Building Resilience Through Play in Nature (Part 1)

Building Resilience Through Play in Nature (Part 1)

Luke Harrison | NEWS | March 29th 2017

This blog series is based on a recent talk delivered by Terri Harrison at the Nature Play 2017 ‘Natural Resilience’ conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. The series will be broken down into three sections.


Nature Nurture has evolved over the years but the basic principles have been consistent.  Our vision is to give children who feel vulnerable the opportunity to develop resilience through free play in nature and through nurturing, warm and attuned relationships.  Our staff team is specially trained to provide the sensitive support a child needs when they come from a background of trauma, neglect or uncertainty.  We believe that everyone has the capacity for resilience and that being outside can be the best way for a child to discover this potential.

When we think about any theme such as resilience it is often best to consider our own experiences first.  Take a minute to reflect on whether you feel resilient?  What do you consider as resilient characteristics in yourself? It is often easier to identify our vulnerabilities rather than the factors that make up our resilience.  However, it is important to identify strengths before we consider the areas we need to develop.

What helped you to be resilient?  Was it the way you were brought up, the opportunities you have been given, a role model in your life?

Studies indicate that resilience makes a big difference in people’s lives. People who respond to hardships with resilience tend to be:

  • healthier and live longer
  • happier in their relationships
  • more successful in school and work
  • less likely to get depressed


Resilience and Play in Nature

Resilience is a vast topic and it can feel a bit overwhelming. When one starts out with the intention of supporting children to develop resilience it can be daunting knowing how and where to begin.  We were faced with this challenge when we began Nature Nurture and we also encountered the problem of finding a means to observe, track and evaluate the growth of resilience in our children.  We created our own model of resilience that helps us focus on the holistic aspects of resilience and the child’s agency in that process which we call ‘The Seven Building Blocks of Resilience’.  You can find details of this on our website. There are a number of studies and books we found helpful along the way and we have provided a reading list in the final part of this blog.

The following guidance is a taken from the online booklet ‘Building Resilience in Young Children’ by the Canadian organisation, Better Start.  This is an excellent starting point and it identifies the following areas of focus in building resilience:

  • Building caring relationships
  • Being a positive role model
  • Gathering community resources
  • Developing Self Control (what we prefer to refer to as self-regulation)
  • Developing thinking skills, (to which we would like to add creativity and imagination)
  • Building confidence
  • Developing a positive outlook
  • Encouraging responsibility and participation




Building Resilience in Young Children discusses the inner strengths and the outer supports one needs to consider when thinking about supporting resilience.  In this blog we will consider each of these aspects in depth.





Building Caring Relationships

Everything that we do whether inside or outside begins with relationship. For a child to thrive physically, cognitively, emotionally or socially she needs a foundation laid through loving relationships and secure attachment.   Being outside in natural environments supports this process because of the feeling of timelessness one experiences outside, the possibility of calm and opportunity for shared discovery.  Being outside with young children can give an adult a very immediate and real experience of being a ‘secure base’ where a child feels safe and from which she can go off and explore, knowing that the secure base will be there for her when she returns. Through our attuned observation of children outside we can practise the vital skill of keeping a child ‘in mind’.  We don’t have to be physically close, but can be there with them in our awareness, respect and interest.

Children of all ages consider the outside world to be a social space.  They interact with peers and adults in a freer and less intense manner outdoors.  This is because we are all able to have greater control over our social encounters outside by being able to choose the physical proximity we share with another and by having the freedom to move in and out of those intimate spaces as we choose.  It’s not like being in a tightly regulated and confined space like a classroom.


Being a Positive Role Model

At face value this aspect is about us as practitioners rather than the qualities we are trying to help a child develop.  However, this is not strictly so.  Children can learn about becoming positive role models for siblings or less confident peers.  This relates to Vygotsky’s theory of ‘zone of proximal development’ where a ‘more knowledgeable other’ scaffolds and supports the learning of another.


Most diagrams explaining ZPD stop short of explaining what happens beyond the structured support of someone’s learning.  In Nature Nurture we see scaffolding as part of a wider learning process, that begins with the initial motivation of the child to learn.  The support that is offered to the child can take many forms, from the hand over hand guidance given to a very nervous or unsure individual to the modelling of a skill by a confident and competent other.


Sometimes the support can be verbal, or visual or simply working together side-by-side.  The next step is to reduce the support until the learner is working independently.  It is important that the time and space is given to the learner to repeat, practising the skills or sequence of actions until she feels confident and has gained mastery.  Once mastery is achieved the individual can be offered the chance to support another person to learn the skill, thus overlearning the skill and gaining self-esteem from being in the position of ‘expert’.

As practitioners, we have a huge responsibility to provide the right example for children to imitate. As we are all aware young children ‘copy’ or imitate all kinds of behaviour that they see around them.  In Waldorf Education, we consider this to be an important aspect of early education.  How we speak, relate to others, or show respect and care for our environment and in our daily tasks, has an enormous impact on the developing child who observes us intently.  Children learn to be respectful of the natural world and to eventually become custodians of nature through the way we respond and interact with nature.  No amount of lecturing children about caring for the environment will have the same deep learning-outcome as the simple care we show in how we treat the flora and fauna in our surroundings.

Also by showing our own awe and wonder at the things we see, hear, touch and smell when we are in natural spaces, we demonstrate to our children how we can be respectful and joyful in natural surroundings. A resilient individual has a good relationship and sense of belonging in their environment. A sense of place and belonging stems from these roots of caring and interacting with the spaces we grow up in.

In part 2 of this blog we will be looking at the areas of gathering community resources, developing self control (what we prefer to refer to as self-regulation) and developing thinking skills (to which we would like to add creativity and imagination).