Dragging up the toddler. For free

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So after rambling about the challenges of bringing up the baby for free last week, I started thinking about what battles we’re likely to face with Johnny this year.

He’s definitely more obstinate single-minded willful independent than he was last year. Less easily led. Actually, that’s wrong. He’s more independent from ME. Less easily led by ME. But when it comes to his peers? The opposite is true. The kids at nursery have fireman Sam backpacks? WE NEED ONE. And we need to talk about this urgent need all morning, as we eat our toast, while pulling on my sleeve as I feed the baby, while I’m trying to reverse into a parking space that has suddenly shrunk mid-manoeuvre without denting the Porsche that’s worth more than our collective lives, every time I try to pull off the pretence of professionalism on a phone call to every vaguely important person who calls…

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This could well drive me crazy had I not come up with A Cunning Plan. I am particularly proud of this particular Cunning Plan because it knocks down several skittles simultaneously, accomplishing, in one move, the following:

1) regularly exhausting him to the point where he is too tired to form the words required to whine about Fireman Sam tatt

2) giving him a big gang of kids, a pack to run in – something he seems to really need at this new stage in his life

3) reminding him, weekly, of the fact that free stuff can be as fun as a Fireman Sam tatt (even if the effect only lasts a couple of hours…)

4) making sure that this new gang are ALL enthusiastic about free stuff, thereby engineering an antidote of sorts to the usual ‘stuff orientated’ peer pressure.

5) providing some kind of regular focused activity without shelling out money we can’t really spare (since ‘focus’ is an area we, erm, need to work on a little)

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Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: our Woodcraft Folk group.

Ok, stick with me. I know how it sounds. I assure you there is no compulsory veganism involved and only a small amount of whittling.

I can’t speak for other groups, but ours basically works like this: a happy collection of hippies, atheists, those a little squeamish about all the ‘dib dib dibbing’ involved in Scouts and those who just like to get our snotty-nosed, urban kids outdoors relatively regularly. The official description on the website goes like this:

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At Woodcraft Folk we believe passionately in equality and co-operation – everyone is welcome to join our groups.

Every week thousands of volunteers and young people meet in school halls, community venues and a host of other places to learn about big ideas through fun activities like singing, playing and debating. 

Our aim is to have great fun, but also to try and develop children’s self-confidence and build their awareness of society around them.

Through our activities, outings and camps we help our members understand important issues like the environment, world debt and global conflict and, in recent years, we have focused on sustainable development.

By encouraging children to think, we hope they will help build a peaceful, fairer world.

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So at the end of last year, we got together with about 20 local families to start our own group. Since it’s entirely democratic and there’s no ‘Brown Owl’ calling the shots, home economics badges to tick off or correct uniforms to starch, we set our own guidelines. In the end, they seemed to boil down, basically, to this: let’s get the kids together once a week, outdoors whenever the weather allows, and organise an activity that’s fun and fosters creativity, collaboration and a bit of a sense of how amazing the world is.

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So since the beginning of this year we’ve started meeting once a week – on Tuesday evenings three times a month, and on a Sunday afternoon once a month. The parents all take turns to run an activity: a recycling fashion show with egg cartons and old boxes; mud-volcano making; building time capsules.

The sessions cost nothing to attend, we got some basic funding from another local group to set things up, we’re relaxed about the fact that half the kids will run wild and uncooperatively around on the edges of the activity, and we enjoy each others’ company.

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It’s really kind of great. As I’m new to this kind of thing, I feel a kind of evangelical gratitude to have found it. Does anyone else belong to a Woodcraft group? Or have other arrangements for entertaining their toddlers for free?

There’s info on how to set your own group up here if not. DO IT. You’ll love it. And I promise you wont have to wear vegetarian shoes.

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UPDATE: I’ve just remembered other useful links for setting up this kind of gig. The fantastic Junkaholique blog recently wrote about the outdoor kids activities that the Wildlife Trust runs in their neck of the (literal) woods. And my favourite Seeds and Stitches wrote about the nature play groups that are dotted about the country. Any others I’ve forgotten?