Nature Nurture, Resilience and Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)
Authored by: Terri Harrison Nature Nurture, Resilience and Adverse Childhood Experience
In the beginning….
When Daniel and I first established Nature Nurture in 2009, our aim was to promote resilience in vulnerable children. We have studied hard to develop our understanding of what resilience is and how it is promoted through play in nature and attuned, nurturing interactions. We’ve had remarkable successes with children who many others had given up on. We have also discovered exciting research and heard from truly inspirational individuals along the way.
One of the studies we found right at the beginning of our journey was Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), conducted from 1995 to 1997 by the US health organisation Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This study and subsequent film ‘Resilience, the biology of stress and the science of hope’ have become the springboard for further studies and a global movement recognising the impact of adverse childhood experiences. ACEs have been shown to shape health, wellbeing and behaviour across the life course of an individual. Further studies across many countries have helped in the reformation of communities and institutions such as schools, prisons and hospitals.
In Scotland, this movement has been championed by Dr Suzanne Zeedyk and the organisation Connected Baby. There have been numerous showings of the ‘Resilience’ film across Scotland since its release last year. There are still plenty of opportunities to see the movie as well as listen to Suzanne Zeedyk and (The ‘real’) David Cameron speak about the movie’s relevance in Scotland.
Our ongoing commitment
In Nature Nurture we remain committed to children who have multiple adverse childhood experiences. We have discovered that playing freely in nature with closely attuned interactions fosters the development of each child’s resilience. We can’t change the adversity that these children have experienced, but we can give them the inner fortitude to keep themselves safe and make healthy life choices in the future.
If you are interested in providing Nature Nurture approaches for children who have experienced adversity, we can provide you with training, guidance and some key advice to get you started. Contact us to find out more.
In this final post exploring the theme of facilitating the growth of children’s resilience, we will focus on the key areas of building confidence, participation and self- agency, helping children to develop a positive outlook and encouraging a feeling of responsibility and wish to participate.
Building Confidence, Talents, Interests and Self Agency
Many children experience a sense of freedom when playing outdoors. They feel free to follow their own interests, to take the time they need to repeat and perfect skills or experiences and they often have the opportunity to encounter novel, positive challenges through outdoor play. The opportunity to repeat and practice without the pressure of time constraints or intrusive adult agenda can give a child the means to develop new skills, talents and interests. Children often play collaboratively when they are in outside spaces and through the support of friends a child may discover a new levelof confidence and motivation to try again. Adults can support a sense of self-agency by standing back and facilitating this kind of collaborative play and individual exploration. It gives children the message that ‘we believe you can solve this by yourself, but we are here if you need support or advice’.
Developing a Positive Outlook, Positive Values, Hope
One of the most frequently occurring themes that appears in resilience study is the theme of ‘hope’. If we consider the quote by Nietzsche, we can start to understand that having the ‘why’ to live for is the key to becoming resilient.
‘He who has a why to live for
can bear with almost any how’ Friedrich Nietzsche
Spending time in nature can calm and soothe the soul. It can also inspire and invigorate. Children who have the chance to be awe-inspired by natural beauty can be moved to discover the ‘why’ in their lives. Caring for nature and other people can be the first step towards developing life-long positive values.
Encouraging Responsibility and Participation
Many children develop a ‘learned helplessness’ through not being trusted to have a go, make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are often considered as a form of failure. Some parents and practitioners are also fearful of risk and children pick up the message that ‘you’re not able and competent’ from adult fear. To help children become resilient we need to encourage them to dare to face challenges and to view mistakes as learning opportunities.
Risk benefit analysis in outdoor settings is the most enabling approach to risk assessment. Children from an early age can be involved in this process, identifying why doing something or being somewhere is beneficial, what are the risks that we should watch out for, and how we can reduce the risk or impact of risk. Children in Nature Nurture take great delight in conducting risk assessments for their peers and figuring out safe ways to do things. That is an important responsibility that we can give to our children and through this trust they can thrive and grow.
None of us are resilient all the time, but everyone has the capacity to become more resilient.
Play in nature gives us the peace, time and stimulation to build our own resilience and to support the development of resilience in the children for whom we care.
More time for play in nature will help ensure that each of our children will become confident individuals with the bounce back they’ll need in life in the future.
Gathering Community Resources
Young children can learn so much from ‘experts’ and people who are there to help us in our local communities. As early years practitioners, one can’t be expected to know everything and to have confidence in all areas of learning and play. It can be enormously beneficial for children to experience that we are all on a learning journey and we all can benefit from help of others. Everyone can become more resilient through learning to ask for help when we need it and through looking for opportunities to learn from others. In your local community, you may have Forest School experts who can advise you on woodland spaces, craft activities, games and identification skills. They may also be able to lead sessions with your children for you. Local farmers are a great resource who may be willing to invite you and your children to see lambs, sheep shearing, or harvesting. If you have a local care farm, children may be able to help feed animals and get up close enough to touch them safely. In Nature Nurture we have also invited local outdoor crafts people to come and show us their skills. We’ve had the pleasure of welcoming greenwood workers, basket makers, artists, musicians and storytellers help us to make beautiful things outside and to be creative in our natural surroundings. If you are lucky enough to have an outdoor space you wish to develop and have the resources to invite landscapers or builders in to help you, involve the children too. Let them watch workmen and talk to them about what they are doing and maybe they can also help out imitate what they see in their own play.
Resilient individuals are not overwhelmed by their emotional states and can manage their emotional responses. This is something infants begin learning in the first hours after they are born when they are soothed by their carer. We continue to learn this throughout our lives, but early childhood is vital in the development of self-regulation. Outdoor spaces in nature are ideal places to support the development of self-regulation. If you think about what happens when you go for a walk in a natural space when you are feeling tense. Most of us start to experience a calmness. Our breathing changes and we can develop a better perspective on our problem. This is also true of children, even when they are highly stressed or anxious. But of course, it’s not enough to send children outside to ‘sort themselves out’. A child needs the help and support of a caring and attuned individual to help achieve the calm they need to regulate their emotional state. As Dr Stuart Shanker points out in his book ‘Self Reg’ adults are very good at telling children to ‘calm down’, but when do we explain to children what that state of calm is and what it feels like? Being outside can give you opportunities to notice when children are in a calm state and point it out to them. Say to the child ‘you look calm, what does it feel like?’ This is the first step towards helping a child to manage to regulate their own emotional state. Once a child knows what ‘calm’ is, you can start to teach strategies like finding a quiet space to be alone and breathing deeply to help the child manage her big emotions. Tools such as ‘Emotion Works’ give us a curriculum through which we can help the child to name the emotions he experiences, think about what they feel like in the inside their body, understand what triggers those emotions as well as what helps them feel better. You can access these tools as well as practice example and helpful advice at www.emotionworks.org.uk.
We can model self-regulation by managing our own stress levels in front of the children. Being outside helps us as much as it helps the children to achieve a calm, alert state.
Show children how you can take three deep breaths when you are feeling tense and how you can have ownership of your own feelings by expressing them in constructive ways. We can also show children how we take responsibility for our own actions and feelings by admitting when we make a mistake and apologising when we become aware of hurting someone’s feelings or when we have misjudged a situation.
Developing Thinking Skills, Creativity and Imagination
Natural spaces for play outside are the most stimulating, challenging and calming spaces and are therefore ideal for developing thinking skills, creativity and imagination in early childhood. These are important skills for resilient individuals. Someone who has the concentration, perseverance and creativity to solve problems and to manage difficult situations is more resilient than someone who can become frustrated, agitated, confused or overwhelmed when faced with a challenge. I think the best places to develop thinking skills, creativity and imagination are outside places. As Margaret McMillan said: “The best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky”.
Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. is an American psychiatrist and neuroscientist who is an expert on child trauma and neurodevelopment. He and his colleagues run the Child Trauma Academy that can be accessed at: http://childtrauma.org/
He writes about learning as ‘Experiences – repetitive, consistent, predictable and nurturing experiences – are required to express the underlying genetic potential of each child’ Bruce Perry (2000). Central to every child’s healthy development is the opportunity to act on her natural curiosity. We can support this development through fostering natural curiosity in outdoor settings. Play in nature provides all the stimulus a child needs to realise their potential. Play always brings pleasure, without pleasure it’s not play.
We can see from Perry’s learning cycle that curiosity and the pleasure of shared discovery drives the child’s learning, motivation and self-esteem. It is so easy to imagine this learning cycle outside, with attuned and responsive practitioners who can share in the child’s celebration of discovery and mastery through their play. Perry also warns that this cycle can be crushed by adults who express disapproval of a child’s curiosity or disgust about the child’s discovery. When a child doesn’t experience an adult as a secure base and is too fearful to explore and investigate the world around him, then his curiosity can also be killed. The presence of a caring and responsive adult is essential for the child’s exploration because she can provide a sense of safety from which the child can set out to discover new things. The attuned, respectful and interested adult also is a source of shared discovery. Shared discovery provides the greatest amount of pleasure in the learning cycle.
In part three the theme of building resilience through play in nature will be concluded. We will consider three more aspects of resilience: Building Confidence, Talents, Interests and Self Agency; Developing a Positive Outlook, Positive Values and Hope; and finally Encouraging Responsibility and Participation.
On 23 November, Nature Nurture lost a very dear friend. Ann Stevens worked with us as a volunteer for four years. She was a retired primary school teacher and on the first day we met we could see that she was a hugely gifted practitioner. Ann gave her time freely and worked with all our groups at various times over the four years. She had a remarkable ability to see what a child needed and to respond with warmth, patience and love.
She had enormous energy and enthusiasm, and this was contagious. She loved to run about in the woods with the children and was always playful and full of fun. She was so quick to smile and laugh. Ann was also an earnest student and was hungry to learn about the approaches and principles of Nature Nurture. She attended every training session we held for the team over those four years and read avidly in between. She had a deep connection to, and love for, nature. She loved to walk with her dear husband Dick and was so happy to have her lovely cottage in Dunkeld where she could retreat.
When I am asked “what do you mean by ‘nurture’” I always think of Ann. She had such a big heart and cared most dearly for every child with whom she worked. She also cared for every adult in our team, and always had the right word, smile or a hug when we needed it. Ann and I shared our pride of being grandmothers and frequently exchanged stories and pictures of our own precious children.
She gave out so much love to everyone she met and in turn was greatly loved by all the children and adults in Nature Nurture. It was with a broken heart that I took her husband’s message that she had lost her courageous battle with cancer. I was grateful to hear that she spent her last hours pain free and with her children and Dick close by her.
In her last few days, Ann spoke to Dick of her love for Nature Nurture and they both agreed that they would like to make a donation to our charity. On Monday Dick came to see us and presented us with a very generous donation. We will use this money in a way that Ann would have wished and spend it on starting a new under 5’s Nature Nurture group in the Seaton area of Aberdeen. We will call this project ‘Ann’s Group’. These pictures give a glimpse into Ann’s boundless love for Nature, Nurture and Play. She will be sorely missed by us all.
Greetings to you all and welcome to the new Nature Nurture website. This project has been several months in the making and we are so happy to finally reveal it to you all. The site has been set up as a platform through which people can learn about the Nature Nurture Project and its current ventures. In addition to this, we would like the site to be a dynamic space, regularly updated with our Nature Nurture Blog. This tool will be used to share our knowledge and experience of working with the Nature Nurture approach to promote resilience in vulnerable children. It will also be a space to share the latest research in resilience, the benefits of outdoor play, self regulation, nurturing environments etc., as well as provide useful resources for adopting and implementing child-centred practice and outdoor play.
The main page of the Nature Nurture website welcomes you with a brief summary of the project and its aims. From here you are able to access the ‘What We Do’ page, which goes into greater detail about the ‘Nature Nurture Approach’. Further down the main page of the site, you will see that it is divided into 5 sections we like to call ‘Green Areas’. These areas allow you to navigate deeper into the site to learn more about who we work with as an organisation, the impact that Nature Nurture has had on those who have attended the programme, the ways in which you can volunteer with the project, our continued fund raising to ensure the projects long term future and the different training packages we provide.
At the top of the site is a navigation bar which will allow you to jump to additional pages such as ‘Who We Are’, ‘Resources’, ‘Blog’ and finally our ‘Contact’ page. Over the coming weeks and months, more content will be added to the Resources and Blog, with the eventual aim of developing a dynamic library of relevant content which will be widely applicable to anyone working in early years and/or outdoor therapeutic ventures.
This blog post marks the first of many entries to come and we hope you will check back regularly to keep up to date.
WE NEED YOU
Our mission is to improve the life chances of disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people experiencing challenges at home, at school and in the community. Many of the children and young people we work with, aged from 0 - 11, come from families affected by substance misuse, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.