Awesome Childhood Experiences
Earlier this year I attended an event with speakers discussing the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) – the public health implications of early adversity on later development. At that talk childhood campaigner Sue Palmer said something that struck a chord with me. She used a phrase Awesome Childhood Experiences. I loved the play on words, but it also described to me what I, and my community, have been working towards for the last 7 years – a different childhood experience for children and families in our area. The Children’s Wood project began with the intention of making childhood (and adulthood) a more nurturing, tolerant and meaningful experience for people locally. To do this, we have facilitated regular outdoor community activities on our local wild space – The Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow – and we now have a strong community feeling around the land.
You might wonder why we need an alternative, what’s wrong with the way we bring up children? Childhood is thought to be a time when children feel loved, supported, nurtured and are free of stress. However, sadly, this is not how many children feel growing up. For many children it’s a toxic, stressful or unsafe experience. Mental and physical health issues are impacting upon children as young as 5 . Because of this, there is a growing movement of people campaigning for a more nurturing, and developmentally appropriate, childhood. I think the Children’s Wood demonstrates two important ingredients which are missing from the lives of many children, but which can play an important role: community and nature.
Community has played a central role in the work we do at The Children’s Wood. It helps children to feel part of something bigger than themselves; part of a wider support network. Getting to know people of different ages, and from diverse backgrounds, builds empathy; children will learn about the struggles others have gone, or are going, through, and that we are ‘in it together’. It also builds trust in others since through our communities we will inevitably meet and get to know our neighbours. Being part of a community brings problems to be solved – we’ve experienced this many times through our campaign to stop a housing development and to get people outside into nature more. Collectively, more can be achieved since it’s easier to support the whole family as well as the child.
Community is needed more now than ever, it is far too easy to be connected to social media and electronic devices. These feed addiction and stop us from connecting with each other and feeling alive. It also breeds a kind of individualism that can undermine our healthy social, emotional and physical development. Relationships are key to making us happy and through community life we can develop these bonds with other people. Social Scientists have studied happiness levels and time and again they have found that our relationships are THE top factor in making us happy.
It is not surprising then that when relationships breakdown- and attachments are broken – children suffer. Attachments are central to us living a meaningful and healthy existence. The research into ACES highlights how toxic and long lasting the breakdown of relationships in childhood can be – this is because the attachment has been damaged in some way between the child and the adult(s). This then impacts on seemingly unrelated outcomes such as crime, physical health, mental health and even life expectancy.
The great news from this research is that there is hope. Relationships can be repaired and the wider community can help with this. Attachments can be forged with people out with family: teachers, police, youth workers, shop keepers, neighbours, community workers, volunteers and so one. These figures – YOU – in the community have the power to transform children’s lives and build resilience. All it takes is small acts of kindness or unconditional love.
YOU in the community have the power to transform children’s lives and build resilience. All it takes is small acts of kindness or unconditional love
This is where nature comes in. We have an in built connection with nature that is primitive and hardwired. Biologist E.O. Wilson describes this as ‘ the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. Wilson developed a theory around this called Biophilia which supports the idea that we are biologically hardwired to respond to nature. We need it, just like we need social interactions. Being in greenspace for even 10 minutes can help us focus better, a walk in the park can reduce symptoms of ADHD and depression, playing in wild spaces increases resilience and the list goes on. Nature will always be there. A child can climb a tree and feel relaxed when life gets stressful or there is trauma at home. The tree, and nature in general, will provide some level of nurture and relief to that child.
Sadly, children are becoming more disconnected from the natural world than ever before, and they are suffering because of it. Children need to have contact with nature and until fairly recently they have always had a relationship with the natural world. If you go back in time you will find that children would have either played or worked on the land; we are now seeing the virtual disappearance of this type of childhood activity. Environmental writer Richard Louv has brought this to our attention in his book Last Child in the Wood. Louv coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder to explain the unhelpful behaviours associated with a lack of nature. Being in nature can reduce these symptoms and build resilience, happiness and well-being. This makes it important for us to look at how we can structure our communities so as to increase children’s access to greenspaces and reconnecting childhood to the natural world. This can happen locally in the heart of communities by cleaning up and utilising local wild and greenspaces.
Even more powerful though, is when both nature and relationships coexist like they do in the Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow. When the two factors – community and nature – come together we have something very special. When this happens the child is being nurtured by two of the strongest influences in their environment; both of which build attachments and resilience. Facilitated community activities bring these two elements together and can build a more nurturing and rich environment for children and the wider community. I believe this is a great model for creating Awesome Childhood Experiences and I hope that more people take on their local wild spaces for changing childhood for the better.
by Emily Cutts
Benefits of Nature for Children with Autism
We have noticed how much autistic children can benefit from spending time outside in The Children’s Wood and Meadow and how this impacts on their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This is one of the reasons why we wanted to support the National Theatre for Scotland’s performance of The Reason I Jump this June. We hope it will raise awareness about the value of the outdoors to the life of children and young people with autism.
There is an ever increasing number of restrictions being placed on children’s opportunities to play outside in nature and, as a consequence, they are suffering. This disconnect with the natural world can be linked to higher levels of anxiety, obesity and can impact on children’s learning process as well as their social and emotional development. We believe this same disconnect is happening for children with autism.
During the last decade or more the research has been developing to highlight the impact of nature on the healthy development of children and young people. This research has shown us that symptoms associated with childhood challenges such as ADHD can be reduced through spending time in nature; for example, less anxiety and improved concentration. One area that is less well researched is the impact of nature on children with autism, despite autism being the fastest growing neurodevelopment disorder facing children. However, this is slowly changing and we are now seeing studies emerging which demonstrate the impact of greenspace on children with autism.
This research builds on a previous body of work which demonstrated that autistic children who have interactions with animals have more focused attention, social interaction, positive emotion and speech (O’Haire, 2013). This has led researchers to focus on the benefits of the outdoors more generally and we are seeing that nature is relevant for children with special educational needs (SEN)
For example, Wu and Jackson ,2017, found that children who live in areas with less greenspace show a higher prevalence of autism. The authors say that having access to greenspace may influence autism rates, saying that
“Our study suggests that green space, specifically tree cover in areas with high road density, may influence autism prevalence in elementary school children beneficially.”
Another study (Chang &Chang, 2018) found that outdoor activities provide 7 main benefits to children with autism, including promoting communication, emotion, cognition, interaction, physical activity, and decreasing autistic sensitivity. This is a small but encouraging study and supports anecdotal observations of the impact of nature on children and young people with autism. This also fits with our observations at the Children’s Wood where we notice quite obvious positive changes in behaviour, stress levels, communication and sociability of children with autism.
Taking learning outdoors is very important for children with autism who, along with other groups, can struggle with classroom-based learning (Rickinson et al., 2012). It can help to make learning meaningful and enjoyable for the learner and we notice this in the wood, children are happy and engaged when they come to use the land for outdoor learning.
Natural England Report (2013) has studied school perceptions of access to and the benefit of nature. What they found was that there are three main benefits of outdoor learning: supporting the curriculum (bringing the curriculum to life); skill development (social skills and well-being); and personal, social and health education. The report provides “strong recognition of the importance of varied learning environments and the need for more creativity in the curriculum.” and the outdoors can play a vital role.
When the Children’s Wood first began we noticed the impact of nature on children with autism, in fact the change was so noticeable and motivating that we have continued to support these groups coming to the land for outdoor learning since the first sessions in 2012. Having spaces nearby is vitally important to families, and can encourage people who live locally to return to the land with their child out with school. We’ve had positive feedback from parents and families that the land has been very important to their family life. For example, one local parent (who has more than one child with autism) told us that this is the only place her children like to come where they feel happy and relaxed.
We hope that the upcoming National Theatre for Scotland production of The Reason I Jump will raise awareness of the benefit of being outdoors in nature for children and adults with autism and will encourage people outside more. It is an important issue which needs more public awareness and so we were delighted to be the venue for this performance.
- Chang, Yuan-Yu & Chang, Chun-Yen. (2018). The Benefits of Outdoor Activities for Children with Autism.
- Hart, R. A. (1995a). Affection for Nature and the Promotion of Earth Stewardship in Childhood. The NAMTA Journal, 2, 20, 59-68.
- Natural England Report, 2013. Engaging children on the autistic spectrum with the natural environment: Teacher insight study and evidence review
- O’Haire, M, E. (2013) Animal-Assisted Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Literature Review. Journal Autism Dev Disorder, 43:1606–1622
- Rickinson, M., Hunt, A., Rogers, J. & Dillon, J. (2012) School Leader and Teacher Insights into Learning Outside the Classroom in Natural Environments. Natural England: London.
Building Mental Health
Over the last several decades the rise in mental illness has increased both locally in Scotland and the UK, as well as globally across the world. The World Health Organisation now recognises that depression is the leading cause of disability world wide. The evidence suggests that there are different things we can do to help prevent, minimise and manage these depression levels – especially for mild to moderate depression.
The Children’s Wood has been focusing on the prevention of mental illness through working with schools and the community to get children outside and to help support good mental health. We have a strong belief that by starting as early as possible to promote healthy lifestyle habits then we can make a bigger impact on the child’s later life. There is so much more that we could be doing to support adult mental health and this is something we want to focus on. Though we have been working on this obliquely through our community events and bringing people to the land, we do recognise that there is so much more that could be done, especially to support the local health services.
This is why when we came across The Conservation Volunteers Five Ways to Well being (5WW) Programme we were very keen for them to lead the 6 week programme on the Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow. The 5WW programme is an evidenced based course which focuses around 5 different ways to build mental well-being: Learning, Giving, Noticing, Connecting and Being active. Anyone is welcome to come along to these sessions. If you are a doctor, health centre or a community organisation then you can let patients/clients know about this course. You can find out more through the flyers below. We have applied for funding so that hopefully we can continue this programme over the next year and a half. The course begins on Friday 16th February, 1-3pm and is on for 6 weeks.
What is Forest School?
We work with children adults and the wider community in the wood and on the meadow. Our practice is inspired by various different approaches. One of these approaches we like is Forest School. You can find out about the other approaches that influence our work in the Research Centre
– we are still updating this section so please check back. We have trained many of our volunteers in this approach and Andrea and Joni our Schools and Community Engagement Officers are trained up to Level 3 in Forest School. Forest School has been described as:
“an inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults, regular opportunities to achieve, and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands on learning experiences in a local woodland environment.” (more…)
Being “Nature Smart” is a recognised intelligence
Howard Gardner (2006) who developed the theory of multiple intelligences, designated “naturalist” or “nature smart” as the eighth intelligence (more…)
Ecotherpay is ….