Category Archives: finding joy

Focus on children’s wellbeing

The last two weeks I have had the joy of working on a playscheme, the team I worked with included artists, sports coaches, forest school leader, playworkers, and nurture workers. We represented 6 organisations and we worked with 2 bubbles of children, with 42 children altogether, from 28 families and 9 schools, funded by St Johns foundation. The children were aged 4-11. Our ethos was based on high-quality early years practice, following children’s interests underpinned by a nurture approach. The whole play scheme was delivered outside on a school site, in their forest school area.

Before it began I was slightly nervous about how it would be, sometimes playschemes can be manic, especially if there is a team of adults who think the way forward to is to hype children. This play scheme was intentionally well planned with calm adults and a nurturing basis. The team leader and I have a long background in the early years and we wanted a playscheme that would nurture children and offer them open-ended opportunities in the way many early years settings offer. The aim was also to offer sports, art, play in an outdoor provision to support the children’s mental health and wellbeing. We knew that this could work across the ages of 4-11 and it did.

For many of these children lockdown has been a tricky experience, quite a few of the children had not been socialising with people outside their family, some of the children lived in flats with a limited outdoor provision, for many of the children lockdown had been a stressful experience and has negatively impacted their social, emotional and mental health. The children were identified and nominated by their schools. My role was to support the emotional wellbeing of the staff and children, we intentionally had a high ratio of adult to child, enabling us to offer the safety and emotional regulation that the children needed.

Part of the reason the playscheme worked so well, better than any of us imagined or hoped for, was the multidisciplinary team. Children were able to choose the things they wanted to do and the staff was able to facilitate and support this, one little boy discovered he is really good at hockey, he told us he hates sports but he tried hockey and loved it, another child discovered she loves making things with clay, other children experienced a campfire for the first time, the children together with the play workers made a wooden treehouse and took pride in what they had made. One boy on the last day wanted to chop down a tree, this was made possible with the support of staff, as there was a tree on the site that needed removing. Throughout the playscheme the children found space to be with others, to chat about how they were feeling, to express themselves through art and sport and play.

For years I have been been a huge advocate of following children’s interests and enabling children to discover new things and opportunities by offering open-ended provocations. This play scheme reminded me again of how powerful it can be when children have adults around them who can follow the child’s interests, who can come alongside them with interest and curiosity and co adventure with them. We hoped at the beginning that the playscheme would offer respite to the children from the ongoing challenges of COVID, we hoped that it would give them the freedom to play and socialise. It certainly did this, but for many of the children, it also gave them new opportunities, helped them to see themselves in new ways and discover new things about what they can do and enjoy. As we all reflected at the end, this playscheme also hugely benefitted the staff, there was a lot of laughter and delight at being with the children, it gave us a renewed sense of purpose and reconnected us to work we all love and are passionate about.

My final reflection on the time was how crucial these 2 weeks were for the children’s wellbeing, on the return to school my concern is that many schools will go back to how it was before lockdown. During lockdown many children have not had the chance to be with friends, socialise, play, be active and be creative. This needs to be addressed, I would love to see every school putting on a playscheme for all their children on the return, how radical and positive that would be. I know I am dreaming big here, and I know many will tell me it is out of the question. But, there does need to be an emphasis on children’s wellbeing when they return, and using the arts, play, sport and emotional support is an excellent way to assist that.

The organisations involved were:

Brighter Futures

Bath area ply project

Forest of imagination

Twerton infant school

Get sported

St Johns foundation

Mini adventures

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I read about the idea of mini-adventures in a book recently – Taking the plunge by Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan. The thought is that we all can easily experience mini-adventures in our busy lives, to have an adventure doesn’t have to be about spending money, going to far-flung places, in their book they are talking about it with wild swimming, but it could be anything. Last night we had dinner with friends and we were talking about the idea of mini-adventures and what they could look like for us and what mini adventures we would like to do.

This morning I was reflecting on this idea some more,  I was thinking about the idea of mini-adventures linking to my nurture work with children. This year particularly I have realised that many of the nurture activities I do with some of the children are new for them, this year I have had children who have never made playdough or played with gloop, who haven’t been for a picnic or made a den outside. I have been thinking about how part of my job is to introduce new experiences, in a safe and supportive way. To offer the children mini-adventures. There is something fantastic about experiencing that newly felt excitement and wonder with a child when they are trying something new and re seeing it through a child’s eyes. As adults, it can be so easy to forget and lose touch with the wonder and excitement of simple things. I talk to staff I work with about how the children need co-adventurers, adults who are learning and exploring alongside children. I have been thinking about this some more and I think to be a co-adventurer with children we need to be an adventurer ourselves, we need to have mini adventures and to re-engage with the wonder and excitement of the world around us, to be curious and try new things.

I love the idea of mini-adventures for myself and my work. It can be so easy to fall into a rut of doing the same things both in home life and work life. I have one more week of term and then there will be a well needed half term break, during that week I am going to think and dream a bit more about what mini-adventures I can do both personally and with the children I work with.

 

 

A year of outdoor swimming

 

I spend much of my working life talking and training on wellbeing, both for adults and children. Several years ago I realised that outdoor swimming was an essential part of supporting my wellbeing. At the beginning of 2019, I decided I wanted to do more outdoor swimming. I love swimming and I swim every early morning Monday-Friday in my local pool, that time is precious and an important part of my routine, also it has given me a lovely swimming community to be part of. However, outdoor swimming brings a different joy, the joy of being in nature, the amazing feel of cold water on my skin. It’s hard to explain but it is wonderful.

At the start of 2019 I wrote a list of outdoor places I hoped to swim, it was a mix of lidos, and sea swims, and rivers. I hoped that I would be able to swim outdoors at least once a month from around April/ May. I decided to keep a list of all the outdoor swims so that I could see over the year the different places I had swum. I managed to swim outdoors every month from February-December, some of these were cooler lidos but mostly they were rivers, sea, lakes, ponds and tidal pools. I have swum outdoors 43 times this year.

Swimming outdoors is about pure pleasure for me, it’s not about the distance or the length of time in the water, it’s about the joy of the experience. I feel so alive when I swim outside and it makes me feel so happy. Swimming outside has also become something that I do with my husband, our children have now left home ( mostly!) when our youngest left for uni in 2018 I knew we needed to find something that we could do together, a way of reconnecting. Outdoor swimming has become that thing.

In my wellbeing training, the final point I put to the group is an encouragement for people to discover what makes them happy, the thing that makes them smile when they think about it and brings them joy. So much of our lives can be busy and hard, often taken up with meeting the needs of others, putting in place something that brings us joy is a good start for wellbeing.

I am currently writing my list of ideas for outdoors swims in 2020, starting on January 1st!.

Stillness and noticing in preparation for the new term

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We are entering the last week of the summer holidays for many in England and Wales, this is a week when it can be a mix of excitement for what is ahead, trepidation, sometimes fear, and these can be feelings experienced by all involved; children, parents, and staff. I am aware I have all those feelings about the new year, I love my job as a nurture consultant, I think it’s probably the best job I have had so far, but there are unknowns ahead, new children, new staff, new schools and I can find new things can lead me to feeling a bit anxious.

Sometimes this week can be busy with organising and sorting, it can be a busy week in the preparation for the new term ahead. I am aware that for me this week needs to also involve some extra time for slowness and stillness, times when I can notice my breathing, recognise the creeping anxiety and nervousness. I have learned over the years the main way to help me find some slowness and calmness is by being outside. I have started this week by having an early morning barefoot walk, around the community meadow, slowly walking and noticing the changes in the season, noticing the first signs of autumn, enjoying the beauty around me. My plan is to repeat this each day this week.

I know many children find this last week of the holiday difficult, their anxiety levels rise with the fear of what is ahead. There is an increasing amount of research to show how spending time outside actively supports children’s ( and adults) wellbeing and mental health. If you are a parent reading this, possibly find some times to be outside this week with your children, go for a walk, pick blackberries, build a den, find a stream and build a dam and paddle. Spending time together outside, noticing, enjoying the joy of the natural world will be positive for you and your children. If you are a teacher or an educator, again find some times to be outside, don’t spend all week planning and preparing, enjoy the natural world around you.

If your child does suffer from anxiety at the thought of returning to school there are some excellent books for children, I would recommend Starving the Anxiety Gremlin by Kate Collins-Donnelly, there is a version for primary and senior age, No worries Mindful kids activity book by Kate Abey ( suitable for older primary and lower senior), Rubys worry by Tom Percival ( younger children picture book).
I have a new book out this week, exploring how we can help engage with stillness practice in a faith context, many of the ideas in there are linked to being outside. The book is Using Christian Contemplative Practice with children.

 

How to thrive during term 6

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During half term, I have been thinking a lot about how to thrive during term 6. Term 6 is often the busiest term of our year, we take on new children and end with the children we have supported all year. From the last 5 years, I have learned that by the end of term 6 I am exhausted and drained both emotionally and physically. I love my job as a nurture consultant with 4 year olds, it’s incredibly rewarding and challenging which works well for me, however, I realised I often spend term 6 in survival mode not thriving and I want to change that.

Over the last few years wild swimming and outdoor swimming has become a key part of my summer, last year I managed 23 outdoor swims over the spring and summer months and that was great. Last week I had time away in the Peak district and then the Lake district, I discovered a Lido in Hathersage at the beginning of the week and then I swam in Wastwater Lake at the end of the week. The swim in the lake was probably the most beautiful wild swim I have done. The water was amazingly clear and fresh, and the lake is surrounded by stunning mountains, including Scafell Pike. It was a cold swim, this is the deepest lake in England, but I decided I wanted it to be my first wild swim of the year without a wet suit. It felt amazing, the endorphins I got from this swim were fantastic! yes, it was cold, but it was so worth it. Since returning home I swam yesterday in my local favourite swimming spot in a nearby river and again this was wonderful. I have known for years that swimming really helps my wellbeing, both mentally and physically, that is why I swim five days a week in a local pool. Last year I began to realise that wild swimming particularly helps me to feel great. Knowing this I have realised that is what I need to do to thrive term 6, I need to swim outdoors at least once a week. So that is my aim, to swim in the local lidos and to swim in the river, I have booked it in my diary, to help me make sure I remember. I hope this will increase my wellbeing and help me to thrive this term not just survive this term.

Wellbeing in outdoor spaces

 

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Today I ran a workshop for 90 children ( 3 separate groups) of year 4 &5 children (8-10-year-olds) at Wells Cathedral. It was part of the Bath and Wells Diocese education team  for  mental health awareness week. The theme for the day was wellbeing. The theme for my workshop was how outdoors helps our wellbeing. We were located in a walled garden, full of beautiful trees, plants, and some very old gravestones. My aim was to offer the children some space to enjoy being outside, a chance for them to slow down, notice and find moments of joy in the space. Research is repeatedly showing us how important the outdoors is for our wellbeing, we are also continually hearing that children are disconnected from the outdoors. I wanted to offer the children some time and space to connect with nature.

The session was incredibly simple and spacious, we first did some barefoot walking, we all engaged with bubble breathing and finally, I invited them to explore, discover and be curious about the space around them. I had books about flowers, birds and bugs and The Lost words book, I also had plain postcards and drawing materials which they could use if they wanted. The children were encouraged to engage with the space around them and they did. Some sat in front of a flower or a tree and drew it, others went on bug hunts, others spent time reading and looking at the ancient memorial stones. One child sat listening to bird song and was identifying the birds she could hear, other children made daisy chains and some experimented with dying the postcards with the flowers and leaves.

At the end of each session we talked about how they felt, some of the words they used to describe their feelings were peaceful, calm, joyful, so happy, full

The focus of all my work is on children’s wellbeing, I know how important the outdoors is to their wellbeing, I write about it, I train about it!. However, it was wonderful to see and hear the children today experiencing joy and calmness and engaging in the outdoors, there were moments when I was really moved by how they connected to nature.

So often we think we need to entertain children or teach them, but sometimes the best opportunity we can give them is the space to explore, be creative and enjoy the wonder of the world around them.

Seeing the world through a child’s eyes

 

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This last week my nurture work has focused on photo journeys with children. Each child took photos of things that made them happy in school. The point of this exercise is to enable the adults to see the world through the child’s eyes, it’s also to hear and see directly from the children what brings them joy, what is important to them. This information is then shared with their current staff and will be used to inform their new staff to help them gain a fuller understanding of the child, it can also be used in reviews and assessments as part of the child’s voice.

This is a piece of work I have done many times over the years, what I love about this activity is how there are always new things I learn about the child. By this point in the year, I and the teaching assistants have worked closely with the child, and by now we have a good understanding about the child’s needs and how to support them, however, there are still new things we often discover.

The common thread with all my children this year has been outdoors, this is not unusual but it is a reminder again of how important it is for children to spend a lot of time outside, having space to explore, be curious, to try new things. A lot of the children took photos of play equipment and talked about how they could now climb /balance on them etc, with each of them they had a sense of achievement with this, which clearly brought them some joy and pride. One child took photos of trees and flowers, actively looking for certain flowers to photograph and he talked about how the flowers make him very happy.

With all my children the start of the school year was an extremely frightening, overwhelming experience, there was little happiness or joy for them being in school. It is such a pleasure to see these children identifying with being happy, understanding what it means to be happy and being able to show us clearly what makes them happy in school.

There are lots more ideas on how to listen to children in my new book Listening to young children in early years settings. 

Savouring Joy

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During the last week, I have been in Cornwall with my family, staying on the Lizard, the countryside and coastline here is breathtaking. I have learned over the years I find it helpful to be in a wild space at the start of the school holidays, this helps to me let go of the previous term. Towards the end of a term, I crave wild spaces, where I can take coastal walks, swim in the sea, and find some spaciousness. I know that being by the sea helps me to feel relaxed and brings me huge amounts of joy. During the week I was reading a book called the Blue Mind by Wallace J Nichols, he looks at neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, and medical research to understand why many people are connected to water and how water can be very good for our health and wellbeing. As a person who swims 5 days a week and who feels a real draw to being by the water, this book made so much sense and explained some of the strong feelings of joy and calmness I have when I am by water. The week away, being by water, enabled me to build up many more moments of joy in my memory.

One idea the book talks about is how we need to savor joy for 15 seconds for it to imprint on our mind. By noticing we are feeling joyful and savoring that moment with gratitude it will imprint on our minds. I have read this in a few places over the last few weeks, and this has made me think about how we can help children imprint joy in their minds. Many of the children I work have an imprint of sadness and hurt on their minds, and do not always recognise when they are encountering joy. Neuroscientists have found that hurt and sadness sticks to our minds and memory immediately, whereas joy takes 15 seconds to stick. As trusted adults who are co-journeying with them, we can notice it for them, comment to them e.g. wow you look so happy there, you are smiling and laughing, I think you are really enjoying this moment. Helping children to build up a memory bank of joyful moments is such an important way we can support them in their wellbeing.

Hope

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I have been reading Brene Brown’s new book Daring to Lead, there is a question in her book about the values we hold, that underpin our lives. There is an exercise that asks the reader to pick two values from a list of around 100, that’s quite a challenging exercise. One of the words I chose was hope. This is our last week of the autumn term, it has felt like a very long term, this term has been marked by unexpected closures, continual change, and the overwhelming feeling that I am holding a slippery eel that I can’t quite keep a grasp of!. There have been moments this term when I have asked what the hell am I doing here! and other moments of pure joy, moments of beauty in the midst of what sometimes feels like chaos. Reading Brene’s writing about values really resonated with me this week. I have often said to do the nurture work I have to hold onto hope. Hope that we are making a difference, hope that things can change, hope that we can bring some joy and love and safety into children’s lives.

Sometimes holding onto hope can be really difficult. I am really aware that by the end of a term when I am tired and worn down, I need to actively choose hope but I also need to actively choose what I engage in and what I block out. I currently can not stand being around conversations of negativity, I will not engage in ranting on social media, I am often turning off the news because it is all so negative. I am trying really hard to find the hope and the lightness in the dark. I am actively choosing things which feel life enhancing rather than life-sapping. I know that currently, that is what I need to boost my wellbeing. This morning I took my usual early Sunday morning walk around the community meadow, the sun was rising behind the mist in the valley. It was beautiful and joyful and a reminder that there is hope.

Making plans for your wellbeing

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At the start of last week, I spent a team day with my team. We did an exercise thinking about how we wanted to develop this year, how we wanted the team to develop and what we were going to do this year for our wellbeing. I spend lots of time thinking about wellbeing, it’s an essential part of my job, it’s what I write about!. But I really appreciated the act of taking time to stop, think and commit to paper and publicly say to my team, this is how I want to support my wellbeing. By sharing this with the team I felt that we were making ourselves accountable to one another. I love that I work for a manager who prioritises this at the start of the year, that as a team we were saying to one another this is important, as individuals we need to take care of ourselves but also as a team, we need to look out for one another.

My plan for the year to support my wellbeing is to find opportunities to swim outdoors. I have spent the summer engaging in lots of outdoor swimming and I have written about this on numerous occasions, but during this summer I realised just how important outdoor swimming is for me, I feel calmer, I feel alive and I often feel such joy. There was an article in the Guardian yesterday about cold water swimming helping with mental health and depression, I don’t suffer from depression, although anxiety is something I often have lurking in my head and chest. I have certainly found the outdoor swimming has become a very mindful practice and one which stills my mind and helps my anxiety.

As we enter a new work year ( school year in my case) I think it is really helpful to set out, write down our intentions for how we will support our wellbeing throughout the year. I know there will be times in the coming months when I will feel very stressed, and to have thought ahead about what will help is a good exercise. I am not sure yet how much outdoor swimming I will manage throughout the winter!, I have a colleague who swims weekly in a local river, throughout the year, I am planning on swimming with her sometimes, hoping that I can cope with the cold. But realistically I realise I may not manage it in December – February! and that’s’ ok, this is not an exercise about setting goals and then feeling guilty if I can’t achieve them, this is an exercise about thinking, recognising what helps in those times I feel very stressed. This weekend I started as I hope to continue, I swam in a beuatiful spot near to us, in a local river. It was cold, but I felt so wonderfully alive and joyful during and after the swim.

For more thoughts and ideas on supporting your wellbeing, I have a book called Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff.