Over the years I’ve read many books that encourage children and parents to explore the outside world together. I’ve become quite cynical as they often require specialist equipment or assume you live in a remote location.
The latest book to encourage outdoor exploration is called Dadventures. It was penned by rower Alex Gregory MBE, a formidable character with two Olympic gold medals and several world records to his name after attempting to row south to north across the Arctic Ocean, not to mention being a five-time World Champion.
Gregory doesn’t just deal with the challenges of rowing, he also faces the challenges of raising a family and has three young children; Jasper, Daisy and Jesse with his partner Emily. Having taken a good look at Dadventures, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to speak to Gregory and ask him about the book and what inspired it.
I asked whether he noticed his kids were spending too much time in front of screens, Gregory gave a very candid response, one most modern parents will relate to.
“The inspiration for the book came from a number of different areas. Firstly I have written about the things that I loved to do as a child, the strongest memories I have from a very young age all involve activities outdoors so it was the most natural thing for me to focus on. My thinking was that if I had those precious, meaningful memories made outdoors then others probably would too!
“We have busy lives. As parents of three young children, Jasper, Daisy and Jesse, time is not always our friend. It’s impossible to devote all our time to all of them, so when Daisy woke me up at 4.30 am one morning as a 2 year old and asked to watch Pepper Pig on my phone, I knew we had let this get too far out of hand. Daisy had become reliant and addicted to the screen, it was a wake-up call.
“From that moment on we made sure we worked harder on making time and doing the best we could at balancing up screen time with something outdoors. Screens have become the easy option, but rarely the best option. We have fallen into that trap and continue to do so, but being aware I think is important here. I would also like to say that I’m not advocating total removal of screens. Our children do need to be able to easily navigate this connected world, it’s a skill and an understanding that is becoming ever more important, but I think they also need to continue to be in touch with the natural world as that is the first thing that will be lost.”
Gregory goes on to talk of the lack of time he had available to spend with his family. In Dadventures, he is honest about the pressures of balancing family life with being an elite athlete. He did, for instance, miss two of kids’ births and had never experienced the simple pleasures of a weekend away with the family. Was lack of time also an inspiration for the book?
“Time has always been precious to us as a family as I would spend weeks throughout the year away. Weekends didn’t exist as training was a 7 day a week necessity in rowing so those small pockets of time together we had were incredibly important. I’ve always been aware that what I was doing wasn’t that uncommon for working parents. Some have it much worse than I did, so I was becoming more and more interested in sharing ideas on how to make the most of this precious time in healthy, informative, memory making ways.
“Once I retired from Rowing after crossing the line in the Olympic games in Rio, suddenly we had far more time available. Weekends became an opportunity to do everything we had wanted to do before but couldn’t, and for me a way to try to re-create with my children some aspects of the wonderful outdoor childhood I had been lucky enough to have. Dadventures is a personal look into my childhood memories and our family life now.”
For me, the unique selling point of Dadventures is its accessibility. It’s written in a very free-flowing style. The suggestions are very down to Earth and, with a few exceptions, can be replicated in rural and urban environments. Did Alex go our of his way to ensure the activities would appeal to people living in both town and country?
“The activities in this book are all supposed to be enjoyed outdoors, whether that’s in a garden, on a balcony, in a local park or in the wilderness. I have tried to make as many of them as I can accessible and available to those living in urban environments, but some are certainly easier done in more rural settings.
“This book is not one to follow by the letter, the intention is that it sparks ideas that can be adapted to meet the needs and location of the reader. The requirements of some of the activities do mean that urban dwellers may have to travel a little further to do some of them, for example find a suitable tree to climb or a river to float a raft down, but the hope is that there is something for everyone!”
There are fun ideas such as reading somewhere unusual and also educational ideas such as cloud spotting. The book is split into eight chapters ranging from After School Adventures and 30-minute activities to Overnight adventures. Having asked what inspired the book and what readers can expect when they turn the pages, I ask simply why Gregory wrote Dadventures.
“Dadventures has been bubbling away inside for years, but as with many things in life the opportunity arose to actually put pen to paper through a conversation one afternoon over coffee! The concept was easy to come to because, really, it’s what I’m interested in and most enjoy doing – spending time outdoors with my family. I haven’t made anything up in this book so the words came easily. The reason behind the book is slightly more complex however.”
“The book is designed to be picked up, taken out and used. It’s hopefully a source of inspiration for families to enjoy. It is divided up into 8 chapters, each of which is filled with activities to be done together outside depending on the time they have available to them. After school adventures, half-day experiences and overnight expeditions for example. Nothing in there is expensive, nothing has to work perfectly, people can pick and choose what they do and adapt the ideas to suit their lives. More than anything the point is to step out the front door with a plan, make the effort and hopefully make some wonderful lasting memories together.”
I raise the issue of gender neutrality. I have noticed that many similar books are written for boys and yet with two daughters of my own, I am a firm believer that exploration of the outside world and adventuring are activities that appeal to both genders. I put it to Gregory, a father of two sons and a daughter, that Dadventures shines out because of its gender neutral approach.
“I love it that you have noticed that this book is gender neutral, I thank you for saying it and in all honestly gender never once crossed my mind in writing it. I want everyone and anyone to feel as though they would like to try and are capable of doing everything in this book.
“Gender doesn’t matter with these activities, it’s irrelevant, anyone can do anything. In our family sometimes it’s extremely difficult to tell the difference between my daughter and my sons, at times none of them conform to stereotype and I think that’s wonderful. Other times they absolutely do!
“This book is simply about providing opportunity for outdoor experiences and giving families a chance to spend time and make memories together. I should also mention the title here, it’s called Dadventures purely because I am a dad and this is what we do. This book is for dads, mums, aunties, uncles, big brothers, big sisters, grandparents and carers. Anyone who would like to try something fun, healthy, different and make a memory together outdoors.”
With his sporting background, I can’t help but deviate for a moment from Dadventures. I ask if Gregory has any advice for parents with children who are talented sports people. His response was very telling; be encouraging but patient.
“I would say to parents with children with a love for a sport encourage when encouragement is needed, stand back when you need to stand back, don’t push them into anything they don’t want to do. It must all be about enjoyment when your child is young. Find ways to positively keep them going when their interest wavers.
“I used to swim as a youngster, I took it seriously from a very early age. I don’t ever remember my parents making me go, telling me I should or pushing me into doing anything. They would endlessly drive me to the pool without question, without fail. It become the norm for me, so as a 17 year-old when I took up Rowing seriously that routine and the transition into the sport I ultimately pursued to the top, was natural.
“Patience is also key. Looking back, there were always people far better than I was. It must have been disheartening to my parents for all the effort they were putting and I wasn’t winning anything. Parents must be patient and let their children develop and find their own way in their sport. They won’t make lasting changes if they are told.”
Dadventures is published by HarperCollins and will be widely available from 31 May, in time for Father’s Day. It has a cover price of £12.99 so is ideal for the gift market.
I can’t stress enough how accessible Dadventures is. Most of the ideas within it are incredibly simple and I think they should be tackled with a “who cares?” attitude. If your attempts to track animals go awry, so what? Just have fun together!
I will be sitting down with my kids in the weeks to come and choosing some activities to attempt. The suggestion you should find somewhere creative to do your homework definitely appeals and I suspect we will end up sat in a tree practicing spellings and doing mathematics. With the summer holidays just a few weeks away (yes people, they are just a few weeks away) we may try some of the more involved activities such as spending a night in a hammock or making a raft.
I leave the last word to Alex, who goes into more detail about the inspiration for the book. It seems the prospect of dying a cold, lonely death in the Arctic Ocean made him appreciate the time he spends with his family. I find it hard to believe a character like Gregory will turn his back on adventuring completely, but his attempts to cross the Arctic Ocean seem to have made him re-evaulate his priorities.
“While floating somewhere in the Arctic ocean in the middle of a storm, many days away from anywhere in any direction, certain death if we were to capsize our tiny ocean rowing boat I was curled up, wet through in the three foot by three foot cabin. I wrote a last note to my family on my phone just in case we didn’t make it.
“I didn’t send it, but hoped they would discover the words when the boat was salvaged one day by a passing vessel or found washed up ashore. I realised then that my kids didn’t care if I was being a brave Arctic explorer doing something that no one had ever done before, they didn’t care about records or personal discovery, all they cared about was time at home with me, having a bike ride, camping in the garden or cooking marshmallows over the fire.
“The most precious thing we have is time, and with young children that beautiful time is finite. Thankfully I made it back home safe with my fellow crew mates. We had a risky but wonderful expedition across the Arctic ocean with some stories to tell and records to note, but any time I have now, I know I must spend on smaller adventures that will create happy lasting memories with my children.”