sustainable children Feed

Getting up close and personal with nature at Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters Bobs Farm Port Stephens Australia Little eco footprints

I usually feel a little uncomfortable when I arrive at a zoo or animal park for the first time. I worry that I may be supporting the inhumane treatment of wild animals. But each time I've visited a zoo or park in recent years I've been pleasantly surprised and have left inspired and reassured.

Our children need to get up close and personal with wildlife in order to care for their environment.

They are not going to care about nature unless they know nature.

We recently visited Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters at Anna Bay, Port Stephens.

You can safely get up close and personal with wildlife that you would usually not want to encounter – stingrays and sharks.

Little Eco walked away from the experience buzzing with confidence. She also walked away with an awareness of how she can help conserve our marine environment – an awareness far greater than what she would have gained from reading dozens of books or watching a suite of documentaries. Nothing compares to real-life experiential learning.

The kids changed into the wetsuits provided and popped on a pair of water shoes, the latter to hide wriggling toes so that they were not accidentally mistaken for little fish.

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool. Little eco footprints

First stop was the aqua nursery pool, teeming with juvenile sharks and rays. 

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool shark and ray feeding_ Little eco footprints

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool shark and ray feeding2_ Little eco footprints

Little Eco and her friends nervously reached into the water with their feeding sticks.

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool swimming with sharks and rays_ Little eco footprints

They eventually went into the water, standing waist deep while one-metre-long sharks swam around their legs.

They didn't last long, quickly retreating to the shore.

I enjoyed watching their confidence grow as the guide revealed more information about the ecology and conservation of sharks and rays.

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters Ray Lagoon_ Little eco footprints

Second stop was Ray Lagoon, where they could get into the water with larger adult rays.

Their fear evolved into awe and they stepped a little deeper into the water so that they could touch a huge, two-metre, smooth ray that felt like "slimy sandpaper".

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters Fiddlers Flat Little eco footprints

By the time Little reached the next stop – Fiddler’s Flat – all fear had dissolved and she was in love.

"Look how cute they are," she said, sitting in the water among dozens of juvenile Fiddler Rays.

There was a roped off area where the rays could retreat to, but interestingly they didn't seem bothered by all the children and seemed to be curiously exploring their visitors.

Little Eco confidently stepped into the last pool, not even hesitating when she put on a pair of gloves "so that the big sharks don’t think my fingers are fish and bite them off". She got to pat Fluffy, a three-metre Tawny Nurse Shark, and heard all about the devastating impact pollution and overfishing are having on our marine environment.

I was impressed with the quality of interpretive information provided by our guide.

A few days after our visit I asked Little Eco what she learnt:

"Don’t litter. Pick up rubbish when you see it.

Don’t eat flake because it is shark and many sharks are going extinct. And shark is poisonous [she’s referring to mercury accumulation in large and long-lived fish].

Sharks and rays don't want to hurt us. They are really important and if we want fish we need to leave sharks in the ocean."

They're pretty important take home messages. And our guide obviously did a good job explaining the key conservation issues if an eight year old can still remember them days later. 

I know my comments about eating sustainable food or avoiding plastic often don’t make sense to Little Eco. I'm grateful that her encounter with some of our ocean’s majestic creatures has helped her see the connection between her actions and the health of our planet.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 5th September 2015.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 1. Little eco footprints

I appreciate the importance of not over-scheduling my daughter’s time. For extracurricular activities we've always had the rule of "swimming plus one". But we've been cheating. I gave in to my desire to give her as many opportunities as possible. We squeezed swimming and gymnastics into one afternoon – and briefly ignored the fact that her schedule included three structured activities.

But then my daughter reminded me that what she wants most is "more time to just play".

Time to play is what our children need most.

Unstructured play is how they learn to imagine, create, communicate, and resolve problems. It’s how they learn to live a meaningful life.

Two recent moments of free play reminded me how valuable time to simply play is.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 6. Little eco footprints

I made a batch of play-dough. At eight I thought Little Eco might be too old for play-dough. But I was wrong.

She and a friend grabbed some animal figures and built a paddock, horse jumps, stables and a farm house. They spent hours in their imaginary world absorbed in meaningful creative play.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 2. Little eco footprints

On another day they built a cubby with sticks and decorated it with bunting.

They proudly told me "we made it all by ourselves" and asked to build a campfire.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 3. Little eco footprints

I appreciate the importance of safe childhood risk-taking as much as free play – so agreed. One of my favourite quotes is from outdoor play advocate Richard Louv:

"Small risks taken early (and the natural world is good place to take those risks) can prepare children to avoid more onerous risks later in life."

I wandered back to their cubby with matches, a picnic hamper, pan and a batch of pancake batter.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 4. Little eco footprints

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 7. Little eco footprints

They proudly cooked their own pancakes and afterwards set about adding more rooms to their cubby.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 8. Little eco footprints

Little Eco spotted a tree in one of her pancakes. Can you see it? 

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 9. Little eco footprints

She had to photograph it of course. Definitely her mothers daughter.

Free time, some sticks and an opportunity to create their own world evolved into a magical moment I'm guessing they will remember for a very long time.

A similar childhood play session is one of my favourite memories. The moment was so insignificant that my mum can’t even remember it.

It was school holidays and my mum was busy – so she gave me a block of clay to keep me occupied. I can clearly remember the joy I felt in having hours to sit and lose myself in creating with my own hands. It’s moments like this that matter.

I had pottery lessons later in my childhood. But that moment instilled in me a love for creating with clay – far more than the structured lessons did.

Childhood is not a race or a competition.

Our children don’t need to be drowning in extracurricular activities to become talented and capable.

What they need is plenty of empty moments.

They need time to be bored.

It’s the moments of boredom that force them to learn how to entertain themselves.

We each have a lifetime to discover and nurture interests. We don’t need to do everything we desire immediately.

I'm yet to act on my desire to create with clay. I will one day. But there’s no rush.

Similarly, Little Eco is dropping gymnastics for now. Perhaps she’ll drop guitar lessons one day to take up gymnastics again. Or she may move onto something completely different.

Our children don’t need to excel at everything right now.

There’s no sense in rushing their one and only precious childhood.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 31st August 2015.

Making a Nature Drawer: to help kids explore their world {Milkwood}


Wishing you a weekend full of wandering and exploring. 

Just in case your kids come home with their pockets full of bits of nature - and then want to display their treasures on a table - here's a neat alternative: a nature drawer. 

Nature-drawer-mess-milkwood and little eco footprints

An increase in bits of dead animals on Little Eco's nature table (Can you see the dried headless lizard above?) inspired me to hide away her nature bits in a drawer.

Her nature drawer has become such a worthwhile addition to our home that I reckon all kids deserve their own nature drawer.

I'm sharing more on making a nature drawer over on the Milkwood blog.

Dirt glorious dirt - and why you should be playing in it more often

Scentists have discovered that playing in the dirt makes us feel good - thanks to a seratonin boosting bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. Little eco footprints

I've long recognised that digging in the garden makes me feel good. No matter how tired or stressed I am, a few minutes with my hands in the earth and my mood improves. I had assumed the boost was due to being outdoors and active and doing something I love. But it may actually be tiny micro-organisms causing my good mood.

Unintentionally picking up a microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae can make us feel good. Scientific trials suggest this soil dwelling bacteria can decrease anxiety, improve our ability to learn and may work as an antidepressant.

We pick up this serotonin boosting bug by playing in the dirt or eating it with our fresh fruit and vegetables.

Mycobacterium vaccae is one of 10,000 or so species of microbes that may call your body home. And many of them are just as valuable, or more so. Some produce inflammation-fighting chemicals and others help regulate your immune response. Microbes also help you digest particular foods and assimilate nutrients.

We evolved with microbes. And it’s starting to look like we don’t function properly without them.

Scientists are only now starting to discover just how important microbes are for our health. Rob Knight in his book Follow your gut: the enormous impact of tiny microbes suggests that "microbes are not only more numerous than we thought ... they’re also more important than we ever imagined, playing a role in nearly all aspects of our health, even in our personality".

Rob writes that: "You are made up of about ten trillion human cells – but there are about a hundred trillion microbial cells in and on your body. Which means: you are mostly not you ... We are not individuals; we are ecosystems."

But there’s a problem. We’re destroying our useful microbiota by being stressed, overusing antibiotics, using antibacterial cleaning products, and indulging in processed food, artificial sweeteners, and sugar.

We also have fewer opportunities to pick up beneficial microbes. We’re playing or working in the dirt less. We try to sterilise our homes. And industrial-scale farming and widespread use of pesticides has depleted soil microbe diversity – reducing the chances of us picking up a diversity of good microbes from the foods we eat.

There are suggestions from researchers that our modern-day disconnection from soil microbes could help to explain the rapidly increasing frequency of food intolerances, allergies, asthma and diseases involving inflammation, such as diabetes, arthritis, and even depression.

So what can you do to boost your good microbes?

1. Play in the dirt. Dig in the garden. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

2. Grow your own food organically. Gobble a few carrots straight from the soil. You’ll likely pick up more beneficial bugs from a fresh barely cleaned homegrown carrot than from popping an expensive probiotic pill.

3. Buy fruit and vegetables that have been grown on small organic or family farms. You are more likely to pick up a greater diversity of beneficial microbes from fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides.

4. Enjoy fermented foods. Make your own yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha or kimchi.

5. Repeat. The beneficial bugs we gain from playing in the dirt or eating homegrown food wear off after a while. A couple of weeks after contact with Mycobacterium vaccae – and it (and its feel-good feeling) is gone. 

I like the idea of playing in the dirt being good for us.

Playing in the mud is a great way for kids to boost good microbes. Little eco footprints

It seems mud loving children know what's good for them.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 18th May 2015.

Do your children get enough wild time?

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Natural gym. Little eco footprints

There's plenty of things we can do to help our children grow into creative, happy and resilient adults. There’s after-school tutoring, music lessons and a suite of extra-curricular activities. But one of the best things we can do is let them play in the natural world. Let them climb trees, jump in puddles and walk along logs.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Little eco footprints

Our children need to take risks.

The term ‘risk-taking’ often has negative connotations in our risk-averse society. But, age-appropriate outdoor risk-taking plays an important role in childhood development. It helps children find their limits and develop confidence, resilience and creativity.

Our children need to fall, pick themselves up and be able to recognise why they fell.

Small risks taken early [and the natural world is a good place to take those risks] can prepare children to avoid more onerous risks later in life.” Richard Louv.

Natural spaces are a great place for risky play.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Complex playgrounds. Little eco footprints

Natural spaces are more complex and calming than the plastic primary-coloured playgrounds popular these days. It’s almost impossible to take risks in those predictable playgrounds. Every risk has been carefully designed out.

The natural world comes with other benefits. Time in nature improves children’s ability to learn, reduces stress and improves concentration.

Increasing opportunities for nature-based play 

Play in natural environments and risk-taking used to happen automatically. Climbing trees and spending the whole day outdoors exploring nature was common only one or two generations ago. I spent much of my childhood roaming local bushland, building cubbies and playing in the local creek. I’m guessing your childhood was similar. Today, children are more likely to be indoors, busy with structured activities, or confined to the safety of their backyard.

School holidays offer the perfect chance to catch up on wild time.

There’s an increasing number of nature-based adventure playgrounds and school-holiday programs that give children the space and time to be a little wild. Little Eco and I visited two of them these school holidays.

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 1. Little eco footprints

First, we visited Newcastle Treetops Adventure Park. This adventure playground lets children move from tree to tree on suspension bridges and fly through the air on flying foxes.

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 2. Little eco footprints

Kids can push their boundaries and take risks – all from the safety of a continuous belay system that keeps them harnessed in at all times.

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 5. Little eco footprints

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 4. Little eco footprints

Little Eco and her friends loved this place. What surprised me most was how calm they were. Being in the treetops had them mesmerised. They made their way quietly around the course again and again – concentrating on the challenge.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Barefoot bushwalking

Then we immersed ourselves in nature through a three-day Wildcraft Kids Camp with Wildcraft Australia.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Learning how to use all senses when bushwalking. Little Eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Learning how to make a spear. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Making a speak. Little eco footprints

There was barefoot bushwalking, tree climbing, swimming in the creek, fire-starting and spear making. All these risky activities were safely supervised by guides Nikki and Sam.

Parents can tag along for the day or drop their children off and treat it as a vacation care program. I joined in and learnt almost as much as my daughter.

The kids started the camp tentatively, tiptoeing and squealing at the leeches. By the end of the camp they were confidently and mindfully striding through the bush and playing with leeches.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Leech. Little eco footprints

The children’s interaction with leeches demonstrates the transformation that happened. It’s easy to fear something you don’t know. At first there was panic each time a leech attached to someone’s leg. But as the children learnt how to remove the leeches, the fear slipped away and was replaced by wonderment. At one point they were wrestling over a leech. "Mine. Mine!"

Treetops Adventure Park and Wildcraft Kids Camp are going to become school holiday traditions for us.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 19th January 2015.