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.
Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about The Lost Words. In 2017 Robert Macfarlane wrote a book based on the lost words that had been left out of the children’s Oxford English dictionary. The words that had been left out were based around nature. The book was illustrated by Jackie Morris, I think it is one of the most beautiful books I have seen, and since it’s publication I have bought several copies for family members. Some of the words include conker, ivy, bramble, dandelion, otter, starling.
The lost words book inspired an exhibition of letter cutters, curated by the lettering arts trust which opened a few weeks again in Snape Maltings, my husband is one of the artists who exhibited, he carved the word, Otter. We went to the opening of the show, this reminded me again how so many of our children are becoming disconnected with nature and the world around them.
The last few weeks in my nurture work we have been exploring nature, looking for bugs, making nature pictures, finding beauty around us. These are sensory activities I regularly do with the children I work with, but the last few weeks I have been more intentional about naming all the things we find. Naming dandelions and forget me not, the blossom from the tree, naming the birds we see, sparrow, robin, blackbird. I want to make sure the children I work with know these names, by knowing names it helps us to connect, by connecting with nature we are more likely to want to take care of it.
The last few days I have been intentionally walking around the community meadow slowly, mindfully, with the idea of really noticing how spring is developing. The meadow is a space I regularly walk around, sometimes it is a space where I walk to wake myself up, other times to work through problems in my head. However the last few days I have been wanting to be more mindful, intentional and notice the changes that are happening. Yesterday I spent around 20 minutes listening to all the bird song, there was such a range of birds, starlings, great tits, sparrows, magpies, robin, and a wren. Often I am aware of lots of bird song, but I haven’t always noticed the wide range of birds in the meadow.
Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about how busy and noisy a lot of our schools and early years settings are. With lots of background noises, often a bombardment of visual things around the classroom, often busy schedules and timetables. There is little time to slow down, notice, find some stillness. I do believe that our busy, noisy lives are contributing to our children’s and our own mental illness.
With this in mind during this next week I am going to be doing some sensory spring walks with the children I work with, walks where we listen, smell, feel, notice, where we have un-rushed time to see and discover what is around us, where we can get in touch with our senses and our environment. These mindful walks are a good way to introduce some slowness and quietness to children.
We are entering the last week of the school holidays, I started this holiday feeling incredibly worn down and tired and I wasn’t sure I could see myself starting a new term. Thankfully now, I feel ready. I have mostly spent my holidays with a rhythm of swimming, writing, reading and a summer of spending time with friends and family, an opportunity to reconnect with myself, activities and people that I love.
Looking back over my summer, I have mostly been writing and thinking about silence practice, contemplative and meditative practice and how we support children in this, with a particular focus on how the church can do this. Alongside this I have been swimming lots, I love swimming and it is part of my daily routine, but this summer I have been finding as many opportunities as I can to swim outside. I have swum in lidos, sea lochs, the sea and rivers. I have swum in Scotland, England and next weekend I am planning on swimming in Wales, on a final weekend away before the term starts back, for my wedding anniversary. For me, the time I often feel most calm, still and peaceful is when I am swimming outside. There is something particularly meditative and mindful about swimming outside. When I swim outside I generally swim breaststroke, so that I can really notice the environment around me. Having great goggles enables me to really see what is under the water, being aware of the colours and patterns, watching the beauty of the sun rippling through the water. As my head rises above the water, paying attention to the small details of the ripples on the water, flies over the water and sometimes swallows diving to catch the flies; once a seal watching me. When I am swimming outside I feel incredibly peaceful. I have become really aware this year, how the act of swimming outside is a meditative act for me. I will, of course, continue to swim every weekday morning in my local pool, this is my routine and the people there are part of my community and I love it. But as we enter the new term and the autumn I am aware that as I enter back into the nurture role, with all its stresses and fullness, I am going to need to put in place some more chances to swim outside. I am currently looking for lidos that open all year round and wondering if somehow I can find an outdoor swim at least each month over the autumn and winter.
I have just spent the last week with my family visiting three islands Arran, Islay, and Jura. It has been a week of slowness, exploration and wild swimming. All 3 islands are beautiful and abound with wildlife. Significant amounts of time were spent watching and noticing, looking for golden eagles, trying to spot otters, laughing at seals playing, noticing hares run by, seeing highland cows on the beach and family swimming in freezing cold water and loving the experiences. This week I have really enjoyed the wide open spaces that the islands provide and I have loved the quietness and lack of people!.
I spend half of my working week supporting children in school who are finding life challenging. This is a wonderful but also at times intense job, involving lots of emotional regulation, being present for staff and children. By the end of the school year, I am aware that I long for space, quiet, fewer people. I also spent a lot of time talking and writing about wellbeing. By the end of July, I know that for my own wellbeing I need to be outside, fully embraced and surrounded by nature for an extended period of time. I have learned over the years how restorative being in nature is. Florence Williams in her the book The Nature Fix: Why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative, explores evidence from across the world on how being in nature helps our mental and physical wellbeing. She talks about a recent increase in the idea of Forest bathing in Japan, this is basically about people spending time in forests. It is viewed in Japan as a preventive therapy, as a way of counteracting ‘karoshi’ which means death from overwork. The effects of being in forests have been measured with hundreds of people by Chiba University researchers. Their research showed that a casual walk in a forest had a 12.7% decrease on the participant’s cortisol levels and 103 % increase in the parasympathetic nervous activity ( Relax state) (Williams 2017).
Over the next few weeks I will be writing, planning, thinking and dreaming about the next academic year and beyond. I hope that this time spent in truly wild places has helped my creative thought processes.
In my nurture work, it’s the start of a new term, after a badly needed Easter break. The nurture consultant role can be an emotionally challenging job and one in which you need to be fully present to the children and staff. Holidays are a vital time to take some time to replenish. Over the last two weeks, I decided to spend a lot of my time reading. The books I have read have all been around wild swimming, perseverance, finding silence and the joy of nature ( Find a way, one untamed and courageous life:Diana Nyad, The Salt Path, Raynor Winn, The Moth snowstorm: Nature and joy -Michael McCarthy and Silence in the age of noise- Erling Kagge).
At the start of the holiday, I was feeling fraught, stressed and edgy, I was aware I was catastrophising more than I usually do. The term hadn’t been particularly challenging but I was feeling less able to deal with the usual challenges. Looking back on my choice of books I can see how my body and soul were craving to read and experience things that I know are good for me. I have spent two years writing about wellbeing for children and adults. I know the things that help my wellbeing, but looking back over the last term I can see I hadn’t been doing them enough.
Going into this new term I am planning ways I can incorporate more time outside and exploring nature with the children, using mindful and listening walks with them. I have been thinking again about how I best experience silence, which I know I need every day; being outside, gardening and swimming are the best ways for me. For this I am thinking about how I can increase these opportunities, I am hoping to do some gardening each week; I already swim ever Monday-Friday, but I am also thinking of ways I can fit in open-air swimming into some weekends and end of the days. In the holidays I did my first open air swim of the year in the Cornish sea, I felt so alive and full of joy, it reminded me of how good I feel when I am combining two loves, swimming and being outside.
This weekend I have been having conversations with my husband about wellbeing. There is a joke in our family that he and the girls have lived all my wellbeing stuff, they don’t need to read the books! ( although he has recently started reading it and commented with an air of surprise that it is very good!). Our conversation was around how busy he is, he is a self-employed letter cutter, and has some great jobs with tight deadlines over the next few weeks. He knows what he needs to do, he knows he needs to eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, rest, spend time outside, intentionally do things that make him happy, and take time each day to stop and notice. But knowing something doesn’t mean we always put it into practice. He decided he needs to put it into practice a bit more.
During this week I delivered listening to young children training, I now always include staff wellbeing within any training I do. The exercise I got people to do was a noticing exercise, we went outside for 10 minutes, and I challenged them to look around, see what grabbed their attention, notice something which made them smile, maybe something of beauty and to take a photo of it, on their phones. We spend so much time rushing, not noticing, the aim of this exercise is to help people to slow down, for a moment and just notice what is around them. The staff all commented on how helpful they found this exercise.
This morning I went for one of my long walks, I knew I needed some time to encounter silence, I wanted this walk to be a slow, intentional walk, a walk of noticing and I was hopeful I would be able to do some early foraging. It was such a beautiful morning, cold but bright and sunny. I did find early nettles and some early wild garlic. For me the smell of wild garlic is a sure reminder of spring, I love the smell. The joy of foraging is that you need to be very mindful, you have to really look and notice, and be very careful about how your picking and how much your picking. I then came home and made wild garlic soda bread and nettle soup. All good for my wellbeing.
There are more ideas on enhancing wellbeing in my book Promoting emotional wellbeing in early years staff.