Muddy boots and hands-on heritage to broaden minds

National Heritage Week promotes much-needed freedom to explore for our overcossetted offspring


Overprotective parents are the butt of the joke in an advert released by St John Ambulance in the UK this summer that depicts a boy receiving a present of a “safety suit”.

Constrained by this elaborate, bubble-wrap outfit, he makes inept attempts to take part in various outdoor activities, ranging from kicking a ball to climbing a tree. The short video ends with the punchline: “You don’t need to wrap your kids in cotton wool: learn first aid for peace of mind.”

It’s funny but poignant because there’s a lot of truth behind the spoof. Children’s development is being stunted by the “surplus safety” attitude of parents and other adults – an approach that is, ironically, putting youngsters in more danger.

As the Norwegian professor of psychology Ellen Sandseter wrote in an issue of Child Links, published in 2011 by Barnardos: “An overemphasis on safety will put children at greater risk because they miss out on important experiences that enhance risk management.”

Sandseter studied the role of “risky play” in children’s development and found they had a sensory need to taste danger and excitement, while not necessarily being in actual danger. She identified six types of necessary risky play:

Exploring heights

Handling dangerous tools

Being near risky elements, such as fire or expanse of water

Rough-and-tumble play

Speed, for example cycling or skating at a pace that feels too fast

Exploring alone

The last, Sandseter stresses, is the most important, because they get to feel what it is like to be fully responsible for themselves. Yet this is the one children are probably most deprived of today.

Research by the Heritage Council of Ireland in 2010 found supervision to be the biggest barrier to children playing in “the real outdoors”. Parents’ reluctance to let them out of doors unaccompanied means they are just not getting out.


“Particularly for girls: boys have certain access, but girls are in close-down mode,” says Isabell Smyth of the Heritage Council. “It is something we are not addressing very well – that freedom to roam.”

We are very lucky in Ireland to have so many places that kids can be let off in relative safety, she suggests. Yet many children are not getting beyond the garden, school yard and supervised playgrounds and indoor play centres.

However, she admits she doesn’t know the answer. “We would be shot if we said ‘Drop your kids off and let them go wild and pick them up that evening’.”

Tracking lifestyle changes and looking at how to facilitate greater outdoor freedom for children is the aim of current research by the council, to build on its 2010 study, with the latest findings expected by December.

It is not enough to say to parents, ‘You need to get out more with your children,’ ” says Smyth. “We have to take it more seriously at Government and policy level.” While she welcomes signs of increased awareness in the early childhood education sector, she sees little evidence of it within the Department of Education and teacher-training colleges.

People are very conscious of the value of children learning technology but don’t see any benefit in children climbing trees, says Smyth. (That 2010 research found 40 per cent of those surveyed had never climbed a tree between the ages of seven and 11.)

“We are not conscious of the kind of skills that they learn in the outdoors: the kind of risks that they get to take and need to take, and that this kind of intelligence is of value.” She says research in the UK is showing increased injuries among older children who are not used to negotiating unstructured space.

Children are growing up in a very child-centred world now, she points out, with their immediate environment and activities geared towards them. Whereas in nature, the perspective is quite different. “They are a much less significant part of the bigger picture.”

The annual National Heritage Week, which starts this Saturday, encourages families to get out of their homes and explore our natural, cultural and built heritage. Co-ordinated by the Heritage Council, the diversity of events is striking, from rambles in the wild and pond-dipping in the bog to medieval fairs and battle re-enactments (see panel).

As this is the 20th anniversary of the UN International Year of the Family, the theme of National Heritage Week 2014 is “Family . . . generations exploring heritage together”. The National Museum, which is in the business of engaging people in heritage 52 weeks of the year, aims its workshops at intergenerational learning.

“We know that when adults are with younger people, they can talk about their experiences,” says Helen Beaumont, education and outreach officer at the Decorative Arts and History branch of the National Museum in Collins Barracks, Dublin. They may have memories that can inform their children, their grandchildren – and even the museum guide.

“There is research that shows children do learn more with adults supporting their learning.”

The Collins Barracks ‘Heritage Trail’ booklet was initially aimed at children but was redesigned to target whole families.

“We realised that when people are coming to museums, they are having a social experience and talking among themselves. Anything that we do should try to encourage more of that.”

Hands-on, object-based learning is a core element of the educational programmes at all four branches of the museum – the other three being Natural History on Merrion Street, Archaeology on Kildare Street and Country Life in Castlebar, Co Mayo – “and what distinguishes us over other cultural institutions”.

Before the permanent Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition which traces Irish military history from the 1550s to the 21st century, was assembled for Collins Barracks in 2007, they did a lot of market research into how the story should be told.

“What was very clear at that point was that families didn’t just want interactivity, they expected it. That is something that can’t be ignored anymore.”

One Sunday a month, Collins Barracks runs a drop-in, “hands on history” session at which there is table of objects that can be handled and discussed.

Where possible, the museum tries to give children genuine artefacts to handle, but sometimes replicas need to be used.

“There is research to show that it does make a difference when children handle original material – but replicas also play their part,” says Beaumont. For instance, Collins Barracks commissioned very authentic copies of shoes, corsets and women’s underwear that have proved great fun for children and for families.

Giving children experiences rather than a pile of information is the secret to engaging their interest, says Susan O’Donohoe, an education guide at the Burren National Park, which caters for school tours as well as more informal family events.

Sounds and smells

Pointing out sounds and smells works well too. “That is a really powerful way to teach; it goes in at so many other levels than just your voice,” says O’Donohoe, who was a Montessori teacher for 10 years.


She singles out insect hunts as the most popular children’s activity that they organise at the park. Children use nets to catch, identify and then release butterflies.

They also use pooters to suck up creepy crawlies (don’t worry, there’s no danger of the insect going near the mouth) into a jar, again to identify and study with a magnifying glass, before they are allowed to scuttle free.

Rather than just visiting the park’s information point in Corofin, 8km away, “the more that they are immersed in the actual park itself, getting out to experience the meadows, the trails and the lake, the better,” she says .

From May to August, a shuttle bus runs from Corofin to the national park seven times a day.

One of its Heritage Week events will be a mini beast hunt (booking required) on August 23rd and O’Donohoe will be leading a family birdwatch (no booking required) from Mallaghmore crossroads at 8am on August 30th.

Martina Butler, who works with the Heritage Council’s schools programme, says she is “astounded” by the lack of connection today’s children – even those attending rural schools – have with the outdoors. Based in Carrick-on-Shannon, she covers much of the northwest, presenting workshops that link in to the primary schools’ history/geography/science curriculum.

“What I feel I do is facilitate them to make that connection, to see what is under their feet – when they do, their excitement and interest is like an exploding bomb. They really go into the whole discovery mode, which is the kick of the job really.”

Teachers are enthusiastic about getting children outdoors but often lack the confidence to do it themselves, says Butler, who believes they could be better trained in this regard.

“The emphasis at the moment is on literacy and numeracy, which are very important, but other things get pushed aside.”

In her experience, what do children respond to? “Anything; once they are outside the door.” And Heritage Week is a great opportunity to get them out.

“It gives them the kick-start to start exploring and, hopefully, from that they will continue on.”

Selected highlights of free family events

The big dig The Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland hosts Archaeofest 2014 in Dublin’s Merrion Square on August 23rd, 11am-4pm. Try your hand at excavating, inspect weapons and watch Vikings in combat.

Medieval mischief Be guided on an exploration of Dublin’s lesser-known underground city, starting from the chapel in Dublin Castle, on August 27th, 4pm-5.30pm. Booking required.

Water, water everywhere A family open day at the Lifetime Lab in the Old Cork Waterworks on Lee Road, Cork, where there is an interactive exhibition and themed playground, will feature falconry, bubbles and magic shows as well as water rockets. Saturday, August 23rd, from 11am to 4pm.

Battle of giants Children can take part in a re-enactment of the legendary battle between Fionn MacCumhaill and the Scottish giant Angus, at the newly opened Lough Boora Discovery Park in Co Offaly on August 24th. There will also be interactive workshops, a kids’ zone, zorbing and archery for older children at the event, which runs from noon to 5pm.

Open house It’s Children’s Day at Áras an Uachtaráin on August 23rd, with tours from 11-30am-1pm and 2pm-4pm, from the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, and a visit to the Garda horses and working dogs afterwards. Strictly one adult per child and booking essential: email Meanwhile, there will be a free children’s tour of Castletown House, Co Kildare, every day of Heritage Week from 11am-11.45am.

Something fishy Galway Civic Trust has teamed up with Inland Fisheries to present a display of aquatic animals in the Fishery Watchtower, Galway, on August 29th, 10am-4pm.

Rock detective clubs Go to the Marble Arch Caves Visitor Centre in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, for a treasure hunt with a difference as you explore the family tree of plants dating back over 340 million years. August 24th, 11am-1pm and 2pm-4pm. Booking required.

Beat your drum Join 200 drummers on the Hill of Tara on August 23rd, 2pm-5pm – hand drums provided; suitable for age eight-plus.

Hide and seek Nature hunts are on the agenda at Co Mayo’s Céide Fields, near Ballina, for every day of Heritage Week, 10am to 5pm. The most extensive Stone Age monument in the world, it will be having its Family Fun Day on August 24th from 11am-5pm .

Bug hotel Help build a bug hotel to give all the local mini beasts a permanent home at Abbeyleix bog in Co Laois on August 30th, 2pm-4pm.

Within these walls Battle re-enactments, puppet shows, street entertainment and displays of traditional skills will be among the attractions at the Bandon Walled Town Festival in Co Cork on August 31st, noon-4.30pm.

Whale watching Join members of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group for All-Ireland Whale Watch Day on August 24th, 2pm-5pm, on 20 different headlands around the coast. Bring binoculars and note that there are no boat trips involved. See

For more details about these and hundreds of other events, see


Making an impression:  Visiting the National Print Museum

French-born Nico Hatron was impressed that his two older children were still, months later, talking about their visit to the National Print Museum in Dublin during last year’s National Heritage Week.

“It was really hands-on,” he recalls. “From the very beginning we were asked to do stuff and that is how we got the kids interested. It made an impact.”

Eleven-year-old Valentine and nine-year-old Kiran, being so-called digital natives, had no idea of how characters were put on paper in the past.

Hatron and his Irish wife, Fiona Hatron-Byrne, who live in Cabinteely in south Dublin, have been poring over the programme choosing what they will do this year – probably something relating to nature and animals, which the baby of the family, 19-month-old Harry, can enjoy too.

The week comes as a bit of a novelty at the end of the school holidays, points out Hatron, an IT manager, when parents may be running out of ideas for activities.

Families of all kinds are bound to find something in this year’s Heritage Week, from August 23rd to 31st, that stirs their interest. Indeed, once you trawl through the programme of about 1,600 activities, many of which are free, narrowing down your choices may be the problem.

However, while for some you can just turn up on the day, others need to be booked – which should be done sooner rather than later as demand is likely to be high.

You will find a county-by-county guide to everything that’s happening on

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