Children's emotional wellbeing after lockdown: using nature to nurture

This month, in our ongoing collaboration with Edge Hill University curated by ALICIA BLANCO-BAYO, Early Years Lecturer and WTEY Programme Leader at the University’s Faculty of Education, we hear from HELENA KEWLEY, third- year BA (Hons) Early Years Education with QTS student at the University, who looks to nature to ease children’s anxiety after lockdown.

The impact of the COVID crisis on children’s mental health is a significant cause for concern amongst stakeholders in early childhood education. Recent findings (Co-SPACE, 2020) indicate a decline of emotional wellbeing in children within the UK during the lockdown period. Nature-based interventions such as ecotherapy, involvement in community growing projects, animal assisted therapy and other “Green Care” activities are increasingly popular methods of promoting wellbeing in adults. Could such techniques be employed in schools to improve mental health in children? Research proposes that children’s connectedness to nature and time spent within the natural environment can positively influence physical and psychological wellbeing, emotional resilience, self-efficacy, interpersonal relationships, self-esteem, confidence and behaviour (Chawla, 2015; Kuo, 2015; Kuo, Barnes and Jordan, 2019); with children becoming more focussed and intrinsically motivated to learn (Detweiller et al., 2015; Ernst and Stanek, 2006). Whilst researching ways to implement nature-based learning, I encountered

the work of Richard Dunne and the Harmony Project curriculum he developed as headteacher of Ashley CE Primary school in Surrey. Dunne’s whole-school approach embeds enquiry-led, experiential, value-based learning throughout, centralising the curriculum around seven principles drawn from nature; Interdependence; Diversity; The Cycle; Health; Adaptation; Geometry; and Oneness. These principles foster an understanding of the significance of balance in nature, our inner selves, and the interactions humans have with one another and the natural world. Children learn through cross-curricular projects designed to enhance meaningful engagement with the natural environment and both local and global communities. The use of school gardens to grow food allows children to access a wide range of learning opportunities, much like the Haver til Maver (Gardens for Bellies) programme in Denmark, which has successfully promoted wellbeing in children, improved their scientific and ecological understanding, encouraged better eating habits and increased their connectedness to nature (Dyg and Wistoft, 2016; Wistoft, 2013). Children today are perceived as susceptible to “Nature Deficit Disorder”

(Louv, 2005), spending less time outdoors than previous generations, increasingly disconnected from the natural world. Coinciding with this, children from BAME or low-income families have reportedly less access to the natural environment than others (MENE, 2019). It would therefore be remiss to ignore nature-based learning when considering education as a method of promoting wellbeing and social justice for future generations. Children returning to our classrooms this academic year will require time to rebuild their emotional resilience, redevelop interpersonal relationships with others and rediscover their sense of belonging. Pressure from government bodies to “catch up” on learning lost during the lockdown is a barrier to this. The Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011) states that our teaching must respond to the needs of all children and overcome factors which inhibit learning. At this crucial time, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of holistic development in pursuit of academic attainment. Early Years pedagogy is rooted in the philosophies of pioneers such as Johann Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel; the forefathers of outdoor, nature-based education; revolutionaries who challenged educational practices of their time and shaped the theoretical foundations of early education today. Leading examples of pedagogical informed practice, such as the Harmony Project, highlight the benefits of doing things differently. Perhaps now is the time to become revolutionaries of our own.


Reducing anxiety on the return to school

In her regular column for Education Today this month, STEMtastic founder KIRSTY BERTENSHAW shares some ideas on reducing stress in the classroom.

The return to school after the summer holidays can be an anxious time for many students. After the school closures and new rules in schools, new entrances, exits and break times and new bubbles of peers, this is particularly stressful return for most students. Here are a few hints and tips for reducing the anxiety in the classroom.

Acknowledging the stress It is beneficial to acknowledge the stressful situation all students and staff have faced. Perhaps discuss how it has made everyone feel, maybe using drawing therapy to express emotions. Students can draw how they felt or their favourite activity during lockdown. Be open and honest with students and avoid blanket statements like “everything will be ok” as students know the situation is out of everyone’s control and may have experienced personal loss themselves.

Mindfulness Regular mindfulness meditation can help calm thoughts without supressing them, beneficial for both students and staff. Pick a time in the day to begin seated meditation with students, using available online guidance such as the NHS website. Mindfulness should be repeated daily, at the same time each day for maximum benefit. Using the students’ own seats ensures social distancing during this activity.

Calm corner Younger students may find it difficult to recognise their emotions and cope with them. Quick tempers and tears are to be expected while routine is re- established. A ‘calm corner’ students can sit in on their own gives a socially distanced ‘time out’ space. Motivational posters or funny animal pictures can differentiate the corner from the rest of the room without using the soft furnishings that can pose infection risks. Allow your students to choose pictures to decorate the corner with to give them ownership of the space and permission to use it when needed.

Thankful wall It can be useful to remember positive thoughts and feelings, so make a thankful wall where students can write a note or do a drawing and stick it on the wall. Anything that they are thankful for can go on the wall. A ‘happy wall’ with jokes and funny pictures on it can also make the classroom a pleasant environment. Each student should put their own picture on the wall themselves to avoid contamination possibilities.

Routine The best way to reduce anxiety is to form a routine as quickly as possible. Set the times of the day for each activity and place it on the wall where all students can see it and prepare themselves for the change in task.

Praise Positive praise can reinforce the emotional stability of students and staff. Praise students for being courageous in the change of routine, or if they do anything that is hard for them. Praise must be earned though and not used unnecessarily.

Modelling behaviour Students look to staff to see how they deal with stressful situations and anxiety, so modelling behaviour is more important than ever. Allow students to see that you are sad or worried without shouting at anyone to normalise the emotions. Share your coping strategies with the students as this may help them cope too. Kindness and care can make a big impact during times of anxiety. Anxiety and stress also affect staff. In order to do your best for the

students and colleagues, you must apply self-care strategies too. Remember to take time for yourself without guilt! A healthy calm staff member can model calm reassuring behaviour.


Kirsty is the founder of STEMtastic, an education consultancy with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths

September 2020

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