Arthur and the Golden Rope by Joe Todd-Stanton

Arthur and the Golden Rope is the first of a series from Brownstone’s Mythical Collection. As I browsed the bookshop, I was drawn to the book by the style of the cover. It felt like I had stumbled upon an unfolding story that sucked me into its world of mythical beasts and unlikely heroes. I love this book.

Just taking in the delicious imagery in the book is a familiar pleasure. The colours are vivid and scenes so alive my brain automatically imagines the motion. The layers of endearing quirky detail tell their own little subplots. Each scene feels like a paused frame of an animation reminiscent of Miyazaki’s films.

The illustrations are so full of life I can see them move.

The hero on the cover looks like an ordinary child and I know my children will see themselves in the unlikely hero and play out his adventures in their own imaginary play. In his thought provoking talk on How Movies Teach Manhood, Colin Stokes compares movies for children today with The Wizard of Oz and observes that instead of just having one dimensional characters that predominantly fight to succeed, Dorothy makes friends with everybody and is a leader. Stokes asks, “Why is there so much Force — capital F, Force — in the movies we have for our kids, and so little yellow brick road?”

An adventure of pushing your mind and body to the limit, rather than a fight.

Our hero Arthur’s adventures aren’t about fighting. Arthur spends his time exploring the forest and getting to know the strange creatures who live there. He does a lot of problem solving, helping others and building relationships. He also tests his physical limits. He seems to spend a lot of time scaling great heights. By the time the story presents fighting as an option, you as the reader have already come to the conclusion that fighting is an incredibly limiting option and all the colour, humour and thrilling adventure happened because Arthur used his body and mind to follow his curiosity.

Achieving unsupervised outdoor nature play with a tiny deck

For four years I tried my best to engage and entertain the kids indoors with little to no access to the outdoors. We have mostly lived in apartments in cities with zero outdoor space and now a townhouse in suburbia with a tiny deck. I set up the house with plenty of invitations to play, created sensory bins and cardboard castles and organised lots of indoor playdates. But inevitably the kids had more energy to burn than I had to stimulate them and they became frustrated with the constraints of being supervised and told off for damaging things. I became frustrated too, equally trapped with nowhere to go when they wound me up and having to constantly clean the ever growing mess.

Recently, my cousin recommended Balanced and Barefoot by Angela J Hanscom who convincingly agues that children need outdoor nature play for most of their day. She explains in detail what unsupervised and unstructured nature play does for a child’s physical development, imagination, connection between nature, food and their bodies, concentration, self-motivation, emotional regulation and social skills.

This was a revelation to me. She was effectively proposing that we spend all day outdoors, arguing that the sensorial stimulation and movable objects in nature are the ultimate educational toys. Shortly before reading Hanscom’s book, I watched a Tedx Talk called “The decline of play” by psychologist Dr. Peter Gray, a researcher who studies play from a biological, evolutionary perspective. Hanscom echoed Dr. Gray, positing that children learn more from peers than adults. In fact, the more unsupervised time the better.

Hanscom and Dr. Gray had certainly inspired me but I had my reservations as to the achievability of their suggestions given our suburban lifestyle and my cluelessness about the Australian bush. Can we provide our wild things with access to nature for most of their day when we only have a tiny deck in medium density suburbia? I will write another post on how we tested these suggestions by venturing into the nature reserves and adventure playgrounds and how this impacted our lifestyle.

For now I will tell you about how we have been trying to bring nature into our tiny outdoor space…slowly and deliberately manually. Our 20 square meter deck and 2.5 square meter sandpit surrounded by rather stark high blueboard walls was not particularly inviting. But it is not meant to be an overnight showpiece like the TV shows promote. By keeping it manual we all get a bit of a workout, learn about nature and the kids get to play with the gardening tools. The space belongs to the kids as much as it belongs to us. So if they kill a plant in the course of their play we accept it and plant something else. My 19-month-old wild thing bare-rooted a plant so that she could eat the soil underneath. I am making my peace with this. But it still hurts a little. The flowers were so pretty in the upcycled fire grate.

My wild thing bare-rooted my beautiful plant so that she could eat the soil underneath!

Watering the plants with a metal watering can has been good for me. Every evening I lift and carry this heavy thing around the deck and build strength. I get an idea of how much water is wasted because the planter I am using is too porous. We could hook up an automated drip system and never step outdoors. But the kids join us outside as I water the plants and my husband feeds The Wise Old Elf, our vertical composting system. We invite them to help us. Sometimes they do with their kid sized gardening tools. More often though, they start their own imaginative play.

Our son lays pebbles with mortar or makes pizza dough with earth, sand and leaves. He carefully carries sand from the sandpit to the bench in his spade which is great for his balance and coordination.

A ladybird walks along the pebble path my son made.

Our daughter is also working on her balance and coordination by scooping the water from Atlantis, our self-sustaining ecosystem with fish in a water pot, and depositing it on the curry tree. We talk about the nitrogen cycle, how the fish poo is food for the plants, and how the plants make oxygen for the fish to breathe under water.

Our toddler is bent on terrorising the fish who heroically come to greet her despite her wild splashing.

My husband planted bulbs in winter and they sprouted in spring. Our son harvests strangely shaped carrots and is eagerly anticipating the potatoes. Both kids pluck the strawberries when they ripen. One weekend we learnt a little about companion planting when we realised we could plant the green beans seedlings under our dwarf lemon and lime tree. The green beans fix nitrogen to the soil which is useful for the citrus tree. They died though because our wild thing bare-rooted them!

The daffodils my husband planted bloomed while he was away. What a way to say I love you from afar!I'm still waiting for a chance to taste our strawberries before they are staffled by the wild things.

Inspired by a friend, we set out to make the kids a fairy garden. My husband is reading our son Enid Blyton’s Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree series so our older wild thing is captivated by the idea of little magic people and adventures in gardens. We bought a planter made from upcycled fence palings and filled it with compost from The Wise Old Elf. We let the kids fill it with whatever they choose.

story-gluttony-fairy-garden

I am so glad we followed our gut and chose a house that had an open plan kitchen and living room that opens out onto the deck. I can leave the screen doors open and allow the kids to do their own thing. I just keep a towel and basin ready to help them wash and dry when they are done. So even in our tiny outdoor space we have created the opportunity for unstructured and unsupervised nature play and it feels like a weight had been lifted since the wild things have been spending more time outside. I don’t have to be their constant source of engagement. And it’s been a break for them too. The less I supervise them, the less defiant they are. They are free to make decisions for themselves and go where their imagination takes them. They make less mess indoors because they are busy making a mess outdoors.

The size of the deck constrains the duration of their play though, so it is great for filling in time between activities of longer duration. Most of what we planted died in the hanging baskets because they dry out too quickly. We want to turn the bench into a raised garden bed to create a more productive space with deeper soil. There is so much more to do.

How we created a vertical composting system for our small outdoor space

At the beginning of 2016, the feeling the responsibility of being role models to our wild things (kids) seemed to weigh heavier than usual. So we decided to challenge ourselves and see if we could live our values. We started by focusing on our sustainability values. My husband and I used to claim we cared deeply for the environment, but I don’t believe sustainability was a deciding factor in our purchasing decisions. Could we really live as a middle class family in medium density suburbia in Melbourne sustainably without the luxury of plenty of disposable income or land…or time? Well, we were going to find out.

We started by swapping to reusable nappies. In fact, upon discovering the zero waste concept, I realised I could eliminate the need for wet wipes by making reusable ones that could be washed along with the nappies. This reduced the content of our landfill bin by about 70%. The remaining trash composed of organic food waste so we embarked on a quest to get to zero by changing what, where and how we bought our food (which is a topic for a different post) and taking responsibility for processing our food waste.

This was quite a challenge for us because we live in a townhouse with a 20 square meter deck and 2.5 square meter sandpit in the suburbs of Melbourne. We don’t have any earth to work with, we don’t have a lot of space to spare and I wanted to make sure we only used natural materials, so no plastic. I wasn’t sure how far I could live without plastic, but I wanted to find out.

Vertical composting system for small outdoor spaces.

I watched a video about food security and urban gardening in which the speaker said we shouldn’t wait for the experts to figure it out. Instead she encouraged her audience to start with open source technology, experiment and share our learnings with others so that they may build upon the body of work. I thought that was a great way to articulate what we were trying to achieve with our zero waste compost system. We lovingly called it The Wise Old Elf, after a character in one of our son’s favourite shows, and it was based on open source technology from India. The company is called Daily Dump. They created a compost system called the Khamba, using three stacked terracotta pots so the footprint is small enough to fit on the balcony of an apartment. Perfect for the small amount of space we had beside the sandpit. You can download the How To sheet here. You can put all your food waste into this system including meat. We added worms because they produce better compost for the garden. This system does not need any further investment or special bacteria that you have to keep buying.

How to make a vertical composting system

We took the kids with us when we bought the pots. Our son often helps my husband “feed” The Wise Old Elf. But it didn’t work perfectly from the start. It took months to get the ratio of dried materials to wet compost right. Eventually my husband discovered a place nearby where he could collect free mulch and that really helped soak up the moisture and allow the compost to breathe which, importantly, avoids anaerobic digestion. So no stinky smell and no release of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times worse than CO2.

My son getting up close to the wriggly worms.

Over time we found that we were generating quite a lot of compost. Production was bolstered by our shift away from packaged food to whole foods. We acquired a large terracotta pot that functioned as the fourth stage to our compost process where the compost could mature and be kept until we needed it for the garden. Since then the setup has been working really well for us.

Looking back at this process we realised we couldn’t kid ourselves that there are shortcuts to being a sustainable household. We are having to learn all about the inputs and the outputs of our household. What inputs are made from informs durability and how we manage waste, where inputs come from informs carbon miles and manufacturing/farming processes inform environmental impact and ethics.

Taking the lifecycle approach has meant commiting time and effort to sift through all the things we buy and consume. Conscious consumption is the antithesis of instant gratification! All of a sudden, the convenient food that we eat and the trendy clothes that we wear do not define us as busy, important and successful. Now we define what we want to put our time into, what we want to nourish our bodies and the type of impact we want to have on our world. Now when our son asks to buy a plastic or single-use item, we ask him how we should deal with it when it has reached the end of its life and he can use his experience with The Wise Old Elf to make a decision.

Unfolding before us is an ever expanding list of household sustainability projects to tackle as we learn about what it means to really live up to our sustainability values. Our garden could do with a bit more love. Our water consumption is troubling given the washing of reusable nappies and the constant ever increasing pile of dirty kids clothes and dishes. We are working on it.