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
For those who work in schools or term time early years settings, we are part way through term 5. I always think of term 5 as being an easier term, with my nurture work the children are usually in a good place, they are more settled; often by now the school and children have reached a point of understanding one another. The children often feel safer and happier. But this term hasn’t quite been the usual pattern for a whole variety of reasons. This term I and some of the staff I work with are counting down the days to the next break. For this reason, the bank holiday Monday is a joy!. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, I wouldn’t change it for any other, it brings me so much delight and hope and satisfaction, but this term I am feeling tired.
The question I often write about and put to others is what can you do that will make you happy? and the extra day that the bank holiday brings us is a perfect time to think about this. It doesn’t have to be big, expensive things. Early this morning I walked around the community meadow, I often do this on a Sunday morning, but this morning I walked barefoot, through the morning dew. By walking barefoot it forces you to slow down, it connects you with the earth, you notice more, you become mindful. The coldness of the morning dew was at first a slight shock, but it soon became really enjoyable. By the end of the walk I felt so happy, the endorphins had really kicked in, in the way I feel when I swim, particularly when I swim outside.
I know from experience putting in place small things that make you feel good, that bring you joy, these really help us to look after our wellbeing.
For more ideas on looking after you well-being look at my book Promoting emotional wellbeing in early years staff.
On Tuesday this week, it is world mental health day. We know that there is rising level of stress and anxiety in adults ( as well as children). In 2015 there were two survey’s with teachers and early years staff, they found that 79% of teachers were considering leaving the job due to stress (Espionza 2015) and 59% of early years staff were also considering leaving the job due to stress (Crown 2015). As a nurture consultant, I work in primary schools, I work with teachers and TA’s, and I have noticed a higher number of staff who are becoming more stressed and feel unsupported, and feel the pressure is growing too much. This concerns me; we know that if our wellbeing is in a poor place then we are unable to support and increase the wellbeing of the children we support. There is growing recognition within the education system about the importance of helping children’s wellbeing, but I believe there is still a lot of growth to be made in supporting staff wellbeing.
Earlier this year I was asked by Jessica Kingsley Publishers to write a follow-on to my book Promoting young children’s emotional health and wellbeing , they wanted a book focusing on staff wellbeing. During the time of writing this book I was aware how there are many aspects of job stress and anxiety which are out of our control to change. However being aware of what helps our wellbeing is a good step towards taking back some control, putting this into our daily or weekly routine can help us to take some steps towards improving our wellbeing.
I have learnt over the years that an important way to help my wellbeing is through having regular times of silence and stillness, I manage this in different ways, through swimming each week day morning, through spending time outside and practicing mindfulness. The best for me is swimming outside in the sea, but I don’t get to do that as often as I like from living in Bath!.
I think there is a real strength in thinking about what helps our wellbeing. It will be different for everyone, I am a morning person, I thrive on early mornings, so the early morning swim works perfectly for me, but for many, this would be deeply painful!. Although many things need changing in our education system, there is without a doubt far too much pressure being placed on teachers and early years staff, and this can leave us feeling very disempowered. However, if we can work out what helps our wellbeing and put some of that into practice, we can begin to move forward, and we can start taking steps towards improving our wellbeing and mental health.
I have an arrangement with a good friend called Will; he is a children’s counsellor working in schools with upper primary school-aged children. During this last term I have messaged him each Thursday, his day when he is not in schools, and ask him ‘ what will you be doing for rest today or what are you doing today that will make you happy ? . I, in turn, tell him a little of my week and what I am going to do to be kind to myself or to find rest. We started this as I noticed Will was getting worn down, run down and I thought he needed to take care of himself more. But also it also came about because I was aware we are both lone working most of the time and I thought this accountability to one another would help both of us.
Today Will’s question for me was How will you celebrate the work you have done this term, and that threw me, but I loved it. This week and this term have felt pretty tough and long, there have been some hard and sad stories that I have heard, that I have supported children and staff in, those stories don’t have happy endings, they are still hard and sad and messy. At the end of a term like this it is easy to feel exhausted, I know I am run down both physically and mentally, and it is easy to miss the achievements and overlook the small but good moments.
Will’s question helped me to reframe my term, to tell myself what has been good, I do this all the time with staff, but recently I have forgotten to do it to myself. I took the time to write a list of what I am proud of in my work over this last term, and that felt good. So the next part, how was I going to celebrate?- I love gardening, and this is my favourite time of year in the garden, with planting new seeds. So I decided to buy some sunflower seeds, I have planted ten seeds to celebrate the ten children I have supported and worked with this term, I will enjoy seeing these seedlings grow into beautiful flowers over the coming months.
So my question is – how will you celebrate the work you have done this term?
These last few weeks I have been growing plants with children, we planted cress faces and planted peas in pots. I love the activity of growing plants with children, it is hugely sensory and the children I work with need many sensory experiences to help them feel calm and in touch with their feeling and emotions. Also, there is something very beautiful about seeing a child who can find life and school challenging to be supported to nurture and grow something; it can give them a massive sense of achievement. As I went back into school this week all the children were excitedly showing me the peas that had started growing ( the cress worked less well!). The children were all taking such pride in watering and checking on their plant each day. There is the risk the plants won’t grow; we discovered cress doesn’t survive the weekend without being watered, but the staff and I were able to support the children to understand this and think about what we could try differently. The activity of growing something with children is an excellent way to help them with their wellbeing. It gives them sensory experiences; we can use lots of emotion language while doing it, we can talk about the importance of being cared for and tell children ‘ my job is to care for you and together we are gong to care for this plant’.
I know many great examples of nurseries and schools who have gardens that children help to tend and look after, RHS have a schools project with ideas and suggestion on how your school or nursery can set up a garden. Many of the children I work with can find school work hard and a challenge. However they often respond very well to being outside and gardening, if they have support in taking responsibility for some of the growing they can often thrive and develop in this role and take real pride in what they have done. I wrote a blog piece about being outside last week and the research showing how good this is for our wellbeing and children’s wellbeing. Gardening is also recognised as an excellent activity for wellbeing; the charity Mind has many gardening projects across the country set up to help people’s mental health. I know for myself Gardening is one activity that helps me to feel calm, I find gardening a very mindful activity, I become totally focussed on the activity, and it allows me to switch off from everything else. I think this is the same for many children who are stressed and anxious.
This weekend I plan to spend lots of time in my garden and greenhouse.
Yesterday I spent most of the day outside gardening, under the blue sky, enjoying the early spring sun. I felt the happiest, most relaxed and the most awake and alert that I had felt all week. I know that being outside is good for my well-being, I can feel the difference it has on me. My 17 yr old daughter also spent some time outside taking a break from her A level work; she was sawing branches off a tree that needed cutting back, again she was the most happiest and calm that she had been all week. We could both see and feel the difference spending time outside was having on our wellbeing.
We know there is lots of research on the need for children to spend more time outside, I wrote a chapter on this in my book Promoting Young Children’s emotional health and wellbeing. There is now growing research to show how being outside can have enormous benefits for adults wellbeing as well as children. The UK mental health charity Mind has information about Ecotherapy; this is about experiencing nature, being outside, working outside e,g gardening, they suggest this therapy can be used to help with mental health problems. I have been reading a new book this week called The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, in her first chapter she talks about a growing interest in Japan called ‘Shinrin-yoku’ in English this means Forest therapy; this is about people spending time in forests, it is viewed in Japan as a preventive therapy. The effects of being in forests have been measured with hundreds of individuals by Chiba University researchers. Their research showed that a casual walk in a forest had a 12.7% decrease in the participant’s cortisol levels ( stress levels) and a 103 % increase in the parasympathetic nervous activity ( Relax state). ( Miyazaki 2012). Japan have realised that the stress levels of many people living there are very high, partly due to long hours that they work. They have now set up forest trails in many forests across Japan to encourage people to get out into nature and alleviate some of the stress they have been encountering in their busy work lives.
I think the challenge can be finding the time and opportunity to be outside; it might be worth considering for this next week can you find some time to be outside? This could be taking a coffee break outside, going for a walk on a lunch break, finding some woods to walk in today. If you work with children how are you going to incorporate outdoor play and outdoor learning into your week? This will be hugely beneficial to you and the children.