Remember you can still go out after school even if it is dark!
Deep in the darkened woods a group of excited ten-year-old boys wandered along a path, restrained by a slight fearfulness about what might be out there hiding among the trees. Heightened senses heard the hoot of an owl, the bark of a muntjac deer and soft rustlings among the undergrowth, and as their eyes adjusted to the darkness they discovered they could easily follow the pale chalky track winding through the trees. When they emerged onto an open meadow they even spotted some tiny glowing lines in the grass – later identified as the luminous secretions of centipedes. This was not an organised field trip – it was a birthday party; Jake and Edward had insisted that they wanted a night expedition and camping trip and not a trip to the cinema. Many of their friends had never been out in the woods at night, never camped in a barn and never toasted marshmallows round a campfire; it was a night that will stick in their memories for a long time.
Darkness transforms the natural world into a different place; for some children it is a time of excitement and discovery but for others it is sinister and scary. Yet darkness itself is not something to be fearful of – and by helping children to discover the mysteries of the night they might come to enjoy all the adventures it has to offer.
Night walks are perhaps most exciting in the late spring and the summer, when you might spot all sorts of creatures which lie low during daylight hours; the best time to spot wild mammals is just as darkness falls. You may not even need to go far from home; my children stood outside the door of their grand-parent’s house one night to watch as hundreds of pipistrelle bats poured from a crack in the roof, rushing off for a night’s hunting. Or think on a smaller scale and use a torch to investigate a tree stump, an anthill or even a patch of your garden to find out what little creatures are about.
Away from light pollution, the night’s lights can shine through more clearly; when Jo and her family were in the Lake District one winter, they ventured out on a walk on a cold clear night. At first the children were reluctant to leave the comfort of the roaring fire for a cold dark tramp, but once outdoors they were transfixed by finding moon shadows. Soon everyone began leaping around trying to make their shadows climb on top of each other’s heads – and the shadows were transformed into wolves and other imaginary beasts of the forest! It was a night they all remembered for a long time.
To really appreciate the stars or the moon on a clear night, go out to an open space with as little manmade light as possible – perhaps on a grassy hillside or at the beach. Try lying on the ground like the spokes of a wheel with heads together to share the night sky. Pass round some binoculars to get an even better view of the constellations or the surface of the moon. See if you can spot any shooting stars – and don’t forget to wish on them!
Not all night lights are up in the sky; at about 11.00 one summer night we took our children to a nearby hillside; scattered among the grasses were hundreds of pinpricks of green light. These were glowworms, and when I put one in my hand the children looked in amazement at the caterpillar-like creature lighting up my hand with its glowing abdomen. Try searching for glowworms in rough and unimproved grassland areas from about two hours after sunset on warm, dry summers nights.
Light can be used to attract moths; this simple moth trap will allow closer investigation of these fascinating and beautiful creatures.
Here are a few ideas for games to play after dark – many are suitable all year round, even on those cold dark evenings after school in winter!
Bat and moth
- About 10 people are needed for this game, and a couple of blindfolds.
- One person is chosen as bat and another as moth, the rest form a reasonably tight circle around them
- The bat wears a blindfold, and seeks to find the moth by echolocation; he does this by calling out the word “bat” to which the moth has to reply “moth”. The more frequent the calling out (or signals), the better picture the bat will build up of the moth’s whereabouts.
- The bat needs to listen carefully and to concentrate if he is to catch his prey
- The people in the circle do not provide any assistance other than helping the blindfolded bat to stay within the circle.
- Once the bat has located and caught his moth, other children can have a turn at the game.
- The game can be made more complicated by having more than one moth at a time.
Try setting a rope trail through the woods during daylight hours – bring the children back after dark and get them to hold the rope and follow the trail. Make sure there is an adult ready to meet them at the end of the trail.
Glow stick tracking
Available at some toyshops, from the Natural World shops or the Internet, glow sticks are ideal for night games. Try laying a trail using glow sticks placed in trees; children follow the trail collecting the glow sticks as they go. This has been highly popular at several outdoor parties.
Best played in a woodland clearing on a dark night, this game encourages children to use their listening and stalking skills. One child is given a torch and blindfolded; the others are stationed in a circle around him and have to creep up on him by crawling as quietly as they can. If he hears anything he shines his torch towards the sound – if it falls on another player they have to go back to where they started. The game ends when the blindfolded child is captured.
Night time capture the flag
This is an exciting game in the light, but played at night can really get children’s adrenalin going! Best played in scrubby grassland, the game’s aim is to raid the other camp, steal their flag and return it safely to base. Split the children into two groups, tell them to choose a base camp and give each team a flag. Absolutely no torches are allowed – except the adults who keep to the ground in the middle to collect any lost soldiers!
for adventures after dark In order to make night time adventures enjoyable and safe for everyone, we suggest that you do the following:
Before you go
- Plan your route – only take children for night walks along routes you are familiar with; even a well-known path can seem exciting and new at night.
- Timing – choose your time depending on what you wish to see – dusk is best for mammals, but real darkness is better for star gazing.
- Suitable clothing – encourage the children to wear dark, non-rustling clothes and sensible soft-soles footwear.
What to take with you
- Torches and spare batteries – but try to encourage the children to switch torches off and use their night sight!
- As an alternative to torches, make your own tea light lanterns by attaching string to a jam jar to make a handle. Decorate the jar with coloured tissue paper for a festive effect.
- A picnic and a warm drink
- A simple first aid kit
Make sure everyone stays close together; try to have an adult at the front and at the rear of the group. We have found that even a rowdy group of 12 year old boys will calm down considerably once released into the darkness of the nigh, and even the most macho will not want to be the last in line.
- If you are anxious about keeping an eye on the children, give them each a fluorescent armband or attach a glow-stick to their clothing.
- Children holding candle lanterns should be carefully supervised
- Always leave a place as you found it
copyright Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield October 2008