Conkers are fast becoming a missed opportunity for natural play in schools, but by reintroducing them to our younger generations, teachers can enhance classroom learning across the whole curriculum.
Conker stories have been making headlines in the UK for quite a few years now, with an increasing number of schools banning the game from playgrounds or introducing over the top health and safety measures.
What's the big deal?
Do you want to know what I find most alarming about the whole thing? It’s that kids don’t actually know what the game of conkers is anymore! It’s now being played so infrequently that conkers are left lying in abundance on pavements and pathways across the UK - untouched, unloved and unused. I talked to one boy about the game recently and he became so confused that he thought he’d need his bike to play the game, instead of a drill!
Sadly, this is another sign of our country’s disconnection with nature and the outdoors. But can we turn this around? Could the mere conker take on the might of the global games and technology industries, who make fortunes from our young people every year with consoles and software?
Yes, a conker is just a small seed really, but it’s beautiful and tough in equal and plentiful amounts. Maybe it could just be victorious, for a few glorious Autumnal weeks, in taking our children’s attention away from their screens?
First interactions with nature are hugely important moments in a young person's life. The first time they feed the ducks....the first time they smell freshly cut grass...the first time kicking piles of leaves in autumn and, of course, the first time they search for precious conkers! If these firsts are eradicated from our children's lives, then we may find out other interactions with nature simply don't happen. Searching for conkers is a special experience waiting for children to do now. Who knows where this exploration of nature may lead to?
This autumn has proved to be a bountiful haul for conkers, with Horse Chestnut branches heavily laden with spiky green shells encasing the shiny treasure inside. There’s no better time to teach our young people about the game of conkers and I’d like to share with you what I think is the best way to do it.
Get your game of conkers on now, before this game of gladiatorial nuts is lost forever!
Step one: Find your conkers.
This is one of the most fun parts. Young people don’t need to go to the shops or use their pocket money because they do actually grow on trees! Start by teaching your class about what a conker is – by explaining that it’s actually a Horse Chestnut seed and showing them what a Horse Chestnut tree looks like, they’ll be able to find the best conker hauls themselves. To choose the best ones, look out for those that have already fallen to the ground and have their green prickly casings split open. Explain to them that the conker is the seed is inside and looks like a shiny hard nut. Make sure you take a few bags with you because you’re going to find a lot!
Spotting your 'conker tree' could be harder than you think. Conkers are the seed of the Horse Chestnut tree, which have very distinctive leaves like a giant handprint (above, top). However, when you're not familiar with tree identification, it can be quite confusing. The image above (bottom) is a Horse Chestnut tree but from the ground, that distinctive hand shaped leaf is barely visible. A good tip is to look for the spiky green cases on the floor. If there are none there, it's probably not a Horse Chestnut tree.
Step two: Chose your conker.
Symmetrically shaped conkers should be the strongest ones. You can also test density (and therefore strength) by sinking them in water and seeing which ones sink and how quickly. Of course everyone is different and some children may just want to choose a nice shiny pretty one! Conkers that have a split in them already are not likely to prove strong specimens.
Step three: Drilling.
This is the part where children will definitely need support and supervision from an adult at all times. Drill a hole directly through the centre of the conker. Creating a hole with a drill is normally better than just bodging a hole through. The thinner your hole is, the stronger your conker should stay.
Drilling a conker is a a chance for children to learn new skills and responsibilities with tools, whether it's a hand tool like this drill or a power tool such as an electric drill. The activity could also be a chance for parents and children to bond and get involved in a game together.
Step four: String.
Thread a piece of string through the hole and tie a knot in both ends to keep your conker on.
Step five: Find an opponent.
Help everyone find an opponent and pair up. Games are in a one-on-one scenario so two players are all you need for a game. If your class has odd numbers, you can take turns, rotate games or even work out a tournament format. Though at this point you’ll probably be secretly wishing that your class does have odd numbers so you can step in and have a go! (Admit it- you’re itching to play).
Step six: The game!
Explain these rules to the class:
- Basic concept = Take turns hitting your opponent’s conker with yours.
- One player holds their conker dangling by the string at arm’s length. Be sure to hold it still!
- The other player then takes aim and attempts to hit it.
- If you miss first time you’re allowed two more chances before it’s the other players turn.
- If you achieve a hit, then it’s the other players turn.
- If you knock your opponent’s conker through 360 degrees on its string (‘in a circle’ or ‘around the world’) then you get another go!
- The winner is the player whose conker remains intact whilst their opponent’s conker has split open or broken into pieces.
- Other rules you could follow:
- Strings - If strings become entangled, the first player to shout “STRINGS!” gets a bonus turn.
- Stamps - If a player drops their conker and string, their opponent can shout “STAMPS!” to earn a chance to stamp on the conker. This can be countered by shouting “NO STAMPS!” first. You could also elect at the start of the game to leave this rule out entirely, dependent on the energy levels of your class!
How does this link with the curriculum?
Maths (addition) - If a fresh conker defeats another fresh conker it’s called a ‘one-er’. Should this conker then defeat two more fresh conkers, it would then become a ‘three-er’. The numerical value assigned to the conker therefore represents the defeats it has inflicted so far. However, if a ‘three-er’ takes on a ‘ten-er’ and wins, that ‘three-er’ claims the ten previous victories of its opponent (plus one for the current victory) and becomes a ‘fourteen-er’ (3+1+10). This is a great way to give some excitement to basic addition in the classroom!
Maths (shapes and symmetry) - Symmetrical conkers are stronger, so having a class that’s eager to find the strongest specimens means that you’ve got a class eager to find out what symmetrical means.
English Language - Why is a Horse Chestnut seed called a conker? Apparently it stems from the Latin word “to hit”, but you can research that yourself! While you’re researching that, have a look at the origins of the word ‘soap’ and see if you come across the above mentioned ‘saponins’.
Science - Did you know you can wash your hands with a Horse Chestnut leaf? Well, you do now! Investigate why this is possible with your class. What properties does a Horse Chestnut tree have in its leaves and seeds that make it good for washing your hands or your clothes? Here’s a clue to get your started - #saponins.
Science (nature) – Learning about tree identification is so much more interesting and valuable when there’s a reason behind this learning. This is the perfect time to learn the distinguishing features of a Horse Chestnut tree, its leaves, bark and size. It may be the first tree a child can accurately identify and it can be compared to other trees at the start of their journey of nature exploration. If you’re lucky enough to have one close to your classroom, you can observe it all year round, looking at buds in spring and observing the changes through the seasons.
Science (density) - Some conkers float in water but others sink. This is to do with flaws in their structure and resulting air pockets inside. Run tests on supplies of conkers and then dissect some to see if this hypothesis is true. Your class may be quite enthusiastic about this one if it also means identifying a possible future ‘fifty-er’ conker.
What else can we do with conkers? Play Squirrel Hunt!
- This game demonstrates how squirrels hide their nuts over winter. They bury them or hide them in trees and have many stashes scattered nearby. Sometimes they can’t remember where they were hidden and sometimes other cheeky squirrels will find their stash and pinch them!
- Let every child in your group help themselves to a handful of conkers. Ask them to go and hide them somewhere in your school grounds at the start of your session. At the end of the session, your group can try to find their conkers. If when looking for their particular conker they find someone else’s, they can keep that one too!
- Children who return empty handed represent the squirrels who will have a tough time over winter. Children who return with a pocketful are the greedy squirrels who steal other squirrels’ nuts.
- A funny fact that you can share with the children is that squirrels pee on their nuts to help them locate their stash by scent!
Advice on health and safety.
If children play the game of conkers sensibly, it’s unlikely that any injuries will occur. A hard nut on a string can be a dangerous thing though, and it’s understandable why the game has disappeared from school playgrounds. The key is ensuring that your groups know the limits of the game, and that a conker should not be used for anything but playing a game of conkers (especially eating!). Earning trust in this manner is part of a child’s development and children often respond well to being given responsibility.
So there you have it - hours of endless traditional fun that can enhance your classroom learning too.
My aim this autumn is to take a conker to the mystical level of ‘fifty-er’ - I never made it over a ‘five-er’ in my younger years!
Good luck and have fun playing.