Building Resilience Through Play in Nature (Part 1)

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).

Maslow’s Hierarchy and Outdoors Play with Anxious Children Pt. 2

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.

. 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.