Naturally great days out

From feeding sharks to rampaging through the treetops, there are lots of eco-friendly ways to keep your children happy this summer
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The Independent Online

Can there really be such things as "green" days out with the children? Aren't families in search of fun - stampeding off to Alton Towers in herds of 4x4s, their passing marked by piles of non-biodegradable-plastic drinks bottles, nappies and fast-food cartons - about as unecologically sound as it is possible to be?

Clearly, travelling with children uses energy - whether carbon-based, parental or emotional - but go by public transport or cycle, and choose the right destination, and you can feel you're entertaining your brood without them getting the blood of Mother Earth all over their sticky little fingers. Here are a few suggestions:

Wild World

To learn about wildlife, get right in the middle of things. In the Hebrides, Islay Birding will take family groups with children as young as three on a fascinating half-day exploration of the 24-mile island, looking for and learning about the huge numbers of grebes, gulls, owls, merlins, ducks and - if you're lucky - otters that live here.

Most children have a creepy fascination with sharks, so a visit to the thrillingly shark-shaped aquarium called The Deep in Hull should help interest them in the threatened fauna of the world's oceans. The Deep's researchers work at the cutting edge of coral conservation, but the children will be far more interested in building their own sea monsters and watching divers hand-feeding toothy nurse sharks.

As for zoos, some are far more inspiring than others. Jersey's Durrell Wildlife is a model of its kind, keeping only endangered species in large, home-from-home enclosures while it researches how best to help preserve them in the wild. Thoughtful gorilla mums, long-legged maned wolves and gentle lemurs are the visible legacy of the late Gerald Durrell.

Islay Birding: 01496 850010,, £24; The Deep: 01482 381000, www.thedeep., £8/£6; Durrell Wildlife: 01534 860000,, £11.50/£7.40

Go Down To The Woods

Any child who's gawped at Ray Mears on TV - casually lighting fires with a flick of a flint and sleeping under what looks like a pile of twigs - will enjoy a family bushcraft course. Both Natural Pathways in Kent and Woodland Survival Crafts in Derbyshire will take families deep into local forests, either for a day or overnight, where they will learn how to build their own shelter from woodland materials, light a friction fire, and gather and cook their own wild foods.

Younger children will enjoy exploring the trails and participating in events at the working Wilderness Wood in East Sussex. Over-threes can join a teddy bears' picnic, while six-year-olds and over can bug-hunt and cook sausages over a camp fire, and eights and over can learn simple survival techniques or spend a day tracking animals.

If your children are more into climbing trees than hugging them, try one of Go Ape's amazing tree-top adventure playgrounds at seven forest sites across England. A series of 35ft-high rope walkways and zip lines that wind through the forest canopy provide adrenalin-pumping fun for 10-year-olds and over, and each site is built and maintained with the help of conservationists.

Family Wilderness Adventure: 01304 842 045,, £60 for four (one day); Woodland Survival: 01283 730851,, £95/£45 (weekend); Wilderness Wood: 01825 830 509,, from £3.15/£4.90; Go Ape: 0870 444 5562,, from £20/ £15, advance booking essential

Make A Difference

Being green means actively participating in a different way of doing things. Families can learn together about the possibilities for change at the seven-acre Centre for Alternative Technology in Snowdonia: arrive by a water-powered railway, before exploring environmentally aware buildings, a "Gaiascope" cinema and an eco-playground, as well as building your own inventions.

Growing your own food makes sense, and most children find it rewarding, so give them a taste of sowing and hoeing at west London's Chiswick Kitchen Garden. Part of English Heritage's glorious Chiswick House and Grounds, it was once the Duke of Devonshire's private larder, but has now been restored and planted on an organic basis by children who grow, sell and eat its modern and heritage varieties of fruit and veg. Families can get digging on an open day or drop-in session, then buy something to plant - and harvest - at home.

A trip to the seaside is a classic family day out, but by joining in the Marine Conservation Society's Adopt a Beach campaign, you can combine ice-cream and sandcastles with having a positive impact on the environment. Log on to to choose a beach where you can join other volunteers on its next clean-up day - binbags vital, swimsuits optional.

Finally, concentrate your children's minds with a demonstration of how not to do it, or at least not any more. Wales' gritty, visceral Big Pit - aka the National Coal Museum in Blaenafon - will give them a starkly lit glimpse into the fuel-hungry industry that both made and destroyed the Valleys. Ex-miners conduct you 300ft down a real Victorian pit-head for an hour-long trip underground, while up top the colliery smithy, engine shed, canteen and Thirties bathhouse are all open for exploration. Recordings of miners at work add to the immediacy.

Centre for Alternative Technology: 01654 705950,, £8/£4; Chiswick Kitchen Garden:; free, all tools provided; Adopt A Beach: 01989 567807,, free; Big Pit: 01495 790311,, free

Down On The Farm
It's best to keep things simple for very small children, choosing farm visits and countryside activities that provide a gentle introduction to the natural world. Pennywell Farm Centre in Devon has twice won the Green Tourism Business gold award for eco-minded behaviour such as maintaining its ponds with rainwater run-off from barn roofs and the car park, and it makes for a well-run, friendly introduction to farm animals. Little ones can feed piglets, deer, lambs and hedgehogs, go pond-dipping, watch a shire horse show, and help farm staff collect eggs.

Learn where your food comes from at the Riverford Organic Vegetables "field kitchen" in Devon. You can take a trailer tour of the farm to see exactly how the food is grown. Then, you get to eat some, straight from the earth, as a home-grown lunch, tea or dinner is served.

Riverford Organic Farm Centre: 01803 762 074,; Pennywell Farm Centre: 01364 642 023,, £8.95/£6.95

Historical Fun
Learn about how ordinary people used to live by poking around their houses at Sussex's open-air Weald and Downland Country Museum. A collection of historic houses, each in their authentic state and each one rescued from the bulldozers and reassembled here, nestles among the beautiful countryside, and the emphasis is very much on outdoor play. Join in "countryside adventures" - scavenger hunts, games and trails - and learn old country crafts and skills through the summer, help with the harvest in the autumn, or join in a traditional tree-dressing celebration in the woods in December.

Don't forget the National Trust - many of its properties run simple children's activities of the pond-dipping, moth-spotting, wildlife-wander varieties, particularly in the summer months. For instance, the warden at Lyme Park in Cheshire will be conducting family "calf walks" around its medieval deer park this Sunday.

Pennywell Farm Centre: 01364 642 023,, £8.95/£6.95; Weald and Downland Country Museum: 01243 811 363,, £7.95/£4.25; National Trust: 0870 458 4000,, prices vary; Conkers at the Heart of the National Forest:

Muddy Festivals

The Big Green Gathering in Somerset is a laid-back five-day festival of fun for children, with a stories-and-soft-play toddler area, "teendome" with film-making, DJ-ing and graffiti art sessions, and "Green Kids" children's yoga sessions, puppet theatre and circus workshops. Adults can meet up with experts in sustainable housing, renewable energy and green business - or collapse in a grateful heap in the Healing Fields.

Along similar lines, although quieter and aimed more specifically at families, is the Shambala Family Camp in Devon. It takes place in a large wood, and has a very busy events programme for children, including survival nights and nature treasure hunts. Adult entertainment includes an organic ale bar, and a wide programme of craft, healing, yoga and music workshops.

Big Green Gathering: 2-6 Aug, 01458 830281, www.big-green-gathering. com, £90/£25, family ticket £250, day tickets also available; Shambala Family Camp: 16-21 Aug,, £125/£42.50

Build A Den

If your own garden hasn't got suitably secret places, take your children on a den-building outing run by the Forestry Commission. Using only the materials that the woodland provides, and with one hour to build the most wind- and waterproof shelter possible, children have to work together. Although they don't get to stay overnight in their wilderness creation they will get the satisfaction of building something from scratch. Children must be accompanied by an adult, so why not take the whole family along to build your own forest lair.

Other activities for kids run by the Forestry Commission are events such as Wild Camping. Joining one of the Forestry Commission Rangers for a night in the heart of the forest, all you need is a tent, some food and a good pair of walking boots. Or if you fancy something a little more relaxing that doesn't require sleeping with the wildlife, then join the Family Sensory Walk - exploring the smells, sights and sounds of the woodland. Or take them pond dipping to learn all about the slippery residents. The Forestry Commission runs activities for all ages all over the country.

For den building and all other activities run by the Forestry Commission: 01223 314546,, prices vary

Sea World

Exploring wildlife doesn't stop on dry land - take your children out to sea and go looking for dolphins and seals. In Scotland, Cromarty-based Ecoventures runs two-hour boat trips for families with children under five out into the waters of Moray Firth, where you're likely to see seals, bottlenose dolphins and even the occasional minke whale.

Sea Trust runs four-hour evening cruises from Neyland Marina to the Pembrokeshire Islands, with chances of seeing dolphins, seals, porpoises and maybe even whales.

Children of all ages will enjoy the feeling of almost being able to touch a group of playful seals. Beans Boats runs four purpose-built boats from Morston Quay and Blakeney Quay in North Norfolk.

National Whale and Dolphin Watch Week runs from 12-20 August and there will be opportunities to get the whole family involved in sea-based watches.

Remember, the best things in life are free. So, if you don't fancy taking your kids out to sea to spot dolphins, here are a few locations where you have a good chance of seeing them from land. Durlston Head, Dorset; Prawle Point, Devon; Porthgwarra, Cornwall; Cardigan Bay, Cardigan; Moray Firth, Inverness; and Loch Gairloch, Wester Ross. Just remember to take a good pair of binoculars.

Ecoventures: 01381 600 323, £20/£15; Sea Trust: 01348 875639,; Beans Boat Trips: 01263 740 505,, £7/£4; National Whale and Dolphin week:

Additional research by Jenny White