The school holidays started out with the best of intentions. I wanted to dodge the dreaded 'summer slide' where children's learning slips back because of time away from the classroom. There'd be the obligatory visits to the museums in South Kensington and craft activities in the galleries. And of course we'd join the Big Friendly Read, this year's library reading challenge promising a celebration of "mischief, adventure, friendship and more". We were all set up. I'd got it covered.
But now as the children settle back into school I can see that it was the time spent in the great outdoors where the children got their best lesson. And it's where I got mine too.
For a fortnight in August I joined three friends and their children in a remote coastal spot overlooking the sea. We were four mothers and seven offspring, one for each age between six and twelve. We came up with a couple of ground rules. The first was a commitment to healthy eating. There'd be no ready meals or filler snacks. The second involved the children handing over their screens. There'd be no access for the duration of our stay. There were grumbles at first as the kids adjusted to both detoxes - sugar and digital. However it didn't take long for them to get excited by carrot pops (peeled carrots) and anyhow who wanted the virtual world when we were surrounded by stunning sea and skyscapes, and at night star-studded skies. I identified my first Plough. "Look for the saucepan" my pal instructed the kids.
There was so much coastline to go around we often found we'd have a beach to ourselves. With little seaside development, there were no ice-cream vendors or candy rocks to tempt our charges. Dips in the sea sharpen the appetite. Our picnics were feasts and mostly made up of yesterday's suppers cleverly reworked.
The strands became their screens. Dragging toes across the sand, our children played noughts and crosses. They sculpted and dug. They set out on beach scavenges and returned with shells and bones -adornments for their sand people. A handful of wild seaweed topped a 2D model of a mermaid. Driftwood formed the perfect crutch for a fierce pirate. In rockpools they caught crab and shrimp. They filled their pockets with stones that glistened like gold nuggets when bathed in the sun. They stumbled on the remains of a beached baby dolphin and shark sacks, identified by our 11-year-old cub archaeologist. The sacks are also known as Mermaids Purses, a fact that delighted the girls as they embellished their models.
A tiny sardine was spotted washed ashore and struggling in a shallow sand pool. We watched the children work as a team as they figured out a route back to the sea and witnessed the jubilation as the waves reclaimed him.
One morning a bird crashed into the glass doors of our house and lay on the patio stunned. We left out seeds and water and then stood back to watch the bird find its bearings, rest, make a few failed attempts to fly before soaring to our applause.
We set out on walking routes that circled the sea. We passed donkeys, sheep and cattle. The boys got beyond excited when we found the bleached carcasses of farm animals. They wanted to take them with us and they shared out the weight of an ox skull and rib cage, looking every bit like characters that stepped out of Lord of the Flies. Until the next distraction relieved them of their haul.
There was much cheering with the discovery of ripe blackberries growing on briars behind the house. T-shirts were stained purple and bulging with the berries they'd found. We had their stewed bounty for pudding later. They went picking again the next evening. This time we made pastry together and they baked their own pies.
Without the constraints of a classroom or the pressures of assessment each child's personality had the space and platform to shine. We dipped into the talent pool amongst the adults too as all of us offered something of ourselves to our party - journaling, felting, yoga and meditation.
My son didn't complete the summer reading challenge after all but it's ideals became our holiday anthem. We had a summer where we got to celebrate mischief, adventure and friendship, just not in the pages of a library book. We returned to start the school year truly replenished and refreshed committed to carry a little of our simple living back into our daily lives.
We had learnt that by switching off we tuned into the wonder around us and the resources within us. This is one lesson that's not on offer in the classroom.
Marie-Therese blogs on http://mahoganysoup.com/