Anxious children don’t feel safe and tend to be in a state of ‘high alert’ or hyper vigilance most of the time. This is not the state of mind that is conducive with learning. Maslow’s hierarchy highlights ‘safety’ as the second level. Before this is achieved, an individual can’t work towards meeting their higher needs. Interestingly, Bruce Perry in his work on the neuroscience of trauma, describes a similar hierarchy in structure, functioning and development of the brain. The brainstem is the most primitive part of the brain and the first to be fully developed. It is the place where reflex, heartbeat, breathing, and the other basic and vital processes are controlled. It is also the region of the brain that takes control when an individual is under extreme stress and anxiety, overriding the higher cognitive functions of reasoned thought, language and reflection.
In ‘survival mode’ the brainstem responds to potential threat with fight, flight or freeze responses. An anxious child who is perpetually on high alert will respond to what others would consider minor worries, with survival responses. The outer behaviours of fight, flight or freeze are what are often termed ‘challenging behaviours’ and can be met with punitive reactions that will often push a child further into a state of terror. Another common adult response is to try and engage a child in a reasoned exchange, reflecting on their behaviour and demanding answers, thoughts and reasoning that are beyond the capacity of the brain stem. For a child to be able to access the higher order functions of the brain such as reflection of self and behaviour, empathy for another, reasoned thought and problem solving, the child needs to feel safe and secure. Maslow says the safety needs of an individual include: protection from the elements, security, order, rules, limits, boundaries, stability, etc. If one’s basic safety needs are not met, one would be fearful, hesitant, and anxious and may engage in fight, flight or freeze responses to new situations, experiences or challenges.
So how can we help anxious children feel safe when they are playing outside? Or at least how can we help children feel safe enough to take challenges and engage in ‘risky play’, not how can we keep children safe when they are playing outside. The difference is all about agency and building resilience; if children feel safe enough to face challenges, they can learn to keep themselves safe and cope with or overcome their fears.
1. Build relationships that foster trust. Children learn to trust when the adults who support them are ‘authentic’. That means being who you say you are, being honest and ‘upfront’. Children who have experienced difficult attachments are masters at spotting inauthentic practice. Do what you said you will do or, if that’s not possible, make sure you explain why you can’t as soon and as clearly as possible. Don’t make promises that you are not certain you can fulfil. Be true to your own values and tell children why you make the choices and decisions that you do. Playing outside is the best way to build relationships with peers too, you can help a child to be trustworthy and to develop trust in others through helping them to reflect in the moment, or later, on the way they respond to others. Make sure you don’t try to do this when the child is feeling under stress though. Help reduce stress by giving space, time and by soothing distress.
2. Giving consistency is the best way for a child to feel safe. When you are playing outdoors it’s great to have a sense of freedom but to enjoy that freedom children need to feel that some things are always there and can be relied upon. The first and most important consistent factor is the individual that the child has learnt to trust. If you are lucky enough to have a team of adults with your group of children, ensure that the same people are available for the same children each session wherever possible. If there are changes because of illness or other reasons beyond your control, make sure the child knows as soon as possible that ‘their person’ is not going to be there and why. The other way of ensuring consistency is through routine and session structure.
3. Free play is the best vehicle for learning and development outdoors, but if a session is too loose and open-ended, anxious children will not cope and will start to push boundaries to find out where those boundaries are and to feel contained within those boundaries. So the reliability of a session structure can make a huge difference to the anxious child’s wellbeing and everyone’s enjoyment of the session. I think of the consistent structure of a session as a framework or scaffolding that supports the free play of the children who can then fill the spaces in between. For example, an important part of our sessions is the consistency of the journey we go on each time. The route we take through the site has been carefully worked out and leads us to four brilliant locations that offer huge potential for free play. Each location offers something different but they stay the same each session. How the children fill their time there is up to them. The adults’ role is to help facilitate their play in these special places. The Nature Nurture journey gives a stable and secure foundation to the children’s learning and development. They know what to expect and that they are free to take these opportunities and do what they like with them.
4. Linked to routine and structure is what we often refer to as ‘rhythm’. The planning that we do in Nature Nurture helps us to keep in balance the opportunities that we can open up for the children. For example, for children to feel well, secure and to help them develop self-regulation in their emotions and interactions, we need to ensure that they have a well-balanced ‘diet’ of activity and rest, engagement and time to process, the space to be with others or alone, time to concentrate in a focused way and time to daydream. Healthy children will naturally do this for themselves through their free play, but children who are anxious will need support through carefully selected locations to ensure they have the opportunities to find their own healthy rhythms.
5. Last, but by no means least, is helping children feel safe by helping them to develop the skills to keep themselves safe. Anxious children are vulnerable children. Outdoor play is the best vehicle to help children develop confidence and to feel resilient enough to face fears and to face challenges. This is probably one of the most important gifts we can give children through access to outdoor play. The first thing that our children are amazed about when they come to Nature Nurture is the way we respond to the ‘can we…?’ questions. They expect the answer to be ‘no’… ‘no you can’t climb trees’, ‘no you can’t play in the stream’, ‘no you can’t light the fire’, ‘no you can’t use a sharp knife’. They are completely taken aback when we say ‘yes….. what do you need to keep yourself safe while you do that?’ Together we most often come to the conclusion that they need to learn some skills first to become ‘master’ of whatever it is they want to do. So we teach children to climb trees, to light fires, to use sharp tools and most importantly we teach them to risk assess and to learn their own limits. We also help them see that perseverance and practice can help them improve these skills and gain mastery. When we see a child is becoming confident we ask that child to help another to master the same challenges.
We’ve come full circle now, back to trust. Trust in oneself is a
key part of feeling safe and secure, but is only possible when you have others you can trust and who trust you.