Maslow’s Hierarchy and Outdoors Play with Anxious Children Pt. 1

Maslow’s Hierarchy and Outdoors Play with Anxious Children Pt. 1

Luke Harrison | NEWS | December 20th 2016



I was just reading an excellent essay submitted by one of our Forest School Leader Level 3 students that focuses on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and it made me reflect again on how we use this theory in our daily practice.  Maslow believed that human beings are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fulfil the next one, and so on. His original five levelled pyramid (1943, 1954) was later expanded in the 1970’s to include eight levels of needs, and it is this model I find most helpful to our work in Nature Nurture and in Forest School. Maslow stated that the human being must satisfy the lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs.  Once these needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization. Whereas everyone has the potential to achieve self-
actualisation, progress is often disrupted by failure to meet lower level needs.

These next two posts are about ensuring that those foundation layers of physiological and safety needs are in place before any expectations are placed on children to achieve the higher levels.  Our first post is all about ensuring the children’s physiological needs are met.

Physiological needs: Such as food, warmth, shelter, water, and other body needs. An individual cannot be expected to learn, or

be motivated to explore and investigate the environment when he/she is hungry, thirsty, cold or wet.  If an individual’s basic biological needs are not met, then they cannot trust the environment and may remain at a high level of anxiety and stress.  Here are five simple ways we can ensure everyone feels physically comfortable no matter what the weather:

1. Can you provide warm, waterproof clothing for the children rather than depending on them bringing suitable clothing with them? Fleecy lined waterproofs are essential in the colder months, and ensure you have a box of spare clothes for layering underneath and for changing into if children get wet or cold. We have a great supply of spare clothes donated by friends of
Nature Nurture.

2.Wellington boots are great for playing outdoors in but hopeless at keeping toes warm in the cold.  If you have money to spare,
buy the more expensive thermal snowboots for all your children.  If your funds don’t stretch that far, consider buying fleecy socks such a thermal ‘heat holders’.  Remember to give the children a size larger boot when they are wearing these socks though!  These socks are great for grown-ups too

3.  Ensure that there are snacks available in the session. Apart from a snack together including a warm drink and something nutritious and tasty to eat, make sure children are not hungry when they arrive. If they are coming from school, do you know whether they have had breakfast that morning, or whether they have had time to have lunch?  We provide cereal bars and fruit juice/ milk as well as a bowl of fruit for children when they arrive.  Our snack together around the fire towards the end of the session includes hot chocolate, fruit bread and fresh fruit.  During our whole day sessions, we have snack around midmorning and cook a hot lunch together on the campfire.  Be careful though, food can be a major source of anxiety.  It is better to give children something they like to eat, even if it’s not particularly nutritious, rather than letting them go hungry because of ‘fussiness’ about particular foods.  We have found by taking all the pressure off the children’s eating habits, they gradually relax and are more open to trying something new.

4. Hats and gloves can be a source of tension too. Our nurturing instincts as adults make us want to ensure the children are as warm and cosy as possible, but if children sense a point of conflict arising out of something they are not entirely comfortable with, you may lose the beginnings of trust in the first sessions. We hand children waterproofs, wellies, hats and gloves as a matter of course in the first session and tell them that these things are ‘theirs’ during Nature Nurture.  They have a coat hanger with their name on and all their home/school stuff is hung there while they are in the session and their Nature Nurture clothes are hung up on them when the session is finished. That way there is not a big discussion about ‘where’s your hat?’  If hats and gloves are not worn when we set off on the session, they must be in the children’s pockets in case they need them later.  I always take an extra supply of both in case gloves get wet and hats get lost. Again, once the tension of ‘you must wear a hat’ is taken away, the children usually choose to wear a hat and gloves, especially if they are a cool design.  Check if children have sensory difficulties with wearing tight or ‘itchy’ hats or gloves and help them find an alternative that doesn’t cause them discomfort or distress.

5.Some children have a real issue with keeping clean whereas others can’t have a good time without getting caked in mud and soaking wet.  Very often either extreme can be an indication of a sensory problem or a major anxiety and should be approached with care and understanding.  Firstly, the child who is anxious about getting dirty. This may be as simple as being worried that they will be in trouble at home or school if their clothes get marked or muddy.  There is nothing worse than trying to wash mud out of school uniforms or any other clothes for that matter, so always ensure the children have top to bottom waterproof covering.  For our pre-schoolers we have all in one snow suits or unlined waterproof playsuits for the warmer months.  Our older children have waterproof jackets and trousers.  We like the dungaree type that cover the waist and strap up at the shoulders.  With these our children can play freely without fear of getting wet or muddy on the inside.Gentle reassurance for those who are still anxious is usually enough, but don’t ever let the child feel coerced into participating in muddy play by adults or peers.

Then there are the children who cannot cope with the tactile experience of having dirty hands.  These children may have sensory processing difficulties that result in them being hypersensitive to tactile experiences.  If this is getting in the way of them exploring and investigating the environment, offer them gloves and have a supply so they can be changed frequently.  We like the ‘Magic Glove’ type because they are thin and stretchy and allow finer motor coordination in a way that thick gloves don’t.  Also make equipment like tweezers and trowels available so hands on experiences don’t’ have to be quite so hands on, and always have some hand wipes available for instant clean ups. Again take the sting of pressure out of the situation and meet the child with compassion and understanding.

Stress is alleviated when the child feels they have some level of control in a situation. Once this has been achieved the child can begin to trust and relax. Then there are the children who just crave mud and water, and will happily get covered from head to foot.  Best policy is to let them get it out of their system and provide immediate changes of clothes so they don’t get cold.  We find that the trips back to base to get changed are enough to help a child see it is best not to go completely over the top.  Self-regulation is always best!  We like to give the message in all that we do that mud and dirt are an important part of Nature Nurture and that messy play is brilliant and fun.

Finally; don’t forget the adults!  I have learnt that encouraging parents and carers to join us means that I really need to plan for their physiological wellbeing as well as their children’s.  Have a supply of warm waterproof clothing and footwear available to help them have a positive experience of outdoor play too!


One thought on “Maslow’s Hierarchy and Outdoors Play with Anxious Children Pt. 1

  1. Thank you for this article. Reading your suggestions has gotten me thinking about some of my students and what’s going on underneath their upset over outside time. Thank you!

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