The Future of the National Trust... one little Bug at a time

In September, my youngest will be starting primary school. The last 4 and a bit years have flown by; to be honest, I can’t remember his first 9 months, a newborn and a toddler is a bit full on as I’m sure some of you know! However once we were in a routine and my eldest, Oscar had started school, we found some time for ourselves.

Now I’ve been to quite a few toddler classes. I'd say pretty much most of the ones in our area.. from sport to music to art, we're up for trying new things and meeting new people. But the class we’ve absolutely loved the most, hands down, has been Box Hill Bugs.

When Oscar (now 6) was little, a walk in the park to feed the ducks was a much outdoors as I did. Before I had children, I had never really been the ‘outdoorsy type’, and with a little one, it was always easier to do playdates indoors or at soft play cafes. Yet the more I read about raising children, and that exploring outdoors was so very beneficial to them, the more I realised that I needed to try and embrace the countryside we're blessed with here in the Surrey Hills. So when I saw a post on a local parents’ group recommending a group that was run by the National Trust on Box Hill with 45 minute sessions and a café for a coffee afterwards, it sounded the perfect solution. Little did I know how much of an impact that it would have on the both of us.

I remember our first session vividly. After singing the welcome song ‘Box Hill Bugs are we’ (when we discovered that the little ones are fondly called ‘Bugs’) we went on a short walk, and found a worm on the pathway. Encouraged to be inquisitive, and gentle, the worm was examined, segments counted, and when Benjamin asked to touch it, he was encouraged to hold it! I was so surprised when his little face lit up with wonder as he held the little worm in his hands, that I realised I needed learn to put my squeamishness aside, embrace my wellies and waterproof coat and help his little spark to shine. And consequently, I signed up that day for annual National Trust membership too.

Box Hill Bugs is run by the amazing NT staff and volunteers, and over the years they have created a syllabus suitable for toddlers that covers all of the nature that we can see around Box Hill. From nocturnal or hibernating animals, to birds and their different birdsong, the lifecycle of butterflies and the bug food chain, to spotting flowers, identifying leaves and trees and even different types of bumblebees, everything is explained in a way that the children love. And usually with a song… we have fond memories of everyone singing ‘I’m a Nut’ at the top of their voices in the autumn. We’ve played in piles of leaves pretending to be hedgehogs, fallen face first into muddy puddles and come out laughing, we’ve learnt how bees do a ‘waggle dance’ to show other bees where the best flowers are, we’ve made wooden wind chimes, and even competed in the ‘Bug Agility’ obstacle course (after being given a brilliant demonstration by both Catherine and Abbi of course!) The freedom of the open space and fresh air is so inspiring for little minds, their enthusiasm and concentration for their task despite their young age is absolutely wonderful to see. The 45 minute sessions go by so very quickly, and we leave every week with brains buzzing, grubby hands, rosy cheeks and big smiles.

Our time at Box Hill Bugs has also had a rather a significant impact on me too. I’ve always loved photography (especially people) and since starting Bugs, I’ve turned Professional Photographer. Spending time outdoors with the children has been so very inspiring, seeing the way the light filters through the trees and long grasses is so magical that I now specialise in outdoor family portrait sessions. I adore capturing families exploring the great outdoors together, as I create for them some beautiful portraits to be cherished for years to come. Who would have thought that a weekly toddler group would go on to play such an important part in our lives?!

I have to say that a huge part the spirit of Box Hill Bugs is down to the amazing sense of play under the leadership of Catherine; her love of theatre always can always be seen in our sessions, whether it’s the way the story is read, encouraging the children to lead the way on our weekly adventures or taking the time to explain the answer to a little one’s question, she instils wonder in us all.

But I think the most important thing that these little ones are learning at this young age, is respect. Respect for our wildlife, for our flora and fauna. Respect for the creatures that live around us, built on what they have learnt about them. For instance to look at a butterfly, but understand not to touch it’s fragile wings. Benjamin is now brilliant at rescuing snails and worms that are wondering across the pathway on the way to school, gently picking them up and putting them safely in the bushes so they don’t get trodden on or run over. And he’s amazing at ‘looking after’ all of the spiders that we find around the house, freeing them back outdoors where they belong (what I really mean is it is an awesome solution to my fear of spiders!!) I believe that because these children are growing to love nature and their woodland playground, they will be more respectful of them as they grow up, and want to spend quality time there, which can only be a good thing for the future National Trust.

Box Hill has quickly become one of our favourite places to spend a day during the holidays. Often with a picnic and some friends, the kids can run, jump and climb until they’re worn out. We’ve spent hours on the play trail, and the boys are now big enough to build dens, which is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. As National Trust members, it’s one of the cheaper options for a day out, so there’s some

money left over for coffee and cake, or even better, an ice-cream.

So now, as Ben and I come to the end of our last term, we’re incredibly sad to be saying goodbye to our beloved Box Hill Bugs. So many wonderful memories made, and some life skills learnt by the both of us… so much more than I could ever have hoped for from a toddler group. Benjamin is so taken now with animals now that he’s told me at the age of 4 that he wants to be a Vet when he grows up. We’ll still come back for the activities for older children during the school holidays hosted by Catherine and the team, so fingers crossed they continue in the future.

So if you live in Surrey and have a little one who is walking and has a sense of adventure, give Box Hill Bugs a try. And if you’re wondering what impact a toddler group has on the future of the National Trust, I recon it’s a clear pathway to securing support for many years to come… one little Bug at a time.

With love, Rachel xx

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Rachel Thornhill ABIPP ASWPP LMPA  - Beautiful story-telling photography and stunning wall art for fun loving people, Rachel is an award-winning professional portrait Photographer based in Lower Kingswood / Tadworth, Surrey, UK.    Tel: +44 (0)1737 244745     

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