Nature can’t compete with a shiny plastic car

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Larry, my two-year-old, and I are making a “hotel for minibeasts”. This is one of the improving workshops laid on by the council at our local park. Others include making tunnels out of living willow and building a loggery. According to the leaflet, such activities are beneficial for children as they “encourage risk-taking play and create a sense of connection to the natural world”.

Whatever that means, I’m all for it. It is freezing and tipping down with rain but Larry and I have donned our waterproofs and headed out to save east London’s stag beetle population from otherwise certain destruction. We join a small huddle of soggy mothers and their offspring under a tree and listen while our instructor, a Very Enthusiastic Lady, tells us what to do.

“Right, guys, this is our five-star mini - beast hotel!” She waves a nicotine-stained finger towards a wooden pallet, painted bright blue. I’m sure the paint must be toxic to one form of wildlife or another but it seems churlish to quibble. “We’re going to fill it up with lots of lovely straw, wool and other natural materials so those minibeasts can keep warm all through the winter.”

The Very Enthusiastic Lady has several jute bags filled with bunches of lavender, broken plant pots, sheep’s wool, straw and dried seed heads. We encourage the children to pick them up and put them into the crate. That takes about two minutes and nobody seems quite sure what to do next. The rain is intensifying from a light drizzle to a steady downpour.

“Hey, that’s great, guys. Just imagine how warm all those minibeasts will be in there!” Larry looks puzzled. He has no idea what minibeasts are, why they need to be warm or why he should care – if I’m honest, I’m also feeling a little hazy on the details. His eyes brighten momentarily when the Lady produces a large power drill and sets about screwing another pallet on top of the first.

“She’s like Bob the Builder!” he says, admiringly. One of the other small boys is standing a few yards away, his face pressed to a gap in the perimeter fence. Larry runs over to join him. What are they doing? I peep through the gap. On the other side is a back garden and on the lawn sits . . . a bright red, shiny, toddler-sized plastic car.

“Broom, broom,” says Larry. “Beep, beep.” I glance anxiously at the Very Enthusiastic Lady. Clearly this is not quite the risk-taking, natural-world-connecting play we are supposed to be encouraging.

“Come on, boys!” she says valiantly. “Let’s put another layer of lavender on top to attract the bees!” But, alas, it’s too late – we’ve lost them. “Don’t want to build a hotel, Mummy. I want to play on the broom-broom car.” The Lady smiles kindly at me and shrugs, in a so-this-is-exactly-why-we’re-all-goingto- hell-in-a-handcart way. She knows when her number’s up.

As we trudge back home through drizzle rapidly morphing into hail, Larry takes my hand and pats it comfortingly. Never mind. We’ll play nature another day.