Around my home town, there are some horse chestnut trees which always have a good supply of conkers. They are a much sought after fruit with children looking for and commenting on the availability of the conkers. I now plot some of my walks to pass these trees at this time of year. Conkers hide themselves remarkably well. In their cases, tucked away in the leaf litter so even I still find some after children have visited. Many older schools may have a conker tree in their grounds. I believe they may have been deliberately planted to give children a supply of conkers in the autumn.
There’s a lot more you can do with them aside from gloat over their shiny brown skins. The size of the conkers tell you much about the spring and summer growing conditions. If there has been a drought in the early or mid-part of the spring or summer, or too much rain in the summer and not enough sun, then the conkers don’t grow as well.
Myths and concerns about conkers
Thankfully these days the myths about not being able to use them in schools are disappearing. Times are changing and there’s lots of great activities and advice now available for making the most of this seasonal experience. Do remember, though, that conkers are toxic and hands should be thoroughly washed after handling them. An allergy to conkers is extremely rare but if you have a child with a potential concern, the Anaphylaxis UK charity provides advice. However to give you an idea of the rarity no specific factsheets are available. The Forest Schools Association has generic advice available to its members on tree nuts.
Firstly, don’t bother trying to knock conkers out of the tree. They are the seeds of the horse chestnut and are still ripening. The result will be poor quality conkers. If the tree is beside a road or pavement, don’t shell your conkers from their cases and leave the shells on the ground. They do make a mess and elderly or less physically able people can slip on them. Take them home and put them on the compost heap or add them to woodland litter elsewhere. Collect conkers in a sustainable way and leave plenty for wildlife such as squirrels and to reseed.
Some people choose to put conkers in basin filled with water. Apparently he best ones for playing conkers are those which sink to the bottom.
Ignore the advice about soaking conkers in vinegar and baking them in the oven. These are more myths. Vinegar does nothing except spoil and corrode the surface. It’s better to let the conkers dry naturally. Drill a hole for strings straight away. Practise on a few unimportant conkers first until you get the hang of making holes, and then make your specimens. According to tradition, the figure of eight knot is the best one to use as it won’t come undone with repeated competitions.
Next, put away the best conkers, with pre-drilled holes for next year. The conkers harden with age. These are your secret weapon and such far-sighted planning bodes well. The string should be slightly shorter than the length of your forearm. Do not try and cheat by varnishing your conker or filling the insides with superglue, polyfilla or other hardeners. You will be discovered. For playing conkers, there are official rules which are used in the World Conker Championships.
For those who want to have a few more games and activities, try the ones below. I’d be interested to know of anymore that you have played.
Games with Conkers
1. Pass the Conker
Everyone stands in a circle holding a conker in each hand behind their backs. An adult or a child who isn’t part of the circle counts to twenty quickly. The children in the circle, close their eyes and start passing conkers to their left as quickly as possible. Once the counting ends, the aim is for each child to have a conker in each hand. Those without a conker in each hand are out. The rules can be varied, e.g. if a child has more than one conker in each hand, he or she is out. Another option is for the child who is counting to walk around the outside of the circle, feeding conkers into the game.
2. Conker Crawl
Put conkers in heaps around a grassy area. The children start in the middle of the area. When the whistle blows, the children have to crawl to the heaps and collect 10 conkers. They can be stuffed in their socks, pockets, sleeves, etc. Once a child has 10 conkers, he or she yells “TEN!” and the game stops. The children will get wet and muddy so waterproof jackets and trousers are a good idea. An additional challenge for responsible groups is to complete this activity blindfolded. Supervision is required and only do this if it is safe to do so in your situation.
3. Conker Grab
The Conker King (an adult) sits in front of a semi-circle of children with a bag or basket of conkers in front of him. The Conker King starts telling a story. Whenever he says the word “Grab”, he throws a conker into the semi-circle. The children make a grab for the conker and the winner is the child with the most conkers at the end of the story. Some ground rules are worth putting in place such as the children may only crawl to get a conker as it can get quite rough otherwise.
4. Conker Bat
In this game, a child throws a conker up into the air and tries to hit it with a bat in an agreed direction. This is surprisingly tricky. Each child gets three shots. The winner is the child who has batted their conker the furthest. Do ensure that the rest of the group keep their distance and are in the opposite direction to that where conkers are being hit.
5. Collect the Conkers
You need a lot of conkers for this game. Put the conkers into four heaps, at each corner of a large square, like rounders. In teams, the children set off running, one at a time and try to pick up 5 conkers at each base. If she drops a conker, it may not be picked up. The team with the most conkers collected in one run (max 20 per child) is the winner.
6. Be a Squirrel
If you are taking children on a walk and returning by the same route, it works well. Basically, you do a wee chat before the walk about squirrels and other animals hiding their food. The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes is a good book to generate discussions here. Then you give each child a few conkers or other native nuts to hide in different places along the walk. On the way back, their job is to try and remember where they have hidden their supplies. This helps children to understand the challenge of hibernating and then trying to recall where you stored your food.
7. Just Play
When the children are exhausted from all of the above, just leave a basket of conkers out and see what the children do with them…sometimes just being left to play is the nicest activity of all.
Finally for more child friendly information about conkers, have a look here. The Woodland Trust also have information about horse chestnut trees and some art and maths ideas.
The blog post is an updated version of one previously published in October 2009 and 2013.