Supporting Young Children through Transitions by being Outside
Change and transitions of any kind must be at the top of the list of ‘super-stressors’. It doesn’t matter what age you are, change can be tough. I speak with heart felt conviction on this one. Recently, I started a new job after working for the same organisation for 30 years. I suffered a whole host of emotional challenges during this time. But I feel great now, because I was made to feel so welcomed, wanted and needed by my new school. I also consider myself to be quite emotionally resilient. Emotionally resilient people bounce back quicker than those who are more emotionally vulnerable.
This blog post will explore these key points about supporting individuals through change and transition. We will investigate how to help children feel wanted and loved, how to give them a sense of belonging, how we can understand the stress involved in transitions of any kind and how, in the longer-term, we can help an individual to become resilient.
What kind of transitions do children experience?
Transitions can be physical, emotional, personal or psychological, and can be predictable or unpredictable. Some transitions can be deeply traumatic such as loss of a loved one, seeking refuge in another country because of war or disaster, or being taken away from family and being placed into care. These kinds of transitions need sensitive and planned support. But all children experience the ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ transitions of moving through education systems or transitioning between learning environments and activities, and these kinds of transitions also need sensitive support.
Birth is the first major milestone where a child goes from being at one with mother inside the womb, through the dramatic experience of being pushed out into the world. Babies don’t really feel physically separate from their mother for quite some years after being born, and the awakening of being a separate individual and self-awareness happens gradually during early childhood. The child’s main attachment figure becomes the ‘secure base’ though which the child feels safe enough to go off and explore the world.
Learning to use and challenge the physical body can be the first experience of ‘separateness’ and ‘self-awareness’ and this can be supported by lots of outdoor physical play. But despite the gradual experience of ‘separateness’, little children can have waves of sadness and loneliness that they can’t name or understand. Adults can help by learning to recognise these feelings and use such moments to help a child find words to express those big emotions.
When a main attachment figure leaves a child for the first time, it can be a big experience of painful and scary transition for both child and adult. Those difficult first days of going into child care or nursery are a challenge for all involved. Some children seem to sail through it all, others are distressed and fearful for days or even weeks. Children can continue to feel fearful when starting each new situation such as nursery, school, groups and clubs for many years after their first experience of being left with others.
Having a staff team of sensitively-attuned, attachment informed and warm individuals is an enormous help for child and adult in this process. Also having the possibility to ensure that the care of each child is as consistent as possible goes a long way towards helping children and parents manage those transitions. Staff also need to recognise that children and adults need time and patient support to learn to cope with big changes like starting nursery, school or a group like Forest School.
Another great asset to supporting children through transitions is having an easily accessible outdoor space. Outside is often experienced as a social space. Children and adults might feel more relaxed if they are dropped off in the garden or outside play area. Invite Mum or Dad or Grandparent to stay and be in the garden if they would like. Have a bench or visitors chair tucked out of the way where whoever sits there can observe and be observed by the children, without feeling like they are intruding on the child’s play. The adult can maintain their role as the ‘secure base’ for as long as needs be, until both adult and child have built up the relationships with staff and feel safe and secure.
Starting nursery is the first major ‘vertical’ transition and from thereon follows a whole host of ‘horizontal’ transitions. These are the transitions between activities and spaces that happen daily. For some children, these are a breeze, but for others, especially anxious children, these are truly painful experiences.
Changing locations and activity can be a painful experience for anxious children or children with specific learning needs. In Nature Nurture we help create a safe ‘bridge’ from one place or activity to the next through song. Each transition has its own song that remains consistent.
Outside, children learn that there’s a journey between spaces. In Nature Nurture, we mark journeys with a song. We start singing when we are ready to set off for the next space, and repeat the song until we get there.
Our older children have a flag that accompanies us on our journey. Children put their names or a picture on the flag at the start of a programme of Nature Nurture. The flag is carried by a child or an adult depending on the needs of the group. The person with the flag leads the way. The flag is planted somewhere conspicuous once we have arrived in the next space, and the children use it as a point of reference. They can go wherever they like as long as they can see the flag. When it’s time to move on again, we call ‘find the flag’ and the children race back in the hope of getting there first.
Some anxious children need transitional objects to help them move from one place to another. Many children need to bring toys from home, or need to make or collect something from their outdoor play to give to someone important at home. These objects, no matter what they are, are immensely important for the wellbeing of the child and should be acknowledged and respected.
If you are interested in more ideas and strategies to help children cope with transition through outside play, look out for a short online training course coming soon. Produced by Salugen, it is entitled ‘Supporting Transitions Outside: how Outdoor Play can Help Anxious Children.’