Crazy About Conkers!

31 October 2013



Conkers are the seed of the horse chestnut tree and are currently available in abundance beneath horse chestnut trees in the UK, as September and October is the time of year when they fall from the tree and emerge from their prickly casing. Check out this guide to the horse chestnut tree, for those who don’t know where to look for these Autumnal treasures! This unassuming and plentiful harvest, which is traditionally the preserve of conker-smashing school kids , can also have used in other fun activities for children.  Here is a reminder about the rules for playing the traditional playground game of conkers if you want to introduce your children to the pleasures of wiping out their opponents Big One!

Before I start running through these ideas, there is another ‘old wives tale’ about using conkers to scare away spiders, which has an added relevance at the moment  as false widow spiders are regularly making the news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Folklore and old wives tales say that putting ripe conkers near windows and doorways and behind furniture, can help scare away spiders that attempt to head into our homes as days get colder.  Scientists dispute the accuracy of these claims, but say that it may be the case that as the horse chestnut is a foreign import, it may be less palatable to our native wildlife than indigenous tree-types.  To find out more about the theory read this.  All I can say, is, if you’re not keen on the prospect of sharing your home with a glut of eight-legged beasties, it can’t hurt to give the conker method a try, at worst, you may trip over a conker and do yourself a mischief…at best you could be enjoying  a spider-free Autumnal idyll!

If you would like to know more about ridding your house of arachnid invaders, we have written another article ‘Top Tips to stop the Autumnal Spider Invasion!’ and I have also come another useful article entitled ’14 Great Ways to Keep Spiders Out of Your House Naturally‘ , written by Tips Bulletin.

For those that want some alternative ideas to entertain and teach your little ones, here are some other things you can do with your conker collection:

1.     For arts and crafts with the kids.

There is a plethora of ideas about how the small, shiny and amber-hued conker can play a part in art and craft activities for little ones.  Some of the best can be found on my favourite website for kids activity ideas “The Imagination Tree” which has lots of do-able, fun and engaging activities of all kinds for parents to enjoy with their children – often using everyday or easily-sourced materials (such as conkers).  Here are some of their inspiring conker-crafts:

Rock and Roll Painting with conkers  A fun and active painting activity using conkers to rock and roll over the paper, rolling in paint to create unique and colourful abstract pieces of art.
Conker Spiderweb weaving –  A natural traditional Dutch Autumn weaving activity using a conker, a beechnut and some raffia.  The end result is a super-cute web-nest for one chosen part of your conker collection.

2.     Create an Autumn Nature Exploration Table

Children are always keen to collect and take home their natural treasures that they find whilst out and about.  I’m always finding feathers, acorns and particularly special stones thrust into my pockets as we go on any outdoor journeys.  Often they get discarded upon your return to the house, as there isn’t anywhere devoted to such finds – but there could be! All you need, is a space where you can display them – so young children feel a sense of pride in their foraging, they have a chance to look at them in more detail and to use them in other ways when the mood takes them – to cook conkers in the play kitchen or to throw the leaves in the air and pretend they are on an indoor Autumn walk.  It’s also a great way to promote early literacy with signs pointing out what the items are, and providing opportunities for sketching, fact finding and touching the objects to find out about textures and smells.  It’s always a good idea to either wash your treasures and dry them out, or give them a wipe with an antibacterial wipe to make them more inviting and cleaner to handle.

3.     Rolling conkers down a piece of guttering

This may sound completely bizarre, but kids love doing this! Usually they love propelling small cars or balls down the guttering and watching them whizz down to the bottom and either crash into whatever is there or freewheel across the floor.  All you need is a half-pipe of guttering (available from most DIY stores) and some of your conker collection for guaranteed freewheeling fun! Lean your guttering on a piece of furniture (possibly a sofa) to create a slope and then the conkers can be rolled at will. Add extra elements by placing a box or basket at the bottom to catch the conkers or if you have two pieces of guttering you can give children the same amount of conkers each (or get them to count them out) and challenge them to be the first to send all their stash of conkers down the gutter first in a race to the end.


4.    Using the conkers as wizard and witch potion ingredients

This activity is particularly apt at Halloween, which is also when the conker harvest is readily available. You can simply get the kids kitted out in their best spooky Halloween costumes to get them into the role of wizard or witch.   A good pre-cursor to this activity to warm them up to the idea of knocking up a witchy concoction by sharing an appropriately magical storybook or dvd:  Room on the Broom is a great classic, and there is now a sound book available, which children love to interact with.  Any of the Winnie the Witch books are also great to share.  What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen? by Nick Sharratt  gets great reviews and invites children to lift the flaps in the witch’s cupboards to find the hidden tricks and treats. You can then give them the essential apparatus of any self-respecting potion-maker’s kit – a plastic cauldron (which is readily available at Halloween time) or if you can’t lay your hands on one – a saucepan will do.  Also, give them wooden spoons for stirring up their witchy brew, and a variety of containers to decant it into.

You can either simply give the kids a stash of conkers, and any other objects that you think would be a good addition to a potion e.g. glitter, stones or shells, plastic bugs, and let them get creative in their own way, or you can get them started by giving them a ‘potion recipe’ telling them how many conkers to add, a particular colour of leaf or how many pinches of glitter.  If you leave the amounts blank and laminate the recipe, you can change the amounts, or let them write their own in, if they can.  This all encourages early literacy, and also introduces children to the purpose of a recipe and how they give people instructions.  They can them make the magic happen by saying the magic word of their choosing – you could have a stuffed toy frog on hand to demonstrate that the magic has worked!


5.    Early Literacy and Numeracy with conkers 

Yes, really! You don’t have to use conkers for this purpose, clean milk bottle lids or flat pebbles will also do the job.  The first job is to clean the conkers off (see below) and then to write a letter or a number on to the flattest part of the conker.  I used tippex to do this, but a permanent marker would also work.  A good idea is not to just do each letter of the alphabet once, but to include all of the letters that are needed to write your child’s name.  Also, use the numbers that are more likely to be useful to your child’s stage of development e.g. numbers to ten written in numerical format, definitely include their age number.  You can then challenge your child to make their name from the letters provided (you can give them only the letters needed or a limited selection to make it simpler) and you can give them a written example of their name to help them match up letters.  An alternative is to spell out their name, but omit some of the letters, and ask them to fill in the gaps.  By playing with the conkers with letters on, the aim is for children to become more familiar with the letters – you could read a book and ask children to spot a chosen conker-letter or you could choose a letter and ask children to spot things in the room that begin with that letter (or sound associated with it).

An idea for a game that you could play with the conker –letters is bingo – children can select say 6 of the conkers with different letters/numbers on, and you then pick a letter/number out of a bag, and if the child has that, they can take it away – the winner is the person who has no conkers left.  With the number-conkers, you can obviously challenge your child to place them into order, or put in the missing numbers.  Another suggestion is that you could play snap with the conkers by giving children a selection with numbers replicated, and they pick one each, put them together and if they match, shout SNAP!  The possibilities are endless and open-ended…

Here’s hoping that you are inspired by these ideas and maybe you’ll enjoy the activities just as much as your children!

Please Note- It’s not advisable to use conkers with children aged below 3 due to the risk of choking, plus please be aware that conkers can be poisonous to dogs if they eat them.  Also, for cleanliness and hygiene reasons, it is advisable to clean your freshly-sourced conkers, I used antibacterial wipes, which was easy to do.

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