Tuesdays 9.15 to 10.15!) We always begin the session with a look at what is growing and this week picked green beans, blueberries, a courgette and pulled an onion too. Then we set off with our bags to a wild part of the park near the gate.

We found loads of blackberries and also nightshade which we didn't pick but noticed the difference. We had a lot of chat about where blackberries grow, why the biggest are always out of reach at the top (but are they though?) How to avoid thorns, what else stung or scratched you and what we could do with the blackberries. My favourite thing to do is make Blackberry Vodka, recipe below.

Rose was happy eating them as she went and Joe wanted to have a taste test with the blueberries we'd picked at the Community Garden.. We all headed back and tasted both berries and a single raspberry that we'd found. Whilst we were doing that Henry found a caterpillar in his blackberry bag so we returned it to the garden and wondered if it needed some cherry pie but decided green leaves were better.

Then we found a Harvestman and debated if it was a spider or not. We read Eric Carle's The Very Busy Spider and went on a search for webs. We had some string and twigs so made ourselves some eight legged spiders, sang Incy Wincy very loudly and headed home.The children left with beans, courgettes and blackberries

Blackberry Vodka

  • Fill I kilner jar (or any jar) 2/3 full of blackberries - frozen work just as well.
  • Add about 1/8 to 1/4 (of the jar) sugar
  • Top up with vodka

Give it a gentle shake
Taste every day until you love it. Strain and bottle. Great as pressies with a purple bow and a handwritten label but remember to keep some for yourself too.

Keep the vodka soaked blackberries in the freezer and have them with vanilla ice-cream, ADULTS ONLY mind you!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

North Wiltshire Outdoor Play Project

This is a wonderful collection of pre-schools and a few early years primary classes who came together to share good practice. It was set up four years ago by Pauline Lovering who was then an Advisory Teacher for the LA and myself who was then the Play Development Advisor for the LA. Pauline is also a Learning through Landscapes teacher and was able to get a grant from them to get the ball rolling. We used this to buy some outdoor kits to share within the group.

The original plan was to run for a year, but here we are both having left the LA and still going four years later!

We met at Frogwell School in June which was a delight for me as my children went there many moons ago. Mrs Lambert is still in the office and the grounds are much the same with a little more planting around. The Early Years area is quite different though. A LOT of loose parts, tubes, corks, scrapstore bits and pieces, the area is divided up by lines of tyres a lot of which hold those loose parts. There's a boat on gravel - and an accompanying scrapbook of how the boat made it's way from the coast to landlocked Wiltshire - a tree with lots of sticks for den building with the grass left long, a builders yard with hard hats and sand, wigwam dens, planting boxes and a mud kitchen (turkey basters being a big hit!). All has evolved over several years rather than being plonked in at one time.

It was a beautiful day and we sat out in the sun having a chat about changes people had made to their play spaces.

Joy was having REAL slippery problems with her new decking and anti-slip paint and tape were suggested. Also some discussion about if you can prop a fire door open.

Pauline and I have both left Wiltshire Council. Pauline is working at The Rise Children's Centre three days a week and I am an independent Play Consultant but we're both really keen to keep the group going.

Liz Knowles at Muddy Faces has created an amazing MUD PACK for this year's International Mud Day (June 29th) There are several case studies from Wiltshire practitioners and I wrote a short piece on Risk Benefit. The book MUD by Mary Lyn Ray was also shared.

Resources shared were -
Tracey Maciver's Games and Challenges
Children's Outdoor Charter
Putting Children First; Manifesto for EY
Keep it Simple (by me!)
List of resources from Forest Network Meeting - bottom of page

Forthcoming events
Elizabeth Jarman; Communication Friendly Spaces Seminar
Wiltshire Forest and Outdoor Network meeting - July 8th, please email me if you're interested nikiwillowsoutside@gmail.com

Thanks to Sheena and Sam for hosting this meeting. Next meeting is sometime in September, possibly at Christian Malford Acorns which is where it all started :)

Monday, 19 May 2014

Coate Water Park

I was asked to run an outdoor session for HND students at New College in Swindon. It was a fabulously sunny day and their tutor Dawn had suggested that we walk to Coate Water Park Now often when we're taking students outside (even though they're doing childcare courses!) we get a fair amount of 'Oh, I hate walking' or 'I don't like mud' or 'Uggghh they'll be bugs and stuff' It never ceases to amaze me that these are people that want to work with children HOWEVER by the time they've been out for a couple of hours they are pretty much converted to the wonders of nature and keen to share that when they go back to their placements.

Coate Water Park is a good half hour walk from college so I packed one back pack and took a tarpaulin and off we went. I wanted to show that you can do an awful lot outside with minimal kit. Some of the students knew the park and suggested we walk round to the right past the high,, but sadly disused concrete diving board. It was a lovely walk with the water on our left and we strolled past beech trees with many hearts carved by loved up Swindon couples, grassy areas, over wooden bridges and round to the other side where we found some dry ground with bluebells and ferns.

We had a discussion about Forest Schools (FS) and if any of their placements used woodland,, talked about 'watered down' FS where people go onto the school field or stay in the pre-school garden but decided that if people were taking children outside then that was a good thing whatever it was called. I suggested they look at the Forest School Association website for the FS principles and more information.

We also talked about Mud Kitchens and children having access to real natural materials and at that point I asked the students to split into groups and make some mud food. This gave them a chance to explore the area and me a chance to flip out the tarp and organise a few other things.

Spaghetti and meat balls!

Salad with mushrooms - prompted a discussion on what to pick and how you would explain that to children

Sausage, peas, broccoli and gravy
We also had some fabulous mud puddings and no one minded getting messy. We'd talked about FS raising confidence and self esteem and I'd asked the girls to talk to each other in a positive way throughout the session and they were brilliant, really encouraging each other and swapping ideas. One group made up a Going on a Bug Hunt game based on Bear Hunt. They performed this and if I can work out how I'll upload the video.

They stayed in groups and we covered a lot of activities in a short space of time, it's always a bit of a whizz though but I think people take something away with them which gives them confidence to try new things with the children that they work with. I showed them the Manifesto for the Early Years; Putting Children First published in March this year. Their assignment at the moment is to compare different approaches to the curriculum and I thought that this document was worth reading.

Making wands

This group was making things with a stick and came up with a broomstick fixed with a hair bobble.  This led to the wands (above) as we had a Harry Potter moment!

Is it maths, art, social? Or just fun?

Words about the session. Check out all those wands!

We could have stayed there all day it was a wonderful spot but all too soon we had to pack up and head back. The girls stopped for a quick play on the park - explaining to the parents of the toddlers that they were Childcare Students! Luckily the ice-cream kiosk was open so we had one of those as we walked back to college.

More Links

Saturday, 26 April 2014


Don't we all love a bit of bunting. It makes us feel like there's a bit of a celebration going on. I shared Kathryn Grogan's Mud Kitchen photo on facebook this week and I have to say it went NUTS! Currently it's had 396 shares and over 26,000 views which is unheard of for my little page.

The group is Isle of Wight Wildlife Tots and the web address is www.hiwwt.org.uk
As you can see it is a cracking photo but I was wondering what made it so VERY special to be whizzed around the world that much. I think it's the stump oven, I've not seen one of those before and it is a wonderful creation. But a few people commented on the bunting and I thought yes, bunting does make things look marvellous. 

The street I live in had a Bunting Evening once. We like a street party every now and then and had an evening of cutting and sewing to make some for our 25 Year Party (our Jubilee!) We used the kids old duvets, sheets, flowery 1980 dresses and anything we had really. When it's up I like to look and see what memories are hanging up there.

I think this was a Royal Wedding street party - any excuse!

I've also made Hapa Zoma bunting when I've been working with students. It's quck and easy and a wonderful collaboration as everybody contributes to a beautiful whole.

 I started thinking of ways to make cheap bunting with what I already had and remembered all those plastic bags shoved down the side of the cupboard in the hall. You know those 10p 'bag for life' ones - the ones I always forget to take with me to the shops so end up buying more each time. I dug out the ones which were a bit tatty and the ones with holes in and decided to use those. I also thought these would be great in England where we have so much rain. Waterproof bunting!

Step one - cut down the sides of your bags and turn them inside out. Fold then in half again so you can cut lots out at once.

Step two - make a triangle template and use a sharpie marker to draw a long row of triangles.

Step three - cut out (I had about 22 from one bag)

Step four - lay in the order you want and attach to string with staples. Well, this was my original plan but after jamming two staplers and finding myself banging them hard on my desk I switched to double sided tape!

I hung a short length on my children's old playhouse (now my tool shed) and I think if it can make that look bright and cheery it would do a good job anywhere.

As soon as I took this it poured with rain and ten minutes later was sunny


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Bug House

Oh what a fun morning I've had. At the end of the Hallr Wood visit we had to make a commitment to DOING something when we'd left and I said I would make a Bug House. I do love them, I have a whole album full of them on facebook but I have never made one. My garden is full of rotting wood, a pond with stones all around and most of the garden is pretty unkempt. I have a lot of bugs and over the years have had hedgehogs, grass snakes and slow worms  too. 

I always think of Bug Houses as more of a DT project for children than much to do with bugs because let's be honest, once you've put the thing together you're not going to take it to pieces to look inside. So I would still have the rotting wood and the carpet tiles around to lift up and peek under and put back again carefully afterwards.

But if a school or nursery is looking for a great design project using lots of different materials get some pallets and GO!

I didn't need a pallet as I had an old wooden box the kids had found chucked in the ditch at the end of the garden years ago. It was only small - just over a foot across - but I decided to use this as a practice for my MASSIVE bug house which I have all beautifully designed in my head :)

I wanted to give it a bit of protection from the elements so made some tin can tiles with tin snips. These are REALLY sharp so I bent the edges over by bashing with a hammer on the edge of the table (outside table not dining one!) I held the tin still with an oven glove which worked really well. I tacked the tiles on the roof which was tricky because the tin kind of bounced! So I used a big nail to make a hole and then little tacks. I don't think it is particularly waterproof as it really needs a pitch in the roof, but I like the look of it.

Bean tins and tin snips

bashing the sharp edges over
Once the roof was on I filled the sections with a variety of plants from the garden and some seed heads and also some bark. Had to press gang Charlie into cutting the last few pieces as my hand was hurting! Once he saw it though he was more than happy to get involved. I had one piece of hazel that I cut as a measuring stick and we used that for all of the cutting.

measuring stick
I didn't glue anything in, although I had read that some people do it didn't seem very natural to me so we just rammed everything in really tightly. It will dry out and shrink and we'll have to top it up in a couple of months.

Sid was really helpful

Ta da!
 I have put it against the fence in a quiet corner that gets a little sun in the morning, it's balanced on some old wood where there are already some bugs. I asked on facebook where the best place to site it was and Lily said  'Where the bugs already are' pure common sense!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Creative Landscapes at Hallr Wood

When I took redundancy from the council one of the things I was most excited about was LEARNING again! Since 'The Cuts' most council training had been internal or a bit of feedback from a course someone else had been on, travelling out of county for anything needed a special permit and networking with other counties seemed to have faded away. So as soon as I could I booked a few things and the day at Hallr Wood was the first to come up.

I'd connected with the wood's owner Deb Millar on the FEI facebook page but we'd never actually met in person. Tori and I arrived on a bright sunny morning and made our way up the slope to the camp area of the woods. We were met with lovely tea and proper coffee and an explanation of how to make a Nature Book to document our day. This was a lot of folding of wallpaper backing paper, tucking it into a cover and holding it together with a stick and wire.

Performance area
We split into two groups to walk around the site which was truly beautiful. The slope had been well utilised to create a tiered seating area looking down to a stage, paths edged with timber led to a wood steaming machine (I'm sure there's a proper name for it!) made of an old gas bottle and cob. 

Steam machine!
As we walked Deb explained that many of the projects (including a Tardis) had come from comments that the young people they worked with had made. For instance the cob kiln was after someone had asked to make pots and been told they could but they wouldn't be hard enough to use properly so the girl said 'Well let's make a kiln then'

The pee-pit and beautiful beach hut style loo 'shed' solved the question of  'Do bears...?' A quick stop by a pond with tiny pond-dipping platform - where I could have stayed all day - and back up to the camp via a kitchen stocked with an enviable array of huge cooking pots and pans, many ex-Guides utensils because apparently they cook on gas these days.

We then worked in groups of three on a variety of activities - Deb quickly syphoned off Lewis recently back from re-building earthquake torn Christchurch to get stuck into her mud kitchen re-build. The group I was in chose to build a bug house down by the fairy garden to protect the path leading to it. It was  a fabulous sunny spring day and as we created and chatted some of the magic of the wood crept into all of us.

We stopped for an amazing lunch of veg and bean soup - more like a full-on stew to be honest - which Deb topped with snipped wild garlic, also large chunks of bread and more lovely tea and coffee.

Back to work and swapping activities we ended up down at the mud kitchen where we finished off the draining board (I only bent two nails - not bad for me) and started to cob the cooker and pot stand. This mud kitchen was not only for mud play but was actually made of mud too. How very special. The clay was from the wood and just a wonderful consistency, I worked in a pottery years ago and was eager to get my hands into it whilst at the same time being quite frustrated that I couldn't take any photos! So it was a bit of cob, a bit of hand washing, a few photos and back to the cob.

Our group ended the day at the top of the woofinishing off a contemplative space that the others had been working on throughout the day. It was a well defined area so we decorated it with leaves, ivy and twigs. We were feeling that we were the design team of the day after our beautiful bug house and mud kitchen re-vamping. End of activities was heralded by a hunting horn which sounded once more and the rest of the group came up to the top to view the space that everyone had had input into.

The whole wood is a series of spaces, often bordered by live willow arches and you can't see the whole thing from any one point so as you walk around you are constantly surprised and delighted. We all felt at the end of the day that we had added to the spaces and learnt about defining them too.

We finished with a re-cap around the fire, free packets of seeds from Deb - party bags! - and left feeling elated at such an inspiring and collaborative day, and I think we all hope to return to Hallr Wood too.