Guest blog by Jess McVicar, RSPB NI Youth and Education Manager

Finding stuff to do with small children over the weekend isn’t always easy. Last Saturday I was negotiating a scuffle over a particularly popular toy when I realised what I needed to do - something that keeps my two boys occupied, happy and active without a huge amount of planning or expense. The answer was, of course, getting them outdoors!

My four-year-old likes nothing better than exploring with a few natural ‘props’ for imaginative play, while the 15-month old can amuse himself playing with leaves, pebbles and sticks for at least double his usual attention span.

Now that January’s here we’re spending time together getting ready for the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. This citizen science initiative is a chance for everyone to help nature by donating just one hour to count the birds and other wildlife in their gardens. You don’t need any previous experience and the data gathered provides a vital health-check of the wildlife that makes its home in your local area.

My older boy can now understand about the different birds he sees in our garden, and also appreciates how hard it can be for a bird to find something to eat. Each weekend in January we’re thinking up a new menu and getting outdoors to set the table for our feathered friends!

It includes a mix of food sources like seeds, peanuts, sunflower hearts and suet balls to help them keep their energy up during cold weather. These can be bought in most supermarkets, garden centres and pet shops. They can also be made at home – a great activity for little hands! Get the recipe here. Kitchen leftovers like mild grated cheese, cold potatoes, apples and pastry scraps will also go down a treat. More tips and advice can be found on the RSPB website here.

Last weekend we added in a mini scavenger hunt. My one-year-old helped by getting leaves and sticks, and then focused on sorting and piling them. His big brother was tasked with spotting different colours and shapes of leaves and finding different berries and foods available in the garden. It’s only a small patch of grass with some shrubs and hedges, but it’s enough to provide us with a space to keep them interested and connected to the natural world.

Our local park is also great for leaf hunts and collecting materials to build a bug hotel in the garden. We’ve even started spotting birds and working out what we see in the park that doesn’t come nearer to home.

A few weeks back we went further afield to the beach and, despite a freezing wind, everyone was happy for an hour piling pebbles and rocks and trying out the binoculars. For the first time the four year old was able to make them work and the excitement of a pre-schooler realising that he the ability to look at things far away (or even better, up close and HUGE) was hilarious.

So when I’m next stuck for an activity I’m going to take the simple route – coats zipped, hats on, out the door and let nature lead the way!

Big Garden Birdwatch 2017 runs from 28 to 30 January. Register for free now at Schools can also get involved right up until 17 February – head to to find out more.