Nature in the City

Copyright: <a href=''>hdesert / 123RF Stock Photo</a> 





 Iseult C O'Brien

Montessori Teacher & Supervisor   |   Volunteer Tutor 







Given a little crack in the pavement, a buddleia or a sycamore will struggle to the light!


I believe parents or carers should walk as often as possible with small children, from as soon as they can toddle along.  Daily walks are best.  These are part of the child’s playtime, exercise, education, and socialisation.  Few people have private gardens, especially in inner suburbia and inner city living, but that does not mean that all the rest of us should be denied the glory of Nature and the chance to share its beauty and wonder, and our knowledge of it, with our children.


Sometimes, in the busyness of life, we miss the obvious on our doorsteps.


 There is no need for rush, and trips with new walkers can be quite short to start with, but still full of interest and novelty.  When the walkers come to a tree planted in the pavement, it is likely there will be various weeds and wild flowers, running and crawling insects, worms, and flying insects, in and on the earth at the base of the tree.



The fuel emissions from most passing vehicles, which are discharged at around the height of a young child, have to be considered. Parents, Guardians, and Carers (PGCs) have to balance the level of harm to young children from fuel emissions against the benefits of wonder and learning, children experience on their walks around the neighbourhood.








This is an opportunity to stop and notice: to name colours, show petals and leaves, pointing out the different shapes and sizes to the child.  A small child is at a perfect height to have a very good look around this small patch of earth.  


Given enough time to get focused, the child will notice the smallest ants, the tiniest flower heads, as well as the bigger flowers ~ some dandelions can be huge!  PLEASE do not pick dandelion stems as the 'milk' inside is caustic and burns the skin!!  The child should have an opportunity to stroke the bark of the tree, and decide if it is smooth, bumpy, rough, or if it feels cracked. 



Listen carefully, block out the sound of traffic, can you hear birdsong?  Blackbirds have one of the most recognizable warbles of all songbirds.  Some birds, like blackbirds are often stay-at-homes. Red-winged Blackbirds in northern North America winter in the southern United States, as far as about 800 miles from their breeding ranges.  Southern and some western populations do not migrate at all. Flocks of migrating Scandinavian birds may arrive in Scotland and find food and milder conditions there.  However, harsh weather in Scotland may drive the hungry birds to fly farther south and some of them may arrive in your garden in Ireland to feed under a bird table or on the many Autumn fruits and berries that are still very plentiful. They may carry on to North Africa if Ireland is experiencing an unusual, very harsh, Winter.  



Most birds that migrate to warmer climates do so because their diet is of insects and nectar, neither of which is available in Winter.  Birds that live on berries and insects found in or under bark, are likelier to stay, if the Winters do not get too harsh.



If the family has a book on local flora and fauna, with colour photographs and sketches, which can be got at very reasonable prices, you can identify the bird and animal life, the insects, and all the trees, plants and weeds in your neighbourhood.   Weeds are only plants in the wrong place!




Neighbours and passers-by would be greeted by the PGCs which the child shall notice, and very soon, the pair will be greeted in turn by these new acquaintances.  The child is starting his or her general social interaction with these new people.



Children should be told from the first day, every day, as they get ready to go outside, that they can look at things around them, ask any questions, but never to pick something up off a pavement, from the grass or ground of a playground, a park, or from a puddle, pool, or stream, be it an naturally occurring object, or man-made. 



A simple explanation that there are 'bad types of dirt' should be sufficient for the early years.  Discussions on germs and cuts, and the basics of first-aid, can be had later.  As long as a child is well aware not to pick up anything without pointing it out to the responsible adult first, things should go fine.



As soon as they get home, having washed their hands and taken a drink, the child and adult can take out chunky crayons and paper, and remembering what they saw, draw the flowers, leaves and insects, and the bark of the tree. 



This was a BIG adventure for a 12-18 month old child, and older.  He or she would be full of news of the walk and who they met, and have the drawings to show what was seen, to tell and show whoever comes in that evening.



As the child grows, he or she shall become a strong walker, fitter than many children of the same age.  Walks will become longer, opening new vistas, expanding experiences, and broadening the information base. 



From colours, the child will come to learn the names of the nettles, daisies, thistles, blue speedwell, dandelions, and buttercups, and will notice changes in leaf colour of the various trees in the neighbourhood, learn their names, and the types of trees.  



Collecting a personal choice of autumnal colours, shades, and shapes of leaves, can be brought home, and leaf rubbings done by the child with chunky wax crayons.  These varied leaves can then be stuck onto a sheet of paper by the child, and hung up on his or her bedroom wall, at approximately three feet / one metre above floor level, hopefully, put up beside the wax crayon rubbings.  


Go to this link to discover why leaves change colour in Autumn  








Such a child will be learning in a visual, aural, tactile, sensual, and intellectual way, about Nature in his or her world, and also learning a great deal more on a subliminal level.  The sensations felt on the face and hands, through the seasons, as the child interacts with weather and Nature, grows in strength, knowledge, and appreciation of beauty and the cycle of life, are gifts that are never lost or forgotten.





 Copyright: <a href=''>dzejmsdin / 123RF Stock Photo</a>




Due to people’s work commitments, which may now be more onerous, many PGCs are working and commuting longer hours than ever before.  Perhaps, outdoor trips are rare from Monday to Friday, although plans and preparations CAN be made in the evenings for what the family will do over the weekend.  



Anticipation is a GREAT part of the pleasure.


Examining the family's book on local flora and fauna, with colour photographs and sketches, before a planned trip, should help everyone learn what flowers or berries or nuts are in season, and family members can keep an eye out for these on their travels.



Children, from around 2.5 years upward, can be responsible for helping plan what shall be required for the weekend trip, collecting the equipment needed, and packing it in rucksacks / backpacks and other bags, one for everyone to carry, except for very small children. 



Paper, plus thick crayons for small hands, and whatever pens and pencils work best for older children and adults, should be gathered and bagged for the trip.



This is a useful part of developing planning skills and taking on responsibility.



On the day of the trip, the children shall need to pack a small bottle of plain water for each person, and plastic cups, or a large bottle of water to be carried by an adult; a mixture of semi-dried fruit, a banana each; paper tissues, biodegradable, non-perfumed, wipes, and perhaps a small tube of aloe vera gel or a small bottle of Pure Bergamot Oil (which has anti-bacterial, antibiotic, and anti-tetanus properties, and speeds healing), for cuts, scratches, and rub-burns; plus a bag for all the empty bottles, wrapping and other rubbish generated; which shall be brought home for proper disposal. The children shall learn, first hand, lessons on what material is recyclable, and what must go in the 'waste' bin and the 'compost' bin,  as they help unpack the bag when back home.



Each family member has food and drink likes and dislikes, and it would be a good exercise for children of around two-and-a-half years, and older, to consider these matters, and any other items they think may be necessary to add to the packing for the trip out.


This planning would be a serious matter for these children, and the reasons for their choices should be listened to, interest shown in their thought processes, and acknowledgement given to interesting or novel and useful ideas.






I believe that if parents and children get up early even ONE morning over the weekend, dress for the weather, no matter how chilly, and head to the nearest park, or just a small piece of green space, whatever is available, a great many wonderful things can happen!


They would greet the people they pass in their neighbourhood on the way to the greenness, having a good snoop in gardens and window boxes en route. 


A smallish green space can become a Continent, viewed with an open mind, getting down to ground level! 


Adults and children examine the terrain, noting rocks and stones, puddles, grasses and old seed heads, berries, shrubs and plants, the odd tree, old blossoms, seed pods, worms and worm casts, ants, slugs, snails, spiders and their webs, beetles, evidence of bird activity ~ everything audible and visible! 


Everyone can make personal rough notes or drawings, even the youngest will have their offerings.






The London Plane tree is widely considered to be the world's most reliable city tree.


The Littleleaf Linden "... the beauty of the plant, its perfume, its pugnacity, have made it a city choice for generations ... long enough to become an urban fixture throughout much of the United States and Europe."  An allee of littleleaf lindens or Unter den Linden is famous in Berlin.

The Norway Maple  "The very shade that endears the tree to some planters is bad news to others ... The resulting shade can seem as refreshing as a forest glen or as sombre as a Norwegian Winter - even menacing, depending on temperament or the neighbourhood situation."

The Green Ash "... even these most common street ashes have their charms. The leaves grown fern-like, almost feathery, allowing dappled sunlight to reach the grass or espresso drinkers below."



The Horse Chestnut and Chestnut trees are very common on urban streets around Ireland.  Many people do not like spiders in the house, and as the weather gets colder they are inclined to come indoors.  A good way of keeping spiders out is to collect conkers and leave them in bowls around windows.  Spiders do not like the smell of conkers!  If you have dogs, please take care, as some react badly to eating conkers. 



Another way to use them, which could involve the children, would be to use an awl-type needle and bore a hole through the centre of the chestnut, and then string the conkers on strong thread or ribbon, spacing them by a few inches and knotting the thread under each conker.  These could be hung by a loop beside windows in bedrooms, or beside the back and front doors.



Some children are unhappy at the prospect of a spider in their bedrooms, having an anti-spider hanging beside the window would surely lead to more peaceful nights in bed.



The Irish Yew can be seen growing in many graveyards up and down the Country.  There have been studies done on it and it proves to have anticarcinogenic properties ~ unique to the Irish Yew!  



Cherry Blossom trees are another favourite planting in urban housing developments around the Country, although their lifespan is only around 25 to 30 years, they blossom in the Spring, Summer, and Winter, and bring great pleasure.



A list of your common city and urban trees and plants, giving your climate type, would be very welcome, so that I can include the information in updates of this Post.


The above information in lime green was sourced at


The most exotic plants can thrive in a city centre because the temperature of a city is usually a couple of degrees higher than the surrounding environment, due to pollution and light levels.




When buddleia was first brought to Europe by plant hunters, it was kept in glass-houses as it was thought to be very delicate.  In fact, it is a great addition to almost any wayside piece of land, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, and it is a beneficial pollinator. The bushes are known as "The Butterfly Bush", and have conical flower spikes that bloom in intense hues of pink, orange, red, and purple, throughout the Summer.  They will grow on any bit of rubble strewn land ~ so much for delicate!



On arriving home, all can peel off and put away their outdoor wear, wash their hands and have a favourite drink.



THEN, everyone gets down on the floor with cushions and a very large piece of paper spread flat, on which they draw their Map, including everything they saw and noted.  With the help of the family book on local flora and fauna with colour photographs, identifications can be made, and lore and medicines used in the past, from some of the plants, can be investigated, along with the life cycles of insects and spiders, and any other creatures observed. 






Here are some of the most ordinary, and frequently found weeds and wild flowers, and some of their uses. 


Nettle is probably one of the commonest weeds of all, and the water drained and cooled, from the young leaves simmered, is used as a calming lotion for skin, and especially for the face. (The young shoots are picked in Spring to make a tonic, and used as a vegetable. The leaves are very nutritious, containing Vitamins A and C, plus appreciable quantities of iron, and other minerals ~ of value in anaemia.  With a high Potassium content, it is markedly diuretic.*)  In the past, families would go foraging for the new, fresh, nettle leaves, knowing them to be of nutritional benefit.  People would have made it through a harsh Winter, and needed to be built-up.


If you get stung by a nettle leaf, look around for dock leaves, they are a thick, broad, spear-shape, with a rough outline to the leaf.  Rub dock leaves on your nettle sting(s) until the pain subsides.



Dandelion milk was used to cure warts, and the whole plant was boiled to be used as a kidney rinse. Young dandelion leaves can be used in salads or cooked as a vegetable (dandelion leaves and roots are a rich source of Potassium, as well as being diuretic *).  They taste best when they are young, before the plant has blossomed.  Wine is made from the flowers.  A hot infusion of the whole of the common thistle was used as an herbal steam for treating rheumatic joints.  Milk thistle grows easily on waste ground, self-seeding. (The seeds are collected in late Summer, when mature. It is used in protecting and supporting liver function and liver cell regeneration; it is being shown to be a significant treatment for Hepatitis A in blind trials.*) 


The entire plant of the creeping buttercup is an analgesic and rubefacient ~ makes the face red if applied to its skin, an early form of blusher!  A poultice of the chewed leaves was used in the treatment of sores, muscular aches and rheumatic pains.


Be wary, the common buttercup is toxic!



Photographs can be added to the Map. As the seasons change, so will the material to be discovered.  Even in a temporary puddle, frogspawn can be found in the middle of a very big city!  



Perhaps a separate Map might be made for each season.  Broken branches, found on the ground, can be brought home to do bark and leaf rubbings.  In season, seed heads can be gathered and opened at home to examine the seeds.  Have you ever played conkers?



Engaging with Nature in a city is not expensive, everyone can get involved no matter how young or old.  This is a way for a family to discover the world of Nature in their neighbourhood, to learn together, while relaxing in each other's company.  These weekend expeditions can be both silly and serious.  Children get to spend time working and playing with their family and strengthening their sense of belonging.  And what an antidote to a stressful working week it is getting right down and counting the spots on a ladybird?!  



These days feed the family’s imagination, on their privately discovered Continent, leading the way to bigger expeditions as the children grow.




Regards, Iseult

Iseult C O'Brien



Please also see the Companion Post ~

"Children's City Life"



If you have any comments, positive or negative, I should welcome hearing your views.  If you find any errors or wish to disagree with any of the above, please let me know.



If I quote a person, group, organisation, or establishment, I do my very best to source the material quoted, and to attribute it properly.  If I cannot satisfy myself I have found the author or speaker who voiced a quote, I resist using it, no matter how tasty a bite!  If I refer in passing to views expressed by others, I attribute the views even if they have not been given verbatim in the text.


I work on a basis of goodwill and good intentions.  I shall make errors, being human, and when I do, I apologise now, and should always welcome a correction, which I would insert in the relevant Post prominently, in clear unambiguous text and type, repeating the apology. That's is the best I can do!


My photograph of pure white May cherry blossom in the grounds of the Stroud Museum, Gloucestershire, England.