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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The power of nature: fighting kids, troubled adults

A while ago I was down south nannying for a friend. You probably remember me mentioning the two adorable little girls who were in the middle of a huge sibling rivalry stage. It's a really common problem, but to me, seeing it up close, it just resembled what happens during a spell of miserable weather in the preschool room at childcare; after a while, kids just need more ego space.

I can remember taking my class out into a soaking wet slippery playground one day the instant it stopped pouring with rain, just because they were in far more danger of harming each other inside. Yes, someone slipped over and cried, but at least nobody split their head open on the corner of a bookcase when they fell due to running around crazily indoors. Children are just as susceptible to claustrophobia and the irritation of forced company as we are.

And so I fell back on that knowledge while I was nannying. Every time those purry little pussycats began acting like tigers, showing their claws and laying into each other in word or deed, I'd take them outside. For a while, they'd continue to compete and squabble. But then nature would work its magic on them.

First, as you can see in the picture above, they'd find their own space; I can't begin to tell you how important that is. Kids do need some ego room. They're no more fond of being crowded on top of one another all day than we are.

After a while, once they'd calmed down, they'd really get involved in and fascinated by the properties of the natural world. The temptation to share their discoveries would be overwhelming; it would draw them together, whereas ownership of a brightly-coloured, manufactured toy always seemed to tear them apart.

Nobody owns nature, you see. But it is endlessly fascinating.

In the end, they would find a way to co-operate and play together without fighting, at least for a while.

What's not to like about that?

This strategy worked over and over again. Even when the outdoor space involved some manufactured equipment, the strategy worked.

They'd start out doing things in their own space...

...oh yes, there was still an element of competition there- who could go the highest was important for a while- but soon they started to compete against themselves instead of against each other. Can I go higher than last time?

SO much healthier.

And then, with their angst worked out, they'd find a way to play co-operatively. Hurrah!

Do you see how they've used natural objects imaginatively here, to invent their own game? The long stem of bamboo was a 'found' object in the park. You don't need expensive goalposts and nets.

(You do need a ball, but there are ways of 'inventing' one of those, too! Ever made a ball out of old work socks, rolled, twisted and folded? It even bounces!)

Here are my little tigers again, on another day-

first playing in their own space...

and then co-operating.

That's a valuable message for anyone who's having issues with their kids fighting. If you get them outside and they're STILL fighting, find a larger and less populated space. The day I took these kids to another very popular local playground, which had fabulous equipment but was crowded with other families, they fought harder than ever. We got out of there quick smart and found them some ego room!

But the value of this message doesn't just apply to our kids. This was brought home to me very recently, when I had back-to-back visits from two seriously traumatised adult friends.

I live in the forest, you see. Here, nature is all around us, and even the house is a sort of outdoors-when-you're-indoors house, with big verandas and lots of big doors and windows. And when my friends come here, suffering from their various heartaches, they all discover a magical quality here.

First, they can sleep. There's something about being in the outdoors nearly all day that promotes relaxation, whether you're out of your mind with worry or not. It's quiet here. It's beautiful. You can let your worries drift away when you're in a quiet and beautiful place.

Second, they get involved with the outdoors, because the outdoors is where we are every day; there's always something to do here. I mean, look at these.

We're doing some building works here at the moment, which to an environmentally sensitive person like me means leaving a minimal carbon footprint- using materials off our own property. So these trees had to be respectfully and carefully selected, felled and the bark stripped off.

Well, there's nothing like thumping an ironbark log with a blocksplitter to get out your feelings of frustration and anger with a failed relationship. There's nothing like ripping and prising the loosened bark with your bare hands, and finally exposing the beautiful surface of the wood, to make you feel like you're really in touch with the earth. It gets things back in proportion. You realise that your entire worth and ability isn't tied up in any one person or event or activity; you just made something naturally beautiful appear, with your own focussed efforts.

And you filled your lungs with air, and you stretched and worked your muscles, and while you did it you were surrounded by the songs of unseen birds and the rustle of leaves in the wind. Suddenly nothing seems quite so bad.

I watched nature help to heal my two friends while they were here. They went home calmer, happier and more prepared to deal with their problems.

And I thought, we Early Childhood bloggers are all trying to encourage people to get their kids outdoors, but what about the adults? What about the parents, what about the childcare workers? How you look after the children in your care depends so much on your own state of mind. Are we all taking time out in nature to heal our hurts?

Go and find somewhere beautiful nearby. Maybe you'll have to drive for an hour to get there, but find that quiet and beautiful place. Don't just take your kids there- take yourself there.

Because hello- you deserve some peace and healing too.


  1. Love it, Annie! We have a lovely outdoor deck surrounded by pine trees, but seldom use it for dinner together, even in the summer, because it gets a bit cold and blustery where we live. But last weekend we ate dinner outside in our jackets and it was the most wonderful time we've had together as a family (5 of us) in a long while. We've vowed to try to do this once a week at least. Outdoors makes all the difference. As a French friend of mine once said, "the food tastes better outdoors". We all sleep better, eat better, play better and even connect better when we're in nature. Thanks for this post, Annie!

    1. Thank you, Janet- what a perfect illustration that nature is magical even when we're not in crisis. It can enhance so many experiences.

    2. Someday I'd love to come and visit your wonderful sounding home! We'd have a lot to talk about, I'm sure.

    3. You are welcome anytime, Janet! If you ever come to Australia, note that although I live in NSW, we are a lot closer to Brisbane than to Sydney. Plenty of room for you and yours once our new bedroom is complete!

  2. Thank you, Annie, I'll keep it in mind! I've never been to Australia and don't have any plans to go right now, but someday... The new bedroom sounds fab! <3

  3. What do you do about the, er, "challenging" child that will follow the one who is expressing a need for space and privacy? I have a home daycare and several of my bigger kids tend to follow whichever child is expressing a need for privacy or solitude. I usually redirect the followers but they often go right back to bugging whoever wants to be alone. I'm getting tired of this!

    1. I think that following other kids around, apparently to annoy them, is actually a sort of cry for more stimulation or more attention. If the best thing they can find to do is to be all over someone who wants to be alone, at this age it's generally an expression of an unmet need.

      I'd be spending more one-on-one time with the followers and getting inside their heads. What really interests them? How can you get them engaged in an activity that's less disrupting? Appealing to them for empathy is unlikely to work until they feel that they have had their own needs met. Redirecting won't work unless you direct them to something that is personally interesting to them.

      Try to meet them halfway in a very positive manner, and see what magic you can work that way. Good luck!

  4. Love this article, and I am so glad summer is on it's way here in Oz, yes, yes, i know we can all rug up and get outdoors at anytime of year but it's so much nicer on a warm day, especially when the almost 2 year olds always gravitate to the nearest source of water! i love how you use the photos to show the phases of apart and together. Shared this on twitter (yes I'm a twit, are you?)

    1. Thanks, Leslie- yes, spring is certainly here and I'm glad too! I am on Twitter @auntanniescc

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