How to get kids outside? Make doing laundry fun!

Dawn Isaac's book, 101 Things For Kids to Do Outside, is a quarter of the price of a single day's theme-park ticket and delivers considerably better value for money, says Emma Townshend

Emma Townshend
Sunday 16 March 2014 01:00 GMT
Dawn's book advises children to take water, dolls' clothes and soap out into the garden for a washday to remember
Dawn's book advises children to take water, dolls' clothes and soap out into the garden for a washday to remember (Will Heap)

Dawn Isaac is one of those likeable people with a leopard-print coat, a bit of décolletage on show, nice leather boots and a quarantinable laugh. So when I first met her, enjoying cocktails before 9am at the Chelsea Flower Show, I sort of assumed that a woman with this level of ability to enjoy herself must be single and fancy-free.

In fact, she is the mother of three children, Ava, Oscar and Charlie, all of whom seem to like her despite her evident skills at partying, and she works a day job as a garden designer as well as being horticultural adviser to CBeebies' Mr Bloom.

In spite of this prestigious children's telly connection, she is fairly keen to be strict about screen-time in her own household. And one of her biggest passions is getting kids outdoors; in particular, by thinking up little interventions that light up imaginations, sending nippers off on a project of their own. Her latest book, 101 Things For Kids to Do Outside (£14.99, Kyle) is a quarter of the price of a single day's theme-park ticket and, as far as I'm concerned, delivers considerably better value for money.

Part of the reason I love the book is that I've read a considerable quantity of apparently similar offerings over the past few years and have been amazed at the stupidity of the ideas people are willing to propose for children's outside entertainment. Last summer, one supermarket version included ideas either dangerous or just unworkable – not least, playing tag with digital cameras, so that anyone who gets in a pic becomes It. Did you just have an inexhaustible supply of consumer electronics you wanted broken, then?

Dawn's tactics, on the other hand, seem devised by someone who isn't sitting in an office, who has actually been out in a garden watching what children genuinely enjoy. One of my favourite pages is "Do the Laundry": taking water, dolls' clothes and soap out into the garden for a washday to remember. I know that this is the kind of thing that I'd have loved doing aged six; I also know that my own son will be blissed out making that much mess with splash and bubbles.

Elsewhere, there's a climbing-bean wigwam that will eventually make a shady den for a child who may also enjoy picking what's growing up above his head (though no guarantees he'll actually try eating it); snail racing, with a home-made podium; and matchbox challenges, to fit as many things as you can into a tiny box, with a timer on to keep everyone competitive. (Although occasionally I think she is over-optimistic: I can't see myself quite believing that we could bake cookie dough in a home-made cardboard-box-oven any summer soon in the UK, though Dawn assures me it will work "within two or three hours". By then I suspect most children I know would have given up and eaten the raw biscuit mix. So pessimistic, aren't I? )

The book includes a few suggested categories, too, from "Good for Parties" right through to "Quick (Can Be Finished in an Hour or So)". There are even a few "proper" gardening activities: rainbow-salad growing, potato towers and bulb buckets. And watching kids I know leafing through the pages, I see the vivid photos sparking their desires to get going.

But best idea of all, how about "Arctic Dress Up", for which all you need are a huge pile of clothes, water and a freezer. I truly believe this kind of game could only have been thought up by the kind of woman who would wear a leopard-print coat.

Four more outdoor-play ideas

Decorating wellies

A bit of a wash and sandpaper for preparation, then arm yourself with acrylic-paint pens to create unique rainy-day footwear, whether it's flowers or rockets.

Building a Rain gauge

Practising all those key skills for school, and getting to be much more precise than your mum about exactly how much it has rained. What's not to like?

Nature-Walk bracelet

Use reversed duct tape to make a sticky band around the kids' wrists; then it's up to them to stick objects to it, from leaves and flowers to berries.

Bear Hunt

Grown-up hides three favourite toys; child does the finding. Very sweet, especially for really little children, and gets them really investigating the garden.

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