These mornings and evenings are definitely starting to have a little chill in the air, a sure sign autumn's close – but let's not hunker down just yet! There is plenty of fun to be had outdoors in the glorious autumn months and much of it won't cost you a bean.
If you have some woods near you, do go and enjoy them now. There's no better time to visit than when the leaves are turning and the air is crisp.
Here are some ideas to entertain the troops while you're there (and also a few for your back garden).
This is brilliant fun for little children. One adult needs to run ahead (and give them a good 10 minutes, perhaps while everyone gets their wellies on) with a bag of teddy bears. Stash the bears in hiding places – either along a path, or in a clearing – with just ears or paws poking out.
When it's done, let the little ones go on a bear hunt. Ruin the peace and quiet by chanting (go on! "We're going on a bear hunt... Gonna catch a big one... we're not scared!") and if you all have to traverse a stream to reach a far flung teddy, all the better!
Children love seeing mushrooms growing wild and now's a great time to go and spot them. While there are a few places around the country where you can go on organised tours (to pick and eat edibles), with children it's probably safer to look but not touch.
Just do a bit of research to find out what grows in your local woods, print out some pictures, then go and count how many you can find.
Take a leaf...
A leaf is just a leaf, right? Wrong! Fallen leaves, in all those colours, shapes and sizes, can provide hours of fun for toddlers and small children.
Take a big bag along with you, and collect the finest specimens you can find. When you get home, help your child identify the types of leaves they have found, then decide what to do with them.
Large leaves can be used to make Indian style headdresses (just use some card to make head-sized hoops, then use staples or tape to stick the leaves on to it in a fancy design). Or, they could create a huge artwork in the back garden (go upstairs to take a picture from a bedroom window!). Or, of course, you can set the children up with some sheets of paper and paint for the old messy favourite – leaf printing!
Bonkers for conkers
You can easily get an afternoon entertainment out of conkers. First, there is the gathering – go and hunt where there are lots of big horse chestnut trees. Then take your booty home, and get to work.
Opening a spiky green shell and finding a beautiful, shiny conker inside is almost as fun as opening a present for a small child (even if they do know what's going to be inside). If your child is old enough to play a game of conkers (without causing damage to themselves or you), there is some prep to be done. Different people have different theories as to the best way to harden conkers, but you could try this:
Select conkers that are round, smooth and have no cracks. Submerge them in a cup of vinegar for about two minutes, then take them out and put into a preheated oven (250°C) for three minutes. Remove the conkers, and let them cool for a while. When they are still warm, use a metal skewer to make a small, clean hole all the way through. Thread through some string, and tie a fat knot at one end.
Let the battles commence!
Make a den
This is fabulous way to spend time in a wood – get the children to gather up fallen branches and twigs, and build a den big enough to sit in. If it's not raining, make an afternoon of it. Take a blanket and a picnic and, when the den is ready, you can sit inside and enjoy a sandwich and a mug of hot chocolate.
If your children are little, and not quite up to shifting big bits of wood, tell them the elves and fairies would like a new house instead. Help them to gather twigs and fern leaves, then build a little structure. They'll love knowing that the woodland folk have somewhere cosy to sleep for the night.
Blackberries can remain in abundance until the middle to end of October, so take your bucket and pick just enough to make a crumble. Back at home, simply rinse the blackberries, pop them into a pan with some caster sugar (taste it for sharpness and add more if you need to). Add a peeled, chopped cooking apple and a pinch of cinnamon if you have them.
Now cook on a medium heat for about 15 minutes. The colour, and scent, is absolutely amazing, and the kids will love watching those berries cooking down, to be eaten warm with custard or ice cream.
A spot of gardening
Have your children enjoyed gardening through the summer? The colder weather doesn't mean the end of growing fun. Between October and December is the perfect time to plant garlic (and it's pretty hardy too). Pop along to your garden centre to get some growing bulbs – Early White and Purple White are ideal varieties.
Break the cloves up, and plant them in weeded, fertile soil, in a nice sunny spot. The small, rough, flat end of the clove should be at the bottom, pushed into the soil about 3cm down – the pointy end of the clove should be just below the ground's surface. Plant in a row at 10cm intervals.
The children can check the plants through the winter, and gently weed around them as they flourish. The garlic will be ready to harvest in spring or early summer.
Build an insect hotel
Did you kow you might have as many as 2,000 species of insects living in your back yard? While there are some pests we'd rather not make too comfortable, remember many of the other bugs and beasties are actually a huge help in terms of keeping those pests under control.
Bumble bees, ladybirds, woodlice and beetles – they all need somewhere to go when it's cold, so autumn is the perfect time to build an insect hotel (what with all the garden debris you might just be throwing out) and the children will love the idea of creating a special home for all the creepy crawlies.
You can use old branches and twigs, dried leaves, pine cones, broken or unused plant pots, bricks and tiles, bamboo tubes. Stacked together, these things will provide 5 star shelter for the your garden's inhabitants in the winter months. The RSPB has a great worksheet for more advice.