Today I write about something that has been on my mind for a while but I have not known how to begin. The great thing about a blog is that it can contain threads that have not yet fully come together, and this blog represents what I have observed is a worrying increasing trend of children not accessing school or other settings.
For some time we have been working with children and families who are neurodiverse, with or without diagnosis and we have often been asked by parents if we can accommodate children who struggle with confidence or anxiety and may need lots of support. As a result we are always looking for ways to make sure that we are as inclusive as we can be and adapting our practice continually to support and help children and young people to have a place and a small community where they can stay and belong if they want to. We now run sessions that are considered alternative provision for anyone who is not in a school setting (or benefiting from time out of their setting), including heavily subsidising places for home educating families. Many families have felt no choice but to home educate and for some it was an emergency decision to prevent further trauma.
As a part of this work, I receive messages every week from parents who are desperately seeking alternatives for their children, as often schools are not able to accommodate the needs of some children or can’t offer them a place at all due to restrictions in numbers, budget or staff. This picture is made clearer still some days by sad posts asking for advice, by parents on social media forums, who are fighting battles each day to try and get what their child needs. So many children are not in school because they are not coping.
I have been one of these parents too. Struggling to have the needs of my child understood with or without a diagnosis and too often my parenting blamed in place of where I hoped I would gain understanding. We have moved schools many times and had periods of home educating at significant financial cost, just to get some respite and balance for the whole family’s wellbeing. We know that mainstream school is not always a good fit for all children and while some schools do an amazing job at supporting children and families who have varying needs, this is very much a post code lottery.
Often when some children make it to us outdoors they may have already moved schools, fought many battles and in some cases been traumatised by the experiences of trying desperately to fit in. We start our work by establishing trust and hoping we can build a place and time with them where they feel accepted and feel they belong.
There is so much about the outdoors that helps us. Of course, as practitioners we are keen to learn as much as possible to help us be able to understand and support children and families. We have a commitment to supervision and training internally and attending regular professional development outside of our organisation but crucially we understand and capitalise on what the outdoors can bring.
The absence of walls and artificial lighting is often enough to improve the situation for many children, a woodland isn’t needed, but add loose parts, wildlife, nature, water, mud, something to climb on, swing on, slide down, hide in, others to play with, someone to talk to who accepts you and maybe something to cook on and you are most of the way there.
Schools can do this and many do. We are fortunate to work with amazing teachers, SENCO’s and others who fully understand that nature and some green space is exactly what some children need and will be able to respond to. It can have a positive impact on learning, physical health, and most importantly to us-greater feelings of wellbeing-get this right and often other benefits will follow. This highlights the impact that the pandemic has had and that mental health has become a big issue for many children, young people and their families. A recent Guardian article stated
“Separate NHS figures showed that in 2021, one in six children in England had a probable mental disorder, up from one in nine in 2017, with girls aged between 11 and 16 more likely to have experienced a decline in mental health than boys the same age. The proportion of 11- to 16-year-olds with eating problems almost doubled from 2017 to 2021.”
Cooking and food is a vital part of feeling belonging and feeling nurtured and nourished, this is often easier outdoors with no mess or smells to worry about and we work on this a lot. Food and communal eating is a thread that runs through all of our work. Food is often the site of control for some children who feel out of control of so many things in their lives and for others they remain in such a heightened state of stress for much of the day that anxiety prevents comfortable and enjoyable eating.
I do not mean to offer up the outdoors as if it is an easy solution for often very complex issues that children and families experience, it’s not easy, it is in fact very difficult. Having outdoor space and committed, experienced outdoor practitioners is a start but as my colleague Mel says, in fact all of the links in the chain need to be solid for there to be optimal benefit, meaning all of the people around the child need to be on board and working together.
Many services are overwhelmed after chronic underfunding and now the back log from the pressures of the pandemic, some have even ceased to exist. I await my own adult ADHD diagnosis for example and I have been informed that the waiting list is at least 5 years in Cornwall. The understanding about the benefits of the outdoors and nature only seems to increase and certainly I see many people training as forest school leaders and making new careers outdoors. I am sure that many established outdoor providers have also seen an increase in need for their services. Outdoor pre-schools and nurseries are certainly doing a lot to help to bridge gaps in lost experiences, learning and development for young children after the pandemic and all without adequate financial support. Many under 5s groups and also youth communities and services were lost and so we ourselves keep -difficult to financially justify- groups running, due to understanding the loss that children young, people and their parents have experienced over the last few years.
Connection and belonging are so important to all of our well-being and this blog is about my concerns for families who feel disconnected and like they or their children can’t belong. I am not naïve enough to suggest that the outdoors holds all of the solutions, but it is a tool and it can be a place where connection and belonging can be made possible. We see children make progress outdoors, we see joy and we see vital learning about each other and ourselves but we are just one link in a chain that feels a bit broken right now.