Nature, Nurture, Play
The Nature Nurture project aims to build the child’s resilience, providing an intervention that is sustainable and that combats the effects of trauma, neglect and anxiety. Our aim is to help vulnerable children develop the fortitude they need to face and overcome the hardships of their lives and to give them the personal strength and motivation to make healthy lifestyle choices when they are older. By giving vulnerable children a programme of outdoor experiences in natural environments we have found that the seeds of resilience are sown and grow quickly and strongly. Through training and ongoing support in the approach, partner organisations have shown that they can make the development sustainable and hopefully help to break the cycles of vulnerability that have existed in families for generation after generation.
There is now a significant body of research into the effects of natural environments on individuals’ health and wellbeing. However, one doesn’t need to be a scientist to know that being active outdoors makes you feel good. Most adults over the age of 25 have fond memories of playing outdoors when they were children and can remember the great feeling after plenty of fresh air and physical exertion. Research has shown that children who can play freely outdoors are motivated to do so because these experiences help them to feel well. We intuitively know that looking at a beautiful landscape creates a feeling of peace that reduces stress. Research (Ulrich, 1991) has shown that blood pressure and muscle tension are improved for individuals who are able to view green space.
Many people choose to go for a walk in a natural environment to have the experience of ‘getting away from it all’. Green space can help us feel that we can put down the stresses and tensions of our daily lives or put problems into perspective. The natural environment inspires poets and musicians because it can both stimulate and soothe our senses. Research has shown that access to green space reduces aggressive tendencies (Kuo and Sullivan, 2001) and improves concentration and memory (Kaplan, 1995).
Important emotional connections with nature occur early in life. Most adults, when asked to name the most significant place from childhood, consistently recalled somewhere outdoors (Wells 2000 see also Eigner & Schmuck 1998). Research consistently shows that nature acts to provide psychologically restorative experiences improving an individual’s sense of well-being (Ward-Thompson et al., 2005). Interactions with natural environments provide distraction from everyday stresses (Pals et al., in press), emotional stress (Korpela et al., 2008) and, for children in particular, result in higher cognitive functioning (Wells 2000). However as Richard Louv in ‘Last Child in the Woods’ highlights, there is an increasing prevalence of ‘nature deficit disorder’ in children, with fewer than ever engaging in outdoor play (Louv 2008). Access to natural environments is therapeutic. Green space can be a powerful intervention against physical, mental and emotional stress.
Nurturing interactions underpin healthy brain development and promote the mental, physical, emotional and social development of deprived, neglected, abused and traumatised children (Howe 2011, Perry 2004).
Attachment theory, first conceptualised by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in 1960’s and 70’s emphasises that children who have not managed to form strong and enduring attachments in their early life often struggle to experience their carer as a ‘secure base’ or as a ‘safe haven’ when they are distressed or afraid. Without this foundation a child can become anxious, stressed and traumatised as well as experience delays in their social, emotional and cognitive development. Difficulties in early attachment can impact livelong attachments.
In recent decades the developments in neuroscience have helped us to appreciate the importance of relationships. Branches of psychology and neurobiology now consider the brain as a social organ. Daniel Siegel refers to the processes and architecture of the brain that enable this development as ‘interpersonal neurobiology’ (1999). It is now recognised that brains are ‘plastic’ and that they have the potential to grow and make new neural connections across the life span. Both baby’s and carer’s brains develop through their attuned interaction. Emotion regulation is initially developed from within interpersonal experiences in a process that establishes self-regulation and resilience. Stuart Shanker (2016) refers to the ‘interbrain’ that exists between child and carer that supports the child’s global development.
In Nature Nurture we recognise that the establishment of safe and attuned relationships are the first step of our intervention. By developing a secure attachment between child and adult, children feel secure and are confident to explore their environment. They are certain that the adult who cares for them will be there for them as a secure base when they return from their exploration and that the adult will provide a safe haven for them if they need reassurance, soothing or wish to share their discoveries. By helping children to regulate their emotions, the adults in Nature Nurture facilitate the development of self-regulation in each child that supports them in their future relationships, self-image, self-esteem, resilience and lifelong learning.
Nurturing in Nature Nurture begins with the carefully attuned and sensitive interactions between adult and child. Through very careful observation and reflection, the adult gets to know the child and his/her strengths and vulnerabilities, likes and dislikes, interests and talents. By caring for the child’s basic physical needs such as ensuring they are warmly dressed and are not hungry or thirsty, the child feels well and cared for by the adult. Adults facilitate play by being available, holding the child in mind, showing an interest in their play but waiting to be invited to join. Children quickly come to recognise the adult as a secure base and a safe haven. Through this level of care, that leaves the child free to follow their own interests, adults can offer sensitive support and co-regulation when needed, helping the child to increasingly manage their own risk assessment, social challenges and emotional regulation or modulation. Adults are trained in attuned observation and reflective practice and are able to track and record each child’s developing strengths and resiliency over the course of a programme. Adults also help children to recognise their own developing strengths and progress in becoming a resilient individual. Each adult holds the awareness of no more than two children and remains with a child for the duration of their attendance in Nature Nurture. Children therefore have the security of knowing who will be there for them each session and feel known and loved by the adult.
Play is the optimum medium for learning and development and promotes health and wellbeing through physical activity and movement outdoors (Burdette and Whitaker 2005, Robert C. Whitaker, M.D, M.P.H. 2005)
Through free play the children grow and develop self-awareness, confidence and self-esteem because they can test and practise important skills at their own pace in exciting, stimulating and challenging environments. Playing outside is exhilarating and highly motivating. Children play more collaboratively, are more adventurous and energetic when they are outdoors. They feel better, have a more positive, joyful outlook and are more engaged with the natural world. Often the children arrive for their first sessions fearful, anxious and withdrawn because of their life circumstances. By the third or fourth week we begin to see the children emerging from their shells with increasing confidence, curiosity and sense of adventure
The Nature Nurture Project gives children the opportunity to play freely, alone or with other children. The adult’s role is to facilitate rather than direct. This requires sensitive observation, deep empathetic attitudes and presence of mind. We need to be constantly and consistently available, noticing what is important to the child and creating a group ethos that celebrates effort, creativity and self initiative. Gradually children who previously have expected and experienced failure begin to value themselves and feel valued by others. The natural spaces in which we play are challenging yet safe, stimulating yet relaxing, peaceful yet exciting. The combination of environment, a programme that is led by the children’s play and adults who are sensitive, observant and attuned to each child’s playful explorations and discovery, creates sessions that are deeply nurturing for every child who participates.
What Is Resilience?
According to Grotberg (1993), for a child to become resilient, he or she needs to feel trusted and loved unconditionally; needs to feel lovable and respectful of themselves and others; and needs to feel able to talk to others, to solve problems and to be able to practice self control. Nature Nurture can promote the growth of resilience through encouraging children to build up trusting relationships and through learning to assess risk, to set personal challenges and dare to overcome fears in a thrilling but carefully assessed manner. Research has shown that children who are allowed to develop skills in risk assessment have fewer accidents and are less likely to seek excitement and exhilaration through unsafe and undesirable situations. Helping children to risk assess and manage their own risk boosts their self-confidence, self awareness and sense of responsibility for themselves. It also gives them the self-certainty to face personal challenges and to problem solve creatively and confidently. These skills are vital to the development of resilient individuals who can face and overcome adversity in adult life.
The approach used within the Nature Nurture project sees resilience as ‘The mental, emotional and physical fortitude to recover from adversity and realise potential‘. This is what we seek to develop in all the children that come to Nature Nurture.
Resilience is often described as ‘bounce back’ or ‘That quality of the individual that enables them to persist in the face of challenges and recover from difficulty or hardship‘. The application of adaptive coping skills under conditions of adversity, such that a child’s circumstances and future capacity to cope with adversity are maintained or enhanced’ (Pearce,C. 2011).
Fonagy (1994) succinctly defines resilience as ‘Normal development under difficult conditions’.
Resilience is often described as a dynamic state that changes according to circumstance, environmental conditions or periods in an individual’s life. It is also frequently described as the far end of a continuum that begins with the opposite state of vulnerability.
The factors that create a state of resilience in an individual can be seen as both intrinsic e.g. health and temperament and extrinsic through the levels of protections and adversity in the individual’s environment.
Nature Nurture is a ‘green therapy’ for traumatised or anxious children. This approach can help children who experience any kind of stress, whether it is due to an attachment disorder, a trauma, or from a learning disability or emotional/behavioural disorder such as ADHD. When young children experience stress they enter into a vicious cycle of learning and behavioural difficulties that are caused by stress and which in turn also increases stress levels. Breaking this cycle can put a stop to long term and debilitating neural damage caused by the stress hormone, cortisol.
The Seven Building Blocks Of Resilience
With extensive knowledge, experience and research, the Nature Nurture team have come to develop a representational model of resilience, known as ‘The Building Blocks of Resilience’. This model allows for an evaluation of the development of an individuals resilience by separating it into seven clearly defined, yet interconnected, domains, each with a collection of indicators. The seven domains are: Physical Health and Wellbeing, Mental and Emotional Wellbeing, Social Competencies, Positive Values and Attitudes, Talents and Interests, Creativity and Imagination and Knowledge and Understanding.
The seven identified domains can be developed through exposure to nature, nurturing interactions and free play, leading an individual from a state of vulnerability to one of resilience. The approach used in Nature Nurture is designed to work on key areas of each domain. The development of each domain is carefully monitored, assessed, recorded, evaluated and reported.
Assessment and Evaluation
The assessment process begins with a baseline assessment questionnaire that asks for information on each child in each domain. This is completed by a key professional and/or parent. The baseline information informs the key objectives for the child during the project. From the baseline Nature Nurture staff can identify areas for development and areas of strength that will lead the child towards resilience and will inform the planning of intervention throughout the programme.
Session Observation and Assessment
Staff observe and assess the children in their interactions and activity during each session. At the end of the session the team meet and reflect on their observations in relation to the building blocks of resilience for each child. Session by session the observations of each child are recorded, showing developments and growth in each domain as well as highlighting areas where further support and intervention are required. The team discuss and plan ways in which to facilitate further growth or to support the consolidation and sustainability of each area of development.
Children and young people are given opportunity to reflect on their effort and achievement during sessions. During this process of self-assessment and evaluation, individuals learn to reflect on their own learning as well as acknowledge and respect the learning process of their peers. Individuals are also encouraged to consider ways in which they can use further sessions and opportunities to develop their knowledge, understanding, skills, values and attitudes.
Individual development is evaluated half way through the programme and at the end of the block of sessions. Staff involved in the sessions evaluate each child’s development in the building blocks of resilience. The midway evaluation helps inform further intervention whilst the final evaluation measures the extent that the outcomes have been met. The final evaluation meeting also considers how further growth may be facilitated beyond the project.
At the end of the programme children and young people are encouraged to reflect on their own development throughout the project and identify success and areas for further development. They are also helped to consider ways in which they can pursue interests and develop skills beyond the project.
Parents and key professionals complete an evaluation questionnaire based on the building blocks of resilience at the end of the programme.
Using the information gathered through observation, assessment and evaluation, the Nature Nurture team complete reports on each child’s development in the domains of resilience. Recommendations are also made for further intervention or approaches to facilitate consolidation or development. Reports are sent to key professionals and parents.