Desperately seeking normal: Outdoors learning and children’s wellbeing

Guest blog by Hayley Room, Founder/Manager at Dandelion Education Ltd

We are supporting World Mental Health Day again this year, as we know how essential education and awareness of mental health is. Conversation around mental health is vital to ensuring we can spot the signs, remove the stigma and support others.

Looking after mental health in the early years is important, as poor mental health may develop into serious issues as the child develops. Our mental health in the early years series focuses on how practitioners can support children with their mental health.

It’s an unusual term ‘normal’, wouldn’t you say?

Debatable, changeable, un-measurable.

And yet the term is a ‘normal’ part of every-day speech.

But what is our ‘normal’ now?

A sea of mouth masked trolley leaners outside the supermarket; a hand outstretched, at arms-length, to repel friends and family members?

It would appear that yes, this is the new normal…for now.

However, this horrific crisis is also a pivotal time in which we can evolve and improve our education system.

We could use this critical point in history to instigate a change that benefits EVERY child; that creates an inclusive system that is truly child-led and meets the needs of every single child.

We could change the future.

But WILL we take this opportunity to create a new normal that meets the needs of children today?

I am hopeful but yet it is a constant irritant to me that radio and news reports consistently remind us that children are behind, they will fail, they will not reach their potential. Sadly, a large percentage of children were already ‘failing’ and falling short of their potential far before Covid-19 emerged.

In order to help these children to reach their potential and succeed in life, it is essential that we support them back into education, but perhaps with a twist, to become part of the new ‘normal’.

Learning can, very successfully, be delivered in an outdoors space and is important for children’s wellbeing, especially after all this time of being stuck indoors during lockdown. Whether it be a wood, a hay bale, a patch of earth, a window ledge, or a concrete patch, we ALL have access to an outdoor space which could be suitable as a learning environment. The way in which we use that space makes all of the difference and, as adults, we can create a learning environment in which EVERY child can thrive and explore the world around them.

Our new normal must prioritise on one key element: The wellbeing of the child.

To do this we must draw out the potential within each child by placing a high value on time given to simply talk. This includes time for adults and children to talk together in a reciprocal, equal way, and time for peers to talk together as they engage in meaningful dialogues. There is an additional power to communication in open environments, free of noise and of expectation (bar that of being present) and time outdoors with a key person or in small groups is a powerful tool for learning and for being ‘well’. If our focus is a child’s wellbeing, said child will feel ‘well', think ‘well’ and thus be in the place where they will learn ‘well’.

At Dandelion we use a philosophical approach to teaching and learning; this runs throughout our day. Based on meaningful dialogues that promote respect and tolerance children can explore concepts central to our lives and our futures.

They develop vocabulary and oracy skills, central to social interactions; they develop self-awareness, an awareness of others and of the world around them, thus developing tolerance and empathy. Emotions, feelings and situations are unpicked, emotional literacy is developed; assumptions are challenged by debate, in an open democratic way. All of this allows a free sharing of ideas and opinions that belong solely to us. Delivering this approach requires skilled and trained adults, but it is an investment worth making.

Learning occurs every day in every situation. Sometimes removing the walls and empowering teachers, with time to spend talking to their children, will facilitate learning and will empower children. This awareness will help children to help themselves and, together, we will navigate our new normal.

In the smaller groups that are essential to our approach children will thrive, becoming creative and critical thinkers able to problem solve; they will be socially aware, the innovators, the thinkers, the carers and the happy adults of tomorrow.

Children are born philosophers, capable of teaching adults the lessons they have forgotten. Let’s give them the time to teach us how to be, and how to listen.

Hayley Room is a Founder/Manager at Dandelion Education Ltd. Dandelion Education provide childcare in an educationally rich environment, focusing on children’s emotional well-being and physical needs.

Our Level 2 Certificate in Understanding Mental Health in the Early Years is designed for learners who wish to understand mental health in the early years, from birth to 5 years old, and the role of the Early Years Practitioner to support children’s mental health and wellbeing.