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the power of nature: how nature can help ks1 children form lasting friendships

Nature helps children to learn about friendships

The importance of Friendship

Friends along with our family are generally our closest and strongest supportive influences in our lives. They prop us up when we are down, offer us encouragement and critique, they understand, accept and challenge our feelings and views, and they share experiences, love and laughter with us.  If our family are our roots, our friends are our trunk and form the network of our branches, allowing us to blossom and shoot leaves.

The most defining factor about friendships compared to the relationships we have with our family, is that we choose our friends. The selection process is not always obvious, the connection could take time to develop or it could form from a simple shared look across a room.

As with wild animals in nature, we rely on our natural instincts or our ‘gut’ to decide on who we trust and who is a threat, our way of forming judgements, and this is a crucial part of our decision-making processes around forming friendships.  However, having the confidence to trust our initial feelings is not always easy whether we are young or old. As we grow and understand more about the world, the ‘head or heart’ decision making process becomes harder as more external influences and controls come into play and affect or bias our judgement. 

With friendships, it is often the external influences affecting our selection process or judgement which can cause the negative sides to friendships – conflict and disagreement, isolation, bullying and peer pressure.  Therefore, learning to be confident in our own beliefs and to have the resilience to stand up for ourselves from a young age helps us navigate the trickier areas of friendships and many other aspects of life.

What is important to remember and understand as a child and as an adult is that we’ll form relationships with many people who we’ll term as friends throughout our life, but with varying degrees of closeness. Many just support different phases or seasons as we grow and develop. Some are there for a specific reason – social, work, activity or shared purpose. Others become constants in our lives, who are trusted to peel back our bark and understand our core.

Whether friends stick around or come and go like the seasons, understanding that people are in our lives for different reasons allows us to stay positive when friendships do disperse – a knowledge that we are not alone, and another friend could be just around the corner. As the saying goes, ‘friends come into our life for a reason, a season or a lifetime’ and instilling this phrase in our psyche helps to relieve the pressure of making friends.

Exploring the wider world builds confidence

The importance of friendships for children

For children, the process of forming and maintaining friendships is very different depending on the developmental stage they are in.

The earliest friendships are formed from defined pools of people who are presented to children by their carers, whether that be in family friendship groups, toddler playgroups and nurseries.  Children at this stage do not form attachments to other children in the form of a confidant but learn all the basic tools they need to help them development more intimate friendships later on – sharing and taking turns, working together, listening to instruction, leading, empathy. It is a learning zone where they can trial different approaches, begin to understand boundaries – environmental, physical and emotional – and develop their confidence and communication.

The impact of the pandemic

Unfortunately during the pandemic a lot of children missed out on a key stage of their early years education due the reduced amount of social interaction. This meant that children who would previously have been developing those early experiences of being around others now have had the increased challenge of being integrated into an environment that might perhaps feel overwhelming, but without the learned basic experiences or forming friendships.

Cognitively children are often unable to express their feelings and emotions at this age which can sometimes result in behaviours that parents / teachers find hard to understand.

Children learn to share, take turns and problem solve

Friendships in school

As they reach school age, they need to use many of the tools they have developed in their early years to begin to step forward and make friends from their new pool of people in their class. For some children this is an easy, instinctive process. They may already possess the natural ability or lack the inhibitions to speak out and approach others. In reception or year 1 this is an easier task for most, before increased self-awareness kicks in. However, many do find themselves overcome with shyness, or are impeded by other factors such as the overwhelming feeling of being in a new environment, away from their usual supportive network such as parents, or simply by the number of new people and experiences around them. For a 4 or 5 year old this can be sensory overload and a huge step.

 How many times have we witnessed children clinging to their parents at the school gates in tears? Maybe you have been one of those parents? The guilt is hard to deal with and the feeling that you are abandoning them.

However, where many will find their path gradually and grow in confidence with the support of their teachers and peers, some will continue to struggle and then identifying the root cause of these feelings is key. 

A complete Friendship pack for Teachers and Educators

Wild Kit of Friendship

That is why we have introduced the Wild Kit of Friendship, to help children to navigate their feelings and emotions through a story and activities that enable them to explore different elements of friendship and for teachers / educators to observe and support them during this part of their journey towards understanding more about the complex elements of friendships.

How can nature and the outdoors help in this process?

Using nature and the outdoors in this phase is a great way of supporting the exploration of themselves and others. The biggest help nature provides here is a sensory experience for young children. Textures, colours, sensations, changes in terrain – experiences which provoke reactions in different ways and encourages them to use their judgement, try something new and challenge their perceptions. These natural environments also allow children to be inquisitive and provide them with the urge to explore and take well-judged risks independently.

Observing others reactions can help children to learn

Additionally, Children at this age like to imitate other children – they identify that they are similar and learn from each other by following suit. Having multiple small children in an outdoor area together allows them to observe each other’s actions and measure the level of risk they feel comfortable to undertake.

 Handing one small child a worm to hold, may provoke tears and shock in one child, but hand it to another child in their presence who is calm and interested in the worm encourages the other teary child to reconsider their initial negative reaction. They are learning from other’s examples. With an adult also reinforcing that the action is ok and safe also provides further encouragement to overcome fears. And then before you know it a child is holding the worm happily, proud to have overcome their fears, in raptures about having an alien body wriggling around in their palm. In this one small action you have taught a child about sharing, overcoming fears, resilience, trust, taking the lead, and being responsible and caring towards another – all essential parts of creating and maintaining friendships.

The importance of confidence in this process

Developing confidence and self-belief is often the starting point for many, creating coping mechanisms to allow them to overcome fears, nervousness, and anxiety in challenging or changing situations. Finding the ability within themselves to reach out or not worry about being judged or rebutted. However, we are all humans and even if we do manage to get over that hurdle, rejection is hard to deal with and another lesson that has to be learnt often through experience.

Discovering things together with your child helps to understand their feelings and builds trust and confidence.

How parents and carers can help?

Starting early to create a bond between yourself and your child is really useful in order to open up dialogue around feelings early on. Using open ended questions, metaphors to explain things and make situations seem less personal or targeted and just being there, ready to listen and not judge are key skills to develop between both you and your child.  Being there as their ultimate pillar of strength, one that never wavers, particularly as they develop, change physically, intellectually, and emotionally and are affected more acutely by the world around them, is best sort of friendship they can experience in life.

If you are a teacher or educator and would like to learn more about the Wild Kit of Friendship then please contact us here 



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