The folk of County Leitrim, Ireland should count themselves lucky. Not only do they have rolling green hills and plenty of fresh air, they also have another natural asset: Jessica O’Rourke. The owner of local business Mud Bugs is an inspiring advocate for getting kids (and their parents) outside to reconnect with nature. Jessica’s passion and enthusiasm for nature play extends well beyond her business of kids workshops, it’s a philosophy she believes is the key to wellness, resilience and happiness in general. WOWW catches up with the mother of one to talk about dreaming big and making the most of life under Covid-19 Lockdown.
Have you always been drawn to the outdoors?
I’ve always loved nature. I spent a huge amount of time outside as a child. We live in the countryside in Ireland, so there are just fields around us and we made the most of the sheds, too. My most memorable moments are of playing restaurants and making our own perfume using flower petals and water. We had some great swings made out of a tyre and a stick and it was where we spent most of our time. I think now I love the outdoors because of the clarity I get from the fresh air and the lack of distractions. I feel I’m living with more intention and meaning when I’m outside. There’s so much more space and air to breathe to keep me calm.
What’s the philosophy behind your business Mud Bugs?
I want to connect children and adults with nature on a basic level. I want them to understand the joy of slowing down to appreciate the small stuff. I want children and adults to jump in puddles and explore the world with all their senses. I want to spark curiosity and ignite a fire in their bellies that gets everyone excited and inspired to spend more time in nature surrounded by natural materials.
When was the light bulb moment that this could be a career?
The true light bulb moment came when I was doing a Forest Schools Leader Training course in the UK in 2016. There was a week of practical, hands-on learning. It was February, and still very cold and wet, but it was truly one of the best weeks of my life. I learned so much more than the bush-craft skills. I felt a connection with the others taking part and with nature and myself. I loved how resourceful we were being and how it stripped it all back to basics. Nothing could have prepared me for the discoveries I made about myself. It was probably one of my first true experiences of personal development.
Did you feel daunted initially about starting the business?
I’ve always dreamed of being my own boss, but I never felt it could ever happen because of my lack of leadership skills. Turns out, I can be a pretty good leader when it’s needed and I’m seeing more and more skills develop and become unearthed as I travel this journey. My confidence has been slowly building since the Forest Schools Leader course and every day I see something new in myself or someone else and I realise that I’ve been the only one standing in my own way of making this all happen. I’ve literally stopped myself from doing so many things for fear of failure or being judged, but now I feel so much freer. I know that I’ll push myself past those fears so I never regret not doing something.
Did you have to raise start up funds?
There was a grant competition for young entrepreneurs in our county called Leitrim’s Young Entrepreneur Awards and I applied for it. I got in and I came runner up in the Best New Idea category. I set up Mud Bugs with a 6 month old on my knee, juggled parenting, my relationship with my partner, friends, family and found a focus and clarity I never had before. Mud Bugs is officially 2 years old this year and I feel like a superhero – not every day, but most days. That’s my biggest achievement.
What are some of your favourite activities to undertake with the Mud Bugs kids? One of my favourite activities is to make clay bugs. I make the clay with the kids, which they love. Often, we leave kids out of the preparation of these things and I think that’s why kids love this one. They are involved in the whole process. We make the clay and then they get sticks, twigs, pinecones, feathers (and whatever else they can find outside) to create their own beast or bug.
How do you balance running a small business and raising a toddler? Have you got any tips for those embarking on it?
Balance is a funny word and one I think I misinterpreted for years. I always thought that balance meant that everything was going right all the time, but now I understand it to be more like a see-saw. Some days there’s more good than bad and vice versa, and other days there’s an equal mix of both. But, like a see-saw, it doesn’t stay on one side for long. So balancing business and a toddler means that there are some days that I get loads done and there are others that I have to surrender to the fact that nothing will get done. It’s not easy to let go of the control, but that’s part of being a parent anyway, so I feel like I may as well embrace it as much as I can because this is my life now.
One thing I’ve recently started is to take the weekends off. This only started since the Covid-19 Lockdown, but I’ll continue to keep 2 days blocked off once everything starts to change again. It was hard the first couple of weekends, but I’ve seen the power of it and it’s so good for my family to know that they have all of me for those two days. I have also started allocating different tasks to each day rather than just spending the day wondering what I should do first and then feeling guilty for getting nowhere. I write a blog one day, record and publish an activity another day etc. It gives me a structure I didn’t have before. Again, this is recent so I’m interested to see how I can adjust when things change. My biggest tip for anyone starting out is to talk to people. Talk to as many people as you can. Networking is the most powerful tool any entrepreneur can have. I used to think everyone knew what they were doing and they all had a Masters in business or something, but I’ve slowly realised that every single one of us has something to say. We all have a story to tell and someone, somewhere will need to hear your story. The more people you talk to, the more stories you’ll hear you never knew you needed to hear and the more support you’ll get. Remember, a problem shared is a problem halved. The same goes for business – just talk.
How is your family and business coping under the Coronavirus Lockdown?
Mostly we’re doing good. We’re living with my dad in the countryside, so we have so much space and we are incredibly lucky with that. It has actually been quite positive for us in lots of ways. I’ve been able to see my partner (Darren) step up his parenting game and he’s seen how much I do day to day. We’ve established some kind of structure to our days whereby we take turns having a lie in and I cook the dinner while the two men wash up the dishes. Both my dad and I are self-employed and it’ll take some time for both our industries to get back to where they were 3 months ago, so we’re getting creative and working on new stuff. It’s really nice to be here with my dad and be able to throw ideas out there and get feedback. Darren is really supportive, but he works in retail and has very little interest in children (other than his own) or the kind of work I’m in so there’s not much relevant feedback from him.
Have you had any interesting realisations as a result of living under this “new normal”?
One of the biggest realisations I’ve had is that I don’t ask for enough help. I have lived in hope that someone will offer to do exactly what I want help with and then get frustrated when they don’t. So, yeah, that’s been a big one for me. I’m learning to ask more and stop trying to give so much of my energy to others. I’m keeping some of it for me and for my business. I’m trying to take some time during the day to get work stuff done – which doesn’t always happen – as I’m shattered by 7pm, but it’s been working well so far.
What are you looking forward to when things get back to normal?
I have a feeling things will be going to a new normal rather than back to the old one. I’m interested to see what happens and a bit apprehensive, too. We’ve been planning on a buying a home and I don’t know how all of this will affect that. Obviously, that’s not my main concern right now, but it’s a future concern for me and my little family. I’m really, really looking forward to seeing my friends and family again. My family is quite close and we’re quite a tactile family so I’m really missing seeing and hugging them. Same with my close friends – we’re VERY tactile (you can’t escape the hugs some of my girls give). Mostly, I’m looking forward to being able to go to the forest and local areas to explore with my son. He’s full of curiosity these days and I love seeing him explore new places.
Have you got any tips on bringing the outdoors inside for families who are isolating with kids and don’t have access to nature?
Draw, cut, stick and paint nature. Get crafty with some recyclables and use nature as your inspiration. Research suggests that even images and videos of nature have some of the same benefits as actually being in nature. Take photos, print photos, hang them. If you’re in complete isolation then stick to the crafting aspect – or why not try a scavenger hunt that you make yourselves? I love sensory activities for kids of all ages. Playdough, water play and sand play are all really nice ways of incorporating nature into your day. Use some herbs or spices in the playdough to add another element. Freeze some of the kids toys in a basin of water for an excavation session. Make nature crowns using a band of cardboard and sticking natural materials to it or create your own feathers, leaves and shells out of paper and card. You can be the most magnificent nature warrior the world has seen, all from the safety of your home.