New initiative encourages children to connect with nature again

Photo by Kate Eastman

Photo by Kate Eastman - Credit: Archant

Increasing urbanisation, time-poor parents and modern technology have led to a growing disconnect with nature. Local man Simon Cowley’s initiative It’s Great Outdoors aims to address that

In a small woodland near North Chailey a group of young children sit on a circle of tree stumps around a small campfire. The group all listen carefully as Simon Cowley runs over the rules of his fire circle.

The children are all here to take part in the fantastic activity initiative run by It’s Great Outdoors! who provide opportunities for young people to have fun outdoors and reconnect with nature. “I was passionate about creating adventures for kids and was convinced that by doing so, I was helping children discover all the benefits that spending time in wild places bestows and creating a life long love of spending time in the great outdoors. During the first year I tried lots of different ways of encouraging young people to get some ‘wild time’, and discovered that there was a lot of support for what we were doing,” explains Simon. “I completed my Forest School Leader qualification in 2013 with Sussex Wildlife Trust and whilst I had a fair amount of practical knowledge about nature, the outdoors and bushcraft course was really useful as it helped me learn and understand how to get across the information I’m sharing to young people taking into account how they learn, interact and play.”

Simon has always felt passionate about nature and sharing his knowledge of bushcraft. “I’ve always loved being outdoors and my most complete and vivid memories of childhood seem to contain some element of the outdoors. I’d had enough of the profession I’d been working in for the last twenty years and wanted a change. In a chance conversation with a stranger, I was reminded of the Confucianism ‘The man who does what he enjoys for a living, never works a day in his life’. My working life up to that point hadn’t given me any fulfillment and people had always mentioned to me that I worked well with young people, so from this coupled with my love of Bushcraft and the outdoors, I decided to work with young people building their self confidence, independence and self-esteem as well as their knowledge and appreciation of the outdoors by sharing some of the things I’ve learnt and enjoyed during twenty years of practicing bushcraft.”

Simon created It’s Great Outdoors in 2011 just as the issue of young people’s lack of time taking part in unstructured play outdoors and their growing disengagement from the natural world around them was identified. “Many consider these to be an important part of growing up and the idea started receiving growing support from organisations such as the National, Woodland and Wildlife Trusts,” says Simon. “All the research into the benefits of outdoor activities convinced me that this was what I wanted to do. Bookings for parties, holiday sessions, sessions for Cubs, schools and other groups as well as after school clubs have grown every year since, mainly due to the best kind of advertising, word of mouth. Our mailing list has grown hugely and last year we expanded the sessions during holidays from one a week to two, as well as running sessions for private groups and bushcraft weekends for parents and children.”

Simon looks after the day to day running of the company such as bookings, marketing and admin and has a pool of CRB checked childcare or outdoors experienced volunteers who help him depending on how many children they have, what age they are or the activity they are leading. “The kids love building dens with sticks, rope and Tarp’s and then getting them tested by a simulated rain shower (a bucket of water!) with them inside. They also love the tracking/stalking and capture the flag style games too,” explains Simon.

Mum of two Lisa Whitefield has a seven-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy and both children have been twice and are booked into a third visit with Simon soon. “I heard about Simon’s adventures through my children’s school, plus I was recommended it by other friends who had experienced it already and couldn’t recommend it enough. My children love doing things outdoors so I thought this would be perfect for them. They absolutely loved it, the wetter and dirtier the better. They came back shattered but very happy,” explains Lisa. “My daughter said she enjoyed climbing trees, making dens, getting wet in the streams and she loves the ‘smores’ which are melted marshmallows with biscuits by the campfire.”

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Sarah Fox has a nine-year-old boy and a seven-year-old daughter both of whom absolutely love it. “They have gone to so many of Simons adventure days, they go every school holiday and my son had his eighth birthday party there too,” says Sarah. “During the Easter holiday last year it snowed and you know what children can be like in the cold but not one child missed Simons class, as long as they’re wearing the right clothing its fantastic. The day is from 10-3pm, which is a long time to be outside, but Simon keeps them entertained. My son isn’t sporty and lots of holiday camps concentrate on sport but this totally works for him. My daughter has asked to have her eighth birthday party there as well. I have recommended It’s Great Outdoors to many people and will continue to do so. I love the fact it’s getting back to basics with nature, good wholesome fun and it’s getting my children away from the computer!”

Simon explains, “Every session starts with a quick chat about boundaries, keeping safe in the woods and around the campfire and then we learn and practise a new skill whether it’s whittling, building a shelter, fire-making, camouflage or animal tracking. The woods are constantly changing and I’m a big fan of serendipitous learning, which means although I have a plan in mind when I arrive, I might change it to more animal tracking related activities if we’ve had a herd of deer through the woods overnight or there’s been rain overnight or it’s due later in the day is a good opportunity to learn about fire making with natural tinders or shelter building respectively.

We always end a session with marshmallow toasting and smores over the fire, as well as discussing as a group our favourite parts of the day. The most memorable quote from one of the children was “That was awesome, we got to make fire, use knives and make pointy sticks!”

Simon also runs an after-school bushcraft club once a week at Ardingly College and Twineham Primary School. Fiona Ricketts, Forest School coordinator from Ardingly College Prep School says “Simon currently leads two successful after school clubs in the Prep School, a bushcraft and whittling club for KS3 children and one of our Ardingly Adventurer Groups. The children have really enjoyed and been fully engaged with all of the well thought-out and effectively led activities. Simon has proved a valuable asset in helping us to encourage our children to connect with, learn about and care for the outdoor environment, whilst also learning about themselves.”

If you would like to book your child into a woodland session visit onAutumn in Sussex - photography, walks and places to visitSussex walk: Rottingdean and TelscombeTake a Sussex stroll around Ashdown Forest