Are you a Mad March Teacher?

As the Mad March teacher hares towards financial ‘year end’, the race often involves a task that under different circumstances would be a real pleasure: spending money.

However, that last minute rush to spend left over budget (yes, even in these straitened times, most schools and settings have a little bit of underspend) is rarely fun – because lurking in the back of your mind is the fear that by immersing yourself in catalogue and website panic buying, you’re unlikely to be purchasing the resources that will really make a difference to outcomes for your children.  In my experience, it’s often outdoors that feels the ‘benefit’ (I use the word advisedly) of the underspend, with Headteachers and Managers gazing critically at the playground or garden and wondering whether a huge piece of installed play equipment could answer their outdoor play and last minute budget dilemmas in one fell swoop.

I don’t have a solution to the ‘Mad March Hare’ to spend as quickly as possible, but I can offer a few tips to help you focus your ordering for outdoor resources, having helped schools and settings do just this over many ‘year ends’.

This is by no means a substitute for a proper, well thought out and carefully paced development programme – which ideally would involve talking to children, exploring the way your site is used in some detail and over several weeks and undertaking consultations and investigations to identify needs outdoors.  But it could help you concertina some of this work into an intense period of research followed by a sensible, purposeful campaign of last minute spending that will result in the delivery of resources and materials that will make the most of the potential of outdoors.

Put a temporary halt on the buying

Take time out to think about what is really needed in your school or setting.  You’ll still make the end of March spend deadline even if you spend some time talking to colleagues and children and exploring how you currently use the space.

Inventory what you already have outdoors

If you can get hold of a plan of your site (a Google Earth aerial view would do) print it at A3 and mark on the resources and features you already have – such as storage units, planted areas, play equipment, sandpits, etc.

Make a list of the resources available for outdoor play, noting down whether they ‘live’ outdoors (for example in a shed or in the grounds) or are brought outdoors from indoors.

Identify what children are doing outdoors

Use an observation tool you are comfortable with to observe and record how children are using the space and the resources available to them.  Think about affordances – how children use places, spaces and equipment in ways other than those they were ‘designed’ to be used for.

Analyse your observation notes and photographs: what did children appear to be enjoying the most?  Where did conflict arise – and why?  Which areas are over-popular and which are barely used?  Why?  What sort of condition are the resources and spaces outdoors in?  What does this tell children about how your school or setting values their play spaces?

Ask yourself, ‘what do I want children to be able to DO outdoors?’

And don’t ask, “what do I want them to HAVE?” – at least, not yet.  Examine the objectives you have for this cohort of children.  What are you trying to achieve with them?  What are their and your goals?  Where are there gaps in provision?  What could outdoors provide that indoors simply can’t?

List the types of activity or play or learning you’d like children to be able to experience outdoors – for example you might identify that mark making is weak and that outdoors could contribute to improvements.  Or opportunities to be agile might be few, so places and spaces to balance, climb, jump, build strength and co-ordination might be needed. Could your children benefit from places to play in small groups, or to act out stories, or reconnect with the natural world?  Do they need somewhere to make noise or exercise their whole bodies?  Are there elements of your curriculum that could be enriched by being taken outdoors?

If you can, encapsulate this in a sentence that describes your aspirations for outdoors – what you write shouldn’t be too dissimilar to your school or setting’s overall aspirations.  After all, the outdoor space should be contributing to children’s development, learning and wellbeing in the same way you would expect activity taking place indoors to do.

Establish how you could meet these needs with new resources and make a ‘long list’

Examine each item in your list of activities / learning you’d like children to be able to experience outdoors.  What kind of resources would lend themselves to supporting this learning or play?  Think about the development of key skills and where there might be opportunities for resources to meet more than one set of needs.  Open ended resources such as loose parts items are more likely to do this than items with fixed or specific uses.

Brainstorm two or three different ways you could fulfil EACH of the needs you identified above.  As an example, if the priority is to develop children’s communication and language skills, or their creativity, resources to enable role-play outdoors could meet this need.  So a timber playhouse would help, but so would a really excellent den building kit, or a CD player and basket full of clothes, fabric, storybooks and props.  Each of these comes with a very different price tag!

Research costs and logistics for your ‘long list’ of resources

Okay, you can return to the catalogues and websites now!  But this time you’re armed with a clear vision for what you need to buy – and importantly, WHY you need to buy it.  Knowing the rationale behind your spending spree means you are far more likely to end up with resources you’re still using in six months’ time, a year’s time, five years’ time.

Think about open-ended resources; think about sharing resources with colleagues; think about storage (Where will all this ‘stuff’ go?  How will children access it?); think about sustainability (Will it need to be replenished? How often, and how much will it cost?); think about maintenance of the resources (How do we care for it?  Who will do this?  How much will it cost?); think about their management (Should I risk benefit assess this resource?  Does its use need supervision?)

Check with colleagues that you aren’t doubling up on resources you could possibly share (or that they already have).  If you’re ordering several of something or lots of things from one supplier, be cheeky and email or call the them first and ask for a bulk discount – as we say up north, ‘shy bairns get nowt’.  The worst the supplier can say is ‘no’.

Now order your goodies and enjoy!

That’s something of a whistle stop tour of tragedy-free catalogue ordering, but it should be possible to do all of this over the course of a week.  The inventory and observation bits will take longest and it is important to get them right, as they provide the foundations for your decision-making and subsequent spending.Image

These two excellent advice notes by Learning through Landscapes – one for Early Years settings and one for Schools – will help you think about making better use of outdoors, whatever your budget.

If you are in the enviable position of not having to spend a budget in the next two weeks, and would like to explore outdoor learning and play at a more measured pace, please give us a call at Play Learning Life.  We would be delighted to talk to you about how we can help you, your colleagues and, vitally, your children make the most of the potential of outdoors to contribute to better learning and play outcomes.

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Outdoor Play in the “olden days” – hmmm, thanks for that, Junior PLL the Elder!

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Image (c) Google Earth – our flat was at the end of the long block orientated NW – SE and the area in the centre and behind the two smaller blocks was our domain.

I had an absorbing discussion about outdoor play with PLL Junior the Elder today, on our train journey to London for his latest dental drama.  On the way, our train passes the estate I lived in as a young child, and he always asks about what it was like “in the olden days” when I lived there.  Today’s sunshine and blossom took me back forty years and our conversation has had me musing on the nature of free play all afternoon.

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Run, Junior PLL the Younger (aka Forrest Gump), run!!

Our maisonette had no road at the front or back, and at the rear was (is) a large greenspace, with trees, bushes, grassy mounds, shady spots and suntraps, deep and creepy shrubberies and garage blocks to play tennis against or British Bulldog between.  The pic below is a Google Earth view of my childhood playscape – this is exactly how I remember it (albeit with fewer cars) so this is not just a view though rose tinted specs!  It isn’t a huge area, but it was enormous to us; I’m still in touch with several of the friends I made in those days, and their recollections support mine; in the early 70s we really were free to go play, so long as we free-ranged with our friends and promised to be back by teatime.

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There were no houses around this field 40 years ago, but other than that, this could have been my childhood.

It’s become something of a cliché to begin outdoor play or learning seminars with the question, “what do you remember about your childhood play?” and to follow that up by noting how many memories are set outdoors.  In fact, I rarely ask this question any more; I find myself increasingly in front of an audience I’m coming to think of as the outdoor play ‘lost generation’.  Aged 18 – 30, their parents (and thus they themselves) were the first victims of society’s increasingly skewed perspective on (some might say obsession with) stranger danger, risk aversion and H&S myths.  The media’s rush to sensationalise incidents that in fact represent vanishingly small risks to children’s safety in the grand scheme of things didn’t and still doesn’t help.

Many of these adults, who are now working with children themselves, did not in fact play outside as children.  They don’t have these ‘shared memories’ – or at least their memories don’t encompass freely chosen outdoor play as readily as I and others of my age recall it from ‘our’ childhood.  The two Junior PLLs WILL have play memories we will be able to share and compare in later life: as a parent I try to model the actions I promote as a practitioner.  I hope (and believe) that Mr PLL and I allow our boys age-appropriate freedom to roam and to choose when and where to play out, what to do when they’re out there, and with whom.  Don’t misunderstand me; we do have rules (they are only 4 and 7 after all) and we do fully expect broken bits of bodies at some point in the future.  Nevertheless, we begin with the premise that the Junior PLLs are sensible, dynamically risk assessing, adventurous small people who look out for each other and for their friends – just as ‘we’ did as children.

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Outdoor play occupational hazard: cow pat on your leg.

My family is extremely lucky to live opposite a large green public space; the Junior PLLs and their friends truly make the most of it, throughout the year.  As those of us in the northern hemisphere move into what we hope will be a fair and warm spring and summer, we ought to be considering what WE will do in order to ensure ALL the children whose lives we are privileged to touch are able to enjoy the sheer joy and freedom of independent outdoor play.  Those memories of free outdoor play are precious and diminishing – but by no means extinct.  I want Junior PLL the Elder to be sharing recollections of his childhood with his own children, but that’s an easy ask – I know he will.

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Only equipment needed, some sticks, an old throw and bags of imagination. Oh, and vitally, Outdoors.

We should really be asking, “what more can I do to make sure that all children are able to collect these experiences and memories?”  That question will be occupying my thoughts in the coming weeks.  Amongst other excellent blogs and websites, Rethinking Childhood, Love Outdoor Play and Playing Out will help us focus our ideas and provide motivation and inspiration for action.

Stick stomping, and other timber tales

...then the rest of us abandoned them to go eat halloumi. I took them a lot longer to get back out than it did to get in. Were we bad, for sniggering and eating marshmallows at them?

I was delighted to be invited to deliver a couple of workshops at the Slough Early Years Outdoor conference in March.  Even better, lovely Sharon Bright and equally marvellous Hazel Thorpe were prepared to indulge my current stick obsession, by positively encouraging me to share my (quite extensive) stick collection with practitioners from across the borough.Sure Start manager Julie Quinn introduced the day by expressing her disappointment at the blazing sunshine outside; we all looked slightly puzzled until she explained she’d hoped for raging storms and pelting rain in order to make the point that outdoor play can be enjoyed in ANY weather.  True, of course.  However, I don’t think I was the only person rather glad to feel the sun on my back.

My 'presentation'. I think it's essential to keep up with the latest technological breakthroughs...

Gail Ryder Richardson of Outdoor Matters! began with a rousing address on the benefits of outdoor play for young children, and what she expected to see in the revised EYFS (due out any day now, though I don’t recommend you hold your breath).  She made excellent use of an excerpt from Jan White and Siren Films’ documentary Toddlers Outdoors: Play, Learning and Developmentto illustrate how little is needed by way of ‘equipment’ for a toddler to explore and enjoy his environment.  In fact, as the audience agreed, the single most important element was the engaged, attentive and respectful practitioner, who supported the child’s fascination with a hill and a stick, patiently and with interest.

My workshop looked at ways of introducing sticks of all shapes and sizes to every day practice, and participants were invited to explore the materials, consider how they could support the six (three plus four) areas of learning and collaborate to create new activities for their settings.

Pampas is one of my favourite sticks and I loved how they were used on this teepee. The wind kept blowing tiny seeds around, as if they were snowflakes.

We began with a bit of stick stomping – always a great way to blow away any cobwebs.  I have around a dozen very long, very straight and pretty hefty staffs.  We used them to beat out rhythms in sequence, to help us spell out simple words and use our whole bodies to make sounds.  Then we used them to show off our balancing skills and hand eye co-ordination, tossing them in the air and catching them… well, mostly catching them.  I explained that with young children, I’d provide staffs half this size – taller than the children’s bodies but not so substantial that they become unwieldy.

Discussing how to arrange the sticks in order of size. That odd shaped one has a mind of its own: is it actually the longest, we debated? It was certainly the least willing to lie flat.

The conference was themed around challenging outdoor play, with other workshops looking at forest school skills and getting babies and toddlers active and motivated outdoors.  My groups examined real tools for making and doing with sticks, discussing the barriers to using tools and sticks in the setting and demonstrating how they’d mitigate risk and supervise the use of tools.  Then I set them loose with the stick collection, the tools and a myriad of free and found objects from my *ahem* crammed resources store (endearingly, my husband still calls it the garage).

Yes, alright. Your stick IS bigger than any of mine...

As always with early years practitioners, latent creativity leapt forth at the first opportunity.  Not only were the sticks and the other natural materials employed with wit and flair, practitioners made use of the environment they found themselves in (the courtyard of a very smart, new build school) to inspire their creativity and shape their work.  Exactly the point: you don’t actually need a flashy or expensive outdoor space to encourage dialogue, movement, risk taking or socialisation – what you need is enthusiastic, hands-on practitioners, able and willing to help children make the most of the spaces that truly ‘belong’ to them.

The shadow of this mythical creature's head became part of its tail. Loved this structure so much.

We ended the session by cooking halloumi and marshmallows over a fire; the group helped build it, and whilst we did so, they raised issues about safety, permission, food hygiene and insurance plus the questions they’d expect to face if they suggested having an open fire back in their setting.  I think (hope) that between us we were able to address all of these in a positive manner.  Certainly in the ‘my next step’ postcards I asked the group to fill out, many noted that by the time I’d posted the card back to them, they’d have tried out some form of fire in their setting, be it incense sticks or nightlights, or a full campfire.

Conversation, collaboration, creativity - this group made a beautiful washing line, with stunning and mysterious shadows cast onto the paving.

A super sunny day and a truly eager crowd at Slough; the buzz of conversation over (a spectacularly delicious and locally sourced) lunch confirmed that everyone had connected with the morning’s discussions and endeavours.  I wasn’t attempting to offer the participants forest school ‘lite’ with my workshop; I admit to one or two ‘issues’ around forest schools, but that’s for another time.

The venue had its own woodland right on the edge of the grounds - what a amazing resource to have available every day.

There is a place for large, inherently risky natural materials IN the setting, EVERY DAY.  Sticks are not just for the woodland – they offer infinite opportunities for free play, directed play, purposeful learning, personal investigations and collective fun.  We all saw the potential for using these fabulously sensory and tactile objects (voted #1 toy of all time) in a different way in the setting; separated from the woodland, each stick becomes special.  Even in the brief time they had together, participants began to feel a connection with their stomping stick: evaluating its weight; testing its structural qualities; feeling its texture and shape and anticipating how it would respond to their movements.

I’m hoping for nods of recognition from the participants in my workshops, when their own voices drop onto their doormats in the form of their handwritten evaluation postcards in four weeks’ time…

Stick story books, stick activity books, stick poetry, stick operas (actually, just kidding about that last one)

After School, After Dark

I’m finding wordpress horrifically inflexible, so have made this blog post into a pdf download instead.  I do apologise if this is inconvenient – my snazzy new website will have a simpler blogging system for me, but in the meantime, here’s my meandering thoughts about outdoor play after dark: After School, After Dark – click this link.

An early iteration of the After Dark trug – stacks more in there now.

Siege! Or, ‘How we learned about pivots and counterweights’.

Our recent trip to Odiham Castle to consider ‘how they kept warm in the olden days’ yielded all sorts of treats, not least an unexpected and deliciously welcome lunch at the real ale pub at the end of the canal tow path.  But leaving our stomachs aside for just one moment, the real highlight was actually right at the end of the walk.

The canal adjacent to our parked cars had a wonderfully rustic looking wooden bridge across it and as luck would have it (since PLL the Younger has been studying castles) the bridge was to all intents and purposes, a drawbridge.  Having answered our key question of the day (answer: not very well, it must have been appallingly freezing most of the time) we had plenty of time to explore how the drawbridge worked.

So, exactly what do I have to do to get this thing moving? Press a few of these buttons maybe?

Sadly, it was key operated (“Urgh! It’s electric” groaned A in disgust, although that didn’t stop him testing out the many buttons on the console and poking the keyhole with a tiny stick ‘key’).  So, we weren’t able to test the mechanism of the bridge itself, but the safety barriers were distinctly manual and the Junior PLLs and their ever willing accomplices A and P set about the task of opening and closing it – several hundred times.  Well, maybe just half a dozen times, but boy, was it fun.

Heeeeaaaaavvve!

A huge counterweight at one end ensured the barrier didn’t accidentally flop down on an unsuspecting car (or, indeed, child).  The older two quickly established that it would take all four children to collaborate to move it even slightly, so PLL the Dad took this opportunity to share his extensive knowledge of levers, pendulums, pivots and counterweights to explain why it was so impossible to start the barrier moving at one end and yet so light to push back up at the other.  He’s a hoot at parties, honest.

He was also collecting tolls each time we strolled by...

Young P also enjoyed repeatedly guiding the barrier into its aperture – quite a tricky task for a five year old, but one he completed with great care and precision, co-ordinating the relatively small slot, the heavy barrier and avoiding trapping his own hand in there too.

We took some time to examine the gap between the road and the bridge, to establish how often we thought the bridge was opened – verdict: not very often. Junior PLL the Younger and P observed moss and dirt wedged in the gap and surmised that it had been some time since the bridge was last opened.  A recalled that the tunnel we’d seen earlier in the day had collapsed many years ago, and had never been cleared, so there was little point in canal boats heading through the drawbridge anyway.

"Yep. It's going to take more than the weight of a skinny 7 year old to lift this bridge."

Of course, no trip outdoors is complete without children climbing all over something that wasn’t intended for that purpose (how I love affordances!).  The drawbridge cables proved irresistible but at least we were able to explore how heavy the bridge must be by testing the rigidity of the cables.

All in all, a very satisfactory Castles outing – with added forces and dynamics, plenty of collaboration and observation and of course, opportunities to poke things with sticks and climb all over them.  Perfect!

“How did they keep warm in the olden days?” or, Why I Love Sticks Part II

Junior PLL the Younger is studying castles this half term and there is plenty of building and exploring action going on in and out of the Reception year classroom at his school. Getting into the spirit, we took a trip to a local castle with friends A and P and their parents. Two years ago we all made a similar trip to Portchester Castle, when Junior PLL the Senior and his class ‘did castles’. Portchester has a huge enclosure, with a pretty well preserved square keep in one corner, a deep and excitingly dangerous moat (dry!), ramparts to climb and amazing views south over the English Channel and north up towards the South Downs.

This time, we chose Odiham Castle, a dramatically ruined mediaeval keep set in woodland and with a canal now adjacent. Luck provided us with a spectacularly beautiful frosty day, and with clear blue sky above it wasn’t hard to imagine how atmospheric and yet how bleak castle life must have been.

The Junior PLLs are having a Star Wars moment (week /month / year) so sturdy sticks from a collapsed chestnut paling fence were soon put into service as lightsabers. It wasn’t long before they became swords and jousting poles as the children began to visualise themselves as knights and peasants living in and around the castle rather than space cowboys. Odiham has a broadly circular footprint , and the ground around the base undulates, encouraging they boys (sorry, knights) to gallop everywhere which inevitably resulted in muddy trousers. Our boys know they won’t get much ‘I fell over’ sympathy unless there’s actual bones on display or significant blood loss, so we were able to continue admiring the delicate patterns made by frost on the castle’s etched glass signage.

We’ve learned from sore throat inducing experience that when our four boys get together, it’s a good idea to let them get a good chunk of energetic and noisy catching up over with before attempting any kind of questioning or task setting with them. After they’d tripped over in the moat, kicked gravel over each other and poked their own eyes out with chestnut palings to their satisfaction, we began to explore in a bit more detail. The older PLLs were less interested in stopping their important and playful games, so we let them be… P and Junior PLL the Younger were keen to discuss what they could see.

“What’s that huge hole in the wall up there for? What could it be?”

  • It’s a fireplace. You can see the chimney going up. There was a floor there once.

The inglenook fireplace must have been 10m above the ground – we could see the gaps in the stonework showing where oak joists would once have supported the floor. A noted that there was no soot left in the chimney because it was “hundreds of years” since a fire had last been lit there.

“Why are these bars here – who put them there?”

  • This is the kitchen. [Me : Are you sure it’s not the dungeons?] No, kitchens are at the bottom of castles. The dungeons are underground. Where are the stairs to them….? [Pauses to look about] There aren’t any. They’ve gone, we can’t get down there.
  • I think the man put the bars here. The castle man. [I think he meant the council – both boys knew the iron bars weren’t original]

Junior PLL the Younger loves cooking, so he and P played kitchens for a while. P brought me half a dozen pine cones, cupped carefully in his hands “for breakfast” and the lightsabers / swords / jousters were put to good use stirring an imaginary cauldron of something that probably contained the pheasants we could hear coming to a sticky end nearby.

I was impressed by how much the younger PLLs had remembered from their expedition to Portchester castle two years ago – they were only 2 and 3 at the time. A’s mum and I had quite a detailed conversation with the boys about the shape and size of the windows, and they both recalled that windows were small and narrow to keep precious heat in and keep enemy arrows out. They also knew that glass was at a premium so couldn’t be wasted. Some of the holes in the wall were actually quite big so we thought they may once have been doors – or perhaps a cannonball destroyed the wall! I think we were all picturing the latter… until we saw on the interpretation boards that there were in fact very large windows at one time – presumably in times of relative peace.

Meanwhile, the older boys had found two chestnut palings with a delightfully rusty nail joining them through the centre, and were wielding their giant ‘tweezers’ with abandon, attempting to cut the grass, other chestnut palings and bits of historic masonry.

My husband is a historic buildings architect and (rightly) quite protective of ancient monuments like this, so the game of ‘poke our swords into this very inviting, just at the right height, hole in the wall’ didn’t last long.

By now, we’d been at the castle for about 45 minutes (it’s actually rather small, if undoubtedly imposing) and the grown-ups were getting a bit chilly, so we headed off down the canal, with the Junior PLLs and their pals carrying the most ridiculously enormous ‘stick’ they could manage between them…

We had more adventures later that day with a drawbridge – over the canal, not the castle. But I’ll save that for another post, as the quality of the thinking, language, experimentation and collaboration from our four hardy under 8s deserves it

‘After Dark’ club

A Learning through Landscapes project in Lambeth last autumn explored the opportunities for play after dark – with fascinating and unexpected results.  The programme was actually about helping 15 After School clubs make better use of the outdoor space they had access to; more often than not, children were cooped up, albeit playing, indoors, having been pretty much cooped up all day at school too.  So fabulous Kyrstie worked with the club playworkers and the children to test out ways of making the grounds accessible after dark.

There wasn’t time enough during the projects to really investigate this in detail, so LTL are now putting together proposals for a bigger pilot programme, specifically to identify creative ways of engaging children and young people in playful activities after dark.  I’m not going to ‘share nicely’ any more than that, because research into the proposal is still a work in progress, but I can say that one of Kyrstie’s real successes last year was with glowsticks.

Let’s face it, in the UK we get a whole load of darkness and at this time of year it’s a real shame that children aren’t out enjoying the smells and sights and sounds of dusk.  Well tonight, the Junior PLLs and their trusty crew from across the Green spent a good half an hour playing with glowsticks of various shapes and sizes.  My pics are awful, I know (apologies) but if nothing else they surely get across the sheer energy and excitement of being out in the darkness.

There were three main games:

Bang loudly on the lamp-post with the glowsticks.  Made a great noise, obviously, and created spooky psychedlic (sp?) patterns in the air, sparkler style.  Now, much as children love making a racket, this actually only entertained them for a few minutes, so they soon came up with the next game.

Hurling the glowsticks as high into the night sky as possible (one of them definitely hit the ISS, really) and avoiding them as they come spinning back to earth was a hoot – for the children.  I have a small, but perfectly formed and slightly sore bruise on my cheekbone as testement to the need for the Littlest PLL to develop his gross motor skills a bit more.  One of the glowsticks ended up in the tree all the children round here ‘learn’ to climb trees in – it was very high up and beyond the reach of even D, the best and most fearless tree climber of the four.  However, M realised that the long (2m) straight stick I keep by my front door would be perfect, so long as someone was prepared to climb the tree in the dark… step forward, Elder PLL, ‘like a rat up an aquaduct’.  We all discovered that tree climbing in the dark is somewhat more challenging than in the bright sunlight we’ve loved getting used to over the last week or so.  But the glowstick made it back down, and so did Elder PLL.  And my stick, more to the point.  My stick obsession deserves a blog entry of its own…

After that, a game of ‘hide the glowsticks on the green’ caused much merriment and mayhem.  Surprisingly, it is possible to hide a very bright emergency beacon type glowstick in undergrowth.  At this point, the four children were joined by two curious cats, who luckily remembered Just In Time what curiosity did to the cat, and scarpered before the children could attach anything to their collars.

I’m afraid at this point, big bad mummy suddenly remembered her responsibilities as a Sensible Parent On A School Night, and called my two in, sending D and M back to their own homes, their radioactive pink and yellow hands fading slowly into the gloom.

I must get the manual out for my DSLR as the quality of the pics is a real shame, and I do want to be able to illustrate the fun to be had outdoors after dark, to encourage others to consider it as a viable context for play.  If anyone reading has experience of play after dark, I’d love to hear about it.