The benefits of being outdoors in nature Part 2

kids nature pic

Welcome back for the second instalment of The benefits of being outdoors by Kathryn Solly, B.Ed., M.A., PGCE (SEN), NPQICL.

Specialist Early Year ones Speaker, Consultant, Trainer and Author

Children learn from us as role-models and through their own experience and through their senses. When indoors, your children’s senses are more limited but when outside, aside from being stimulated by the beauty of nature, they can feel the sun (or cold air) on their skin and the force of the wind against their body. Having space to play outdoors maximises their development and educational potential in this way. Using all our senses to wallow in nature will give us all the essential time and space to relax, breathe and start to enjoy outdoors.

Our brains are hardwired to interpret touch and interact as social acceptance. Touch is one of the primary stimuli for releasing oxytocin, which calms the amygdala and, in turn, calms emotions. There are even studies that show that holding hands with a loved one actually reduces the brain’s response to pain. So, with the vast reduction in hugs and other such important physical connections, touching nature outdoors in its various forms has become far more crucial.

As parents, we’re in charge of our children’s daily lives. This includes everything from the events for the week to the environment where we work, play and rest. We build the structure and set the rhythm for the days, and a lack of routines, excessive toys and clutter, chaotic schedules, and an overload of information can bring even the closest family down. Babies and children also know if we are feeling vulnerable – they feel it through bodily touch and non-verbal communication.

Children learn life-skills through play but they get far less time to play (particularly outdoors) than ever before. This lack of freedom is extracting a toll with increasing anxiety and depression. Children are happiest and flourish when they have the time and space to explore their world without the constraints of ‘too much’. ‘Too much’ is overwhelming and stressful in whatever form it takes – always hurrying from one task to the next, never a moment to relax or play. Having and doing ‘too much’ can overwhelm children and lead to unnecessary stress in their lives.

There is now a lot of research and many associations between wellbeing and a connection to nature found in adults that can be found in children, while also highlighting specific educational benefits for children. This suggests that nature should be part of every child’s life. There is also evidence that ‘forest therapy’ or ‘forest bathing’ (famously known as Shinrin yoku in Japan) may lead to improved mental and physical health. This involves spending active time in a forest observing our surroundings, using all of our senses through quietness. The practice of ‘mindfulness’ (a way of directing non-judgemental awareness towards our thoughts, feelings, environment and body) has been found to reduce feelings of stress, and increase feelings of self-compassion and empathy.

Helping children to access and build a connection with nature is key experience in developing their own feelings. In relation to others it is often about finding a way to respond reasonably in challenging circumstances such as turn-taking, sharing, or being the leader. If we can slow down the immediacy of a response so that the child can better process or understand, then the response can then be better attuned to the situation. This is what is known as emotional literacy and being in nature provides the time and space to underpin it. Emotional literacy is also key to facilitating self-regulation in children.

Self-regulation is the ability to soothe oneself when emotionally distressed and find workable solutions. Gradually the child can learn to remain calm, express the underlying issue and seek resolution rather than getting into a tantrum. The teacher/parent can reinforce these processes as observed simply by providing positive feedback in the moment or through reflection at a later time. It is also about children learning to be resilient. Resilience is about bouncing back after an issue and it can be nurtured in ALL children.

When children are resilient they are:

• Braver

• More curious

• More adaptable

• Able to reach out and learn about the world around them.

It’s not about never falling down, but about getting back up again. We must get them out of their chairs and when they stumble we don’t always need to help them.

• A little bit of stress is supportive and helps them flourish so don’t rush to their rescue.

• Dealing with adversity is nurturing and nurtures vital coping skills.

• Everyone has the capacity to change and cope.

• We need them to build ‘tool boxes’ by using problem-solving language without giving them the solutions.

Things to try:

  • Listen to birds and watch clouds
  • Hug a tree
  • Splash in puddles
  • Look for and watch tadpoles, butterflies, moths, worms etc
  • Touch new leaves as they emerge
  • Try making elderflower cordial or wild garlic pesto
  • Smell the flowers
  • Get to know a tree and take photos of it throughout a year.
  • Explore somewhere you’ve not been before by walking a different route.
  • Limit technology to taking photos, and reconnect with your children emotionally
  • Go on a picnic, dance together, have a pillow fight, play a board game.
  • Limit snacking.
  • Give them time to be bored and find things to do for themselves.
  • Set and agree limits about what is good for them e.g. bedtime rather than what they want or don’t want.
  • Involve them in essential daily tasks like tidying up, unpacking food shopping, making meals, making your own bed by making it fun.
  • Teach and encourage social skills as well as turn-taking, sharing, compromising, complimenting others, and good manners.
  • Plants on a window sill or balcony, whether herbs or flowers.

As parents, grandparents, teachers and practitioners we have been given the ‘magic dust’ of play to employ plus the opportunity to be with and interact with babies and children. So, we all need to practice slow learning:

  • It’s about making time and taking the pressure off.
  • It’s about a simpler approach.
  • It’s about appreciating the moment by moment curiosities and interests.
  • It’s about relaxing and not being distracted in our interactions with them.

 Thus, we should:

  • Use this capacity (power) to provide outdoor experiences in nature to influence and shape children’s development. 
  • Maximise the gift of time responsibly and with a deep understanding of the process of children’s development and the conditions that enable healthy growth and development over time. 
  • Focus on the developing children’s motivation and confidence as learners rather than focusing on a specific set of skills and competencies.

Good luck and enjoy the journey!

Kathryn’s details can be found here – www.solly.biz for educational training, research and marketing.

Her first book ‘Adventure, Risk and Challenge in the Early Years’ is available from Routledge : www.routledge.com. This is also translated into Chinese.
She has also contributed to ‘Achieving Excellence in the Early Years: a guide for headteachers.’ Available from www.early-education.org.uk

Look out for her latest book “Leading Children’s Learning Outdoors from Birth to Seven” Likely publishing date 2021.

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