It seems a universal truth that we either follow in the footsteps of our parents, or rebel against them. Parents, of course, do the best for their children - but many grow up yearning for a lifestyle that is entirely different from that of their family.
Serena Lee is one such individual. After a childhood spent in the concrete jungle, she's made a commitment to raise her daughter in a different way - with nature at the heart of their lifestyle.
I grew up by the sea, but my family is the opposite of outdoorsy - my mother still lives two minutes from a beautiful beach, but only feels the sand between her toes a couple of times a year when we coax her down with all her grandchildren. When she’s there, like all of us, she loves it and makes memories to cherish for years to come.
Passions seem to stem either from an upbringing immersed in that sport, hobby, or craft, or they stem from the individual filling a hole - something that was missing becomes something close to the heart; we’re clicking in pieces of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. For me, a love of nature and the outdoors is definitely the result of a concrete jungle childhood - especially as a mother, I want nature to be all my child knows. I want her to not fear the wind because she’ll be dressed appropriately - a luxury I never had due to my Malaysian mum never quite cracking how to keep warm in the British winter!
With no 2020 “summer holiday” in sight for obvious reasons, my husband and I decided to head on a four-day camping trip with a group of his cousins and their children. We camped at a rural site on High Weald in West Sussex - proud of its “camping as it should be” facilities, with no hot water or showers. It was perfect for our group, with only one adult new to camping plus lots of excited children! Our daughter is 2 ½ and thankfully fully potty-trained, but we still had to prep a lot, in hope of minimal complaints and plentiful activities to lower the chances of being asked to “watch something on the laptop”. We were committed to a child-tech-free break!
Planning for all sorts of weather due to a patchy forecast, we took our daughter’s snowsuit to sleep in, our trusty dry bag, my recycled Rainbird Jacket, and of course wellies for the family. We brought books, stickers to encourage going to the toilet in a hole in the woods, and colouring pencils in case it rained and she was too grumpy to stay outdoors. We ended up using none of these distractions, being content with chopped wood carved into spears, the mystery of the campfire, and acorns with their “hats” to play with instead. Nature ended up providing all the stimulation she was seeking.
We prepped bean burritos and plant-based pancake mix for the trip, and brought bananas to slice down the middle and stuff with chocolate to heat on the fire. Our daughter was involved with every step, carefully selecting homegrown tomatoes from our small, paved-over urban garden in East London, and clearing up every pancake morsel on the tin plate. Mid-morning explorations involved identifying trees with our Woodland Trust leaf swatch book and searching for elderberries, comparing them with the flowers we picked in spring for cordial. She learned about badgers and foxes (the only fox she knows spends its days sleeping on a shed roof opposite our house), how to leave a campsite clean and tidy, and how best to light a fire. It’s not as though much of this information will be retained, but if we keep coming back to nature and its lessons frequently enough, we hope it’ll be weaved into our children’s framework.
Our tent was better suited for its original purpose as my husband’s solo tent from his single days - three of us squashed in made condensation drip everywhere, and we spent the whole time clambering over one another - but overall, the experience was everything we’d hoped for to introduce our toddler to camping. As we’d predicted, enough layers and spare clothes for everyone, especially little ones, was definitely essential for happy camping, plus planning meals ahead. We can’t wait for spring to come around so that we can go again - once we’ve upgraded the tent!
Next time, we’ll be more confident and leave the colouring pencils at home. Nature provides all the abundance of colour that a child needs, if we just learn to trust it more.
Words & images by Serena Lee