How Adult Attitudes to the Outdoors Can Shape Children’s Early Years Experiences
Kathryn Solly, a Specialist Early Years Trainer and Consultant, shares how adults’ attitudes to the weather and environment can influence young children’s perception and experience of the outdoors.
Aisha Thakker (50 Things Marketing and Communications Officer) - What made you start to think about adult attitudes to the weather and environments?
Kathryn Solly - Well, quite a long time ago now I wrote my first book about risk, challenge and adventure. Then my career in consultancy training and speaking about outdoors continued and the more I observed adults (and by that I mean both practitioners and teachers as well as parents and family members) it was apparent that some love outdoors and some loathe it basically. You could categorise them as mud haters or mud lovers, that’s my nickname for them.
Some people just accept it, make the most of it, find joy in bad weather and others who perhaps have had less experience some of them may never have had very much outdoor experience or somewhere they've had some negative experience or trauma things like that will need more time and more support in order to rebuild the trust or gain trust in what is being offered.
Because often it's about experience or lack of experience. We know that some people, some groups of people have had almost too much experience outdoors. If you come from war-torn wherever in the world you've probably spent more time outdoors hiding, trying to stay safe than in a secure family home. So that will influence you and if you're a child growing up with that sort of background and lifestyle or perhaps you know if you've had the sort of lifestyle where you've been rehoused a lot or you've been moved on from place to place, you've only had limited experience and by that often, it can apply both to urban areas as well as country areas where children just don't get out for a variety of reasons.
One group that I can think of are children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities because they're often overprotected. I think also, some families will feel excluded you know when we look at this through their cultural lens, their background, their heritage and they feel maybe it's not their place but it's a white middle-class place and they feel uncomfortable there which I think is something we need to be really aware of, alongside the sort of loaded language. And this applies to gender as well as race, it's not about black or white or male or female or whatever sort of experience, it's about the unique experience and I'm always reminded about Te Whariki in New Zealand and how they used the family, the culture, the heritage and wove them into this woven mat in order to create a really powerful learning development experience for young children and that included outside. It included many of the cultures of that part of the world and where people have come from by talking to people. That's the thing we don't do, if we start by talking to families and finding out what their experiences and what their background is then we can understand more. Does that help?
AT - Yeah, actually so in terms of how those parental attitudes and adults who care for children's attitudes can go on to impact the children that they care for, how do you think that those do impact the children’s experiences in their early years?
KS - Well if you think about babies, their brains are wired to interact, to touch, to feel, to find out. They are experts at observing non-verbal communication, they feel it they don't need to be told it, so they read human responses if we are uncomfortable if we are upset if we're scared they feel it and they pick that up and in slightly older children, if they're taken outside sometimes and then they're unwillingly dragged back in to do “work” or interventions to help them, actually, they're not going to like indoors very much and they probably would have done far better having an intervention i.e. an interaction with an adult about what they're interested in, what they're curious about what they wanted to explore than being taken indoors.
Outdoors is simpler in a sense, indoors actually limits the use of the senses, outdoors sort of wakes them up and we know that nature connectedness actually improves cognitive skills and attainment in school and sleep and all manner of things so we should do more of it not less of it.
Also, children hear things and experience things and sometimes they're sent to nursery or setting or school and they've got so many layers on they can hardly move let alone go to the toilet. Then it's like if they have an accident and what have you, the whole thing can sort of deteriorate so we can as adults, bubble wrap them and put them in cotton wool and overprotect them. They run around, they keep warm, it's us that get cold because we are the ones who stand around as adults. And I think also, children have unique body temperatures. I can think of children I’ve taught as well as my own grandchildren, you know they don't need the layers that we do as we get older, we definitely feel the cold and the damp more and it's very much about adult attitudes to getting wet, to getting cold, getting muddy and what have you and I very much appreciate if you've only got one coat or one pair of shoes, you don't want really that messed up. So ideally settings, nurseries, schools should have some sort of provision for outdoor gear to help families to enable the children to go outside and also the adults who work there because again, the most poorly paid member of staff often only has one coat and they don't really want it covered in mud, to be honest, do they?
AT - Do you think it’s important for children to get used to the feelings of cold and wetness?
KS - Yeah I mean I think they're naturally attuned to touch and it's us that react or overreact and say “don't touch” the moment they put anything towards their mouths then the sort of panic zone kicks in but children want to challenge themselves and I've watched my youngest grandson who is now 10 months, he will put stones in his mouth but he's just feeling them, it’s like another sort of hand in his mouth. It’s another opportunity to explore and discover, and I think that's what we forget. I have yet to see him actually put something whole in his mouth, it's exploratory.
AT - I mean obviously the things that you’re saying, it rings very true with the activities in 50 Things like exploring the cold, touching the ice and thinking about parents who are cautious about children going outside in the wet, or the cold, or the mud, do you have any practical tips for them to be able to get started and ease into that?
KS - Well I've taught children now from birth to 98, if that includes children I'm not sure, but I think the older I get the younger I get in in a sense but I think often, the things we worry about are the things that don't happen and it's the things we don't worry about the do happen so for children it's often the first time or the first few times they see something like ice in a puddle that they want to touch it, they want to crunch it with their feet, it's magical, it’s something that they have to explore, there’s a thing inside of them that draws them in.
It's like a cobweb-covered in raindrops, you know, it's an amazing thing but often to us, it's not magical and we actually then get in the way of them having a chance to learn and that might be because of our own life experiences or that fear of being judged, and if you've had any involvement with, “agencies” shall we call them, that might have actually affected the way you see things, that you want your child to look clean, smart and not soggy or a bit blue from getting cold but actually we know you don't catch colds and germs from being cold you have to have a bacteria or a virus or an infection of some shape or form, and nature actually helps our immunity. There’s a bacterium in soil that actually helps our immunity, it also reduces stress and anxiety, vitamin D from sunlight again, enhances our immunity.
And things like serotonin, the happy hormone, and oxytocin help us to focus, to engage, to feel happy alongside dopamine, so that's a positive and there are some things like our eyesight where we must go outside. There's an epidemic of myopia, shortsightedness because children are indoors too much and their eyes are not learning to use all their parts and muscles because they don't get the variance of light that they would do outdoors. And similarly, hearing, you know, you adapt to different levels of hearing by being in different environments and then there’s all the stuff about obesity and healthy hearts which you know is about physical exercise and what have you.
AT - You've talked about how your own self-experience has been rich in outdoor learning, how did that inform your attitude towards weather and environment?
KS - Well I think I was lucky, I was born in the country, I wasn’t born on a farm I was born next door to a farm but my mum had a race with a Jersey cow and I beat the calf, but you know it was that experience of being outdoors with animals and my dad didn't have a car, I went everywhere on the seat of his bike, one day my mum put me on the bus, turned round to get my sister to put on the bus and the bus went off with me and apparently I was quite happy sitting on the bus watching the world go by, but the world is a different place now.
I mean I still have a love for animals and plants and things like that, I think my father taught me a lot in the garden and then later on his allotment he taught me how to create roses from the wild rose, the dog rose and things like that and I have experiences that I can remember and I must've been about four, my great uncle was a tenant farmer on a farm in Hertfordshire and I can remember sitting on the back of a horse with my legs out either side because the horse was so big and I was so far up. At school, I was fine until I went to secondary school and then I was beginning to realise that the rules didn't always include me as a human being and what I wanted to do. But I had a fantastic biology teacher who had been a vet so she's had another experience in life and she said well you like plants and animals and children, what about teaching? So I went and trained to be a teacher, and my degree was in rural and environmental science so that began the chain of jobs which always had a very strong outdoor element from beginning to end, including working in Papua New Guinea on voluntary service overseas and in a primary school where my six-year-olds looked after two crocodiles, so lots of adventures!
AT - Would you say that when you were in Papua New Guinea, attitudes to children outdoors, what were those like there?
KS - I mean it was such a different place and I became a very different person, outdoors was everything I mean indoors was very limited in actual fact because you had tropical weather, it was only when it was absolutely pouring in the wet season that indoors became more important. I mean I can remember ploughing with the tractor that the New Zealand government gave us, planting gardens with children, teaching them to clean their teeth and you know, lots of different things. Papua New Guinea is a huge country, eight times as big as Great Britain and it has over 800 languages and you realise how big the world is and how small Britain is in actual fact. Also, you know they could use phrases like capsizing the wheelbarrow because they would capsize a canoe made out of a tree so it was the nearest thing, and this economy of words made me realise how important language was because there are four main lingua franca, English being one of them and when they saw a piece of technology that they didn’t have a word for, they created a phrase so helicopter became eggbeater below God. And again that fascination for language I think linked with the outdoors was the thing that pointed me to early childhood when I returned, although I was trained as a middle secondary school teacher, I retrained as a nursery, early years teacher. It was meant to be and I’ve never regretted it.
AT - Has there ever been anywhere in the UK that you’ve seen that has really excellent attitudes towards the outdoors in the early years?
KS - Being headteacher in a Chelsea nursery school for 17 years I would say that it has excellent practice outdoors but that was based on the ethos of Dr Susan Isaacs but I've been to many outdoor nurseries forest schools, beach schools, nature-nurture nurseries, so many and it's an area of real growth and expansion because people, I think the pandemic has helped it, have realised actually these things matter, that connectedness to nature enhances well-being, makes us fitter, healthier all that stuff. And it's also about giving children time, space, slowing things down and not having so much stuff clutter, going for a walk with your child I mean we had the pleasure of doing that with the two oldest grandchildren on Saturday and it wasn't a particularly wonderful day in terms of weather, but watching them splashing in puddles and counting how many swans were sitting on the nest and looking at various plants and naming them, gave me such joy and pleasure to see them being comfortable and happy and at ease and energetic in an outdoor environment.
AT - How old are your grandchildren?
KS - 6, 3 and 10 months.
AT - So do you think that being outdoors will be an important part of their recovery post covid?
KS - I mean I think it's an important part of it, and we have to be realistic with mental health, physical health and emotional well-being and benefit from being outdoors and babies need to touch and feel and explore well he's (grandchild) now very much whizzing around crawling and pulling himself up onto things so you know I can see other things, he’ll be able to enjoy soon enough but it's also about the fact that we live in a country where the weather is so variable you know. We have to be realistic it's going to rain at times, it's going to be hot and sunny at times, it's going to be snowy and frosty and misty at times, that's what living in an island community is about basically and I think we have to maximise it rather than loathe it.
AT - If you could give a message to parents about embracing the outdoors, embracing all different kinds of weather, what would that message be?
KS - I think there's a sports company that has got it as their logo but it would be “just do it.” Because children and adults are 100% washable and dry-able and even if we don't do it, we can watch it through the window but that's not real, we know that children can actually recognise logos now faster and more efficiently than they can recognise trees or plants or wildlife.
There’s a beautiful book called The Lost Words which was done because people are realising children didn't know what a dandelion was or a bramble or an otter, it’s a really big book and it’s beautiful, the illustrations are wonderful but it's about nature and the things that actually, we’re losing contact with when you read that prisoners have more outdoor exercise time than children do, you know, it's a worrying context.
So my message to parents is “take them out” and even if you’re fearful, just go a little way because children will spot a dandelion fighting its way out through the pavement, they’ll find a worm on the pavement, they'll see the clouds and “ooh, looks like a giant” or a lion or what have you, there are lots of things, even in big cities, that you can explore in nature.
And it can be just around the corner and then if you take photos like you do with 50 Things, you can talk about it later, you can maybe read a story or make up a story, or draw pictures, paint something, do some sewing whatever it might be that enriches the memory, and that’s a memory not only for them but also for you. It will help their language develop enormously as well as their relationships, their ability to collaborate, communicate and all those important things and their resilience and all the things that they need for school and for life.
AT - I wondered if you had a favourite 50 Thing?
KS - I mean I've got so many favourites I think the night sky (#14 See The Stars) is a great one, at Chelsea it was always magical to take the children out although the light pollution spoiled most of the stars, there's something special about being in the dark. Is it Jill Tomlinson who wrote, “the owl is afraid of the dark" and I think you know again we often create this aura about nighttime as being something to fear for children but it is magical, so you are seeing the stars and the moon and talking about them and with Ramadan there’s a huge connection at the moment to the passage of the moon and you know, that helps us to understand other people too. And being out in the dark and doing things with a torch, so it links to science and what have you. I mean I've got so many den making (#33 Home From Home), having a fireball which sounds terrible but that actually is wonderful, you are learning that it’s something that helps us, to cook, to keep us warm, to give us light, as well as something that can be dangerous and children, need to learn both sides of these things that yes there are things that are hazardous but also things that are hugely beneficial and actually, human life wouldn't exist without so again that sort of fits with the passage but I think something simple like den making that you can do indoors and then you can take it outdoors is also really good in the daytime.
I visited St.Edmunds but I also was at the launch of 50 Things in East Sussex so I’ve sort of seen it in two parts of the country happening. I think it's a great initiative. I think parents, grandparents, family members should really sign up but I can see it spreading nationwide which is magical, that’s really really important. It's a pleasure to be able to help and it's certainly going to be a little part of my second book which I need to get on and finish, which is about leading, learning outdoors from birth to 7 so, oh it will be featured in that.
To find out more about Kathryn's work, click here.