This is my last week of the school year in my nurture role. The last few weeks I have been writing the end of year reports for the children and reflecting on the year. The joy of writing the reports is the opportunity to notice and remember the distance traveled with the child and school. The stories we hear in term 6 when we pick up our new nursery children before we start work with them, can often lead us to a feeling of uncertainty and slight nervousness of the year ahead. We need to be able to put that to one side and have faith that we can make a difference and see change. Then we look back over their first year in school and realise that we have all survived and often thrived and they are a different child to the one we first heard about a year ago.
This last week one of our team was reflecting on our role as being the job of building up confidence in others and giving faith and hope in challenging situations to enable staff and children to flourish and fly. I love this statement, for me, it is filled with hope and opportunity. As I look back over the last year there have been moments of pain and sadness and sometimes despair, but there have been many more moments of delight and laughter and joy, of flourishing and thriving.
I started term 6 anticipating it to be challenging due to workload, my aim for the term was to thrive it rather than survive it, and I was going to do this by wild swimming each week. The term has ended up being far more stressful than I could have anticipated, it has been incredibly busy but there have also been some huge and emotional family stressors. Outdoor swimming has been my oasis and has given me moments of joy to hold onto, I have managed 7 outdoor swims over the term. The highlight came this week when I swam with my team at Vobster quarry, it was a wonderful way to end our year, swimming together in a beautiful, peaceful location. There was a vulnerability with one another with some of the team feeling very nervous about the swim, but there was also a huge sense of joy and a feeling of flourishing at the end.
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.
I have been looking over the photos on my phone of 2018, they are mainly photos of wild swimming, fantastic books I have read, walks around the meadow, gardening and being with my family. All the photos are showing times of when I was fully present, enjoying that precious moment. Of course these photos are not a full representation of the year, there were many many times when I was distracted, frustrated, very scared; the year brought us some frightening illness of loved ones, and believing that they would die, it brought several times of tears about the circumstances the children I work with are living in. The photos also don’t show the doubt and questioning I encountered over writing projects or the times of being with friends and not having the words to support them in their pain.
I am not someone who looks into the new year with plans or resolutions, I have ideas but these are mainly based on lists of different wild swims or a list of lidos I would like to swim in. What I have learned over the last few years is to enjoy the moments, be present to the now and try hard not to panic or worry about the next day. I find this so hard sometimes, I have written before about how easy I find it to worry, stress and presume the worst. The pleasure I have had while looking back at my photos is how I have captured times when I was enjoying the precious moments.
One of my Christmas presents this year from my husband was a carving he made me of the words You are here, a reference to being in the moment, this links to our mindful, contemplative practice that we both try hard to embrace and practice. This piece of art will go in our house, and I hope at times over the year it will remind me to stop, be present to the now not thinking ahead and worrying about the next.
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.
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.
Over the last few weeks, I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about adult wellbeing. Within early years it has been high on the agenda again with a report form Preschool learning alliance showing that 1 in 4 people in the sector is considering leaving due to high stress.
Through conversations over these last few weeks, I have been reminded how hearing about wellbeing and knowing about the need for good wellbeing can sometimes feel very overwhelming if we are in a place of high stress and despair. I am beginning to wonder if actually, all the talk of having high stress and the need to have good wellbeing can sometimes lead us to feel inadequate and more stressed. I have heard speakers and read many articles where we are being told that we need to look after our mental health, we need to talk about feeling stressed, however sometimes all the ideas and solutions can also feel overwhelming,
Over the last few weeks, I spoke at Preschool learning alliance conference and on a podcast for Early Years TV with Kathy Brodie ( this will be out in a few months). My main reflection on both of these is that is ok to take small steps to well-being. Sometimes we can feel too overwhelmed to try the many different ideas, but if we can put one thing in place each day, this is making a small step towards improving things. I often encourage people to do each day one thing which makes them feel happy, this might be going for walk, reading a book, sitting in the garden for 5 minutes with a cup of tea. It will be different for everyone, but finding one thing each day which makes you happy, which helps you to smile, this won’t solve all your wellbeing issues but it is taking a small step towards a change.
For me swimming and wild swimming makes me smile, it helps me to feel alive and joyful and makes me feel really happy.
You can find more ideas for staff wellbeing in my book Promoting Emotional wellbeing for early years staff