Why you should be playing outside this winter

Bluejay with suet feeder

Bluejay with suet feeder - Credit: Archant

It may be cold outside but it’s a perfect time to detach little ones from their gadgets and encourage them to unleash their inner Attenborough

There’s still a nip in the air and the trees are looking a little gloomy post-Christmas now that the fairy lights have been removed and left to tangle up for another year. We’ve all eaten way too much and spent far too much time bonding with the sofa while the children have forgotten what the great outdoors actually looks like.

But strange as it may sound this is the perfect time to put aside those January blues and get some fresh air in those lungs. It’s quiet, the festive TV season is a distant memory and your garden is crying out for some company.

We’re not suggesting you stretch out on a sun lounger, but perhaps take the opportunity to reacquaint with nature and lend a helping hand to our furry and feathered friends who are having a bit of a rough time of it.

At this time of year food is scarce and shelter a bit precarious as foxes hunt for any kind of warm blooded treat they can find. But we can do our bit to help by creating little animal havens, with the added bonus of teaching the kids a thing or two about the natural world at the same time.

Hedge your bets

First of all gather your materials: logs, piles of leaves, old roof tiles, and clay flowerpots are a good place to start. Building a log-pile will encourage biodiversity – it’s the ideal habitat for small mammals, amphibians, and insects.

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Logs are also perfect to tempt hedgehogs into your garden and what could be better than introducing children to these rarely seen little bundles of spikey cuteness? Arrange logs into a tepee shape with a soft leafy bedding floor for them to snuggle into. When it comes to feeding don’t follow the myth of bread and milk as this can make them ill. Opt for cat/dog food, dried fruits and cooked vegetables instead.

Give them a way into your garden with a couple of small holes at the bottom of a fence; these should be no bigger than a CD case otherwise foxes will take advantage of your hospitality too. If you have a pond frogs will also be grateful for the easy access but make sure you have plenty of pond plants to provide shelter.

All a flutter

With shrubs and trees devoid of their bounty, birds will also be seeking out food at this time of year. Although the damp weather is perfect for worms, it must get pretty tiresome dragging them out of the wet earth for dinner when you’ve just had a couple for breakfast…and lunch.

Bird feeders are a quick and easy way to get our feathered friends flocking to your garden, or perhaps invest in a more substantial bird table to see various species feasting together. But you’ll need to stock up on food regularly as hungry squirrels are quite partial to nuts and seeds too.

Make the most of January for creating your little animal sanctuary as it’s really the only time we’re not so concerned with manicured lawns and perfect flower beds, in this instance messy is good!

Explore beyond your garden fence…

Discover the 2.400 hectares (that’s about 3000 football pitches!) of Epping Forest. The historical woods and grassy plains are full of some very surprising things that children will love to discover:

Look out for something unusual as there are around 500 rare and endangered species

These include some incredible funghi formations, but don’t pick them! They are protected by forest by-laws

Play detective and find the signs for fallow deer, look for a brown ‘line’ about two metres above ground where branches have been nibbled

If you’re lucky you may see some small Muntjac deer, they are secretive but less shy of humans that the fallow

Smaller mammals include rabbits, hares, and badgers. Also a bit harder to spot are the woodmice, shrews, hedgehogs and even weasels!

If you’re venturing out at dusk you may see some of the 18 bat species swooping through the trees

If this has sparked your interest visit the Epping Forest Field Centre where children can take part in natural sciences and geography courses