What Are The Building Blocks of Life for Children?

by | May 29, 2021

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.– Viktor Frankl

A storm is brewing and it’s coming from inside a learner. Emotions such as excitement, frustration and anger are taking hold and the learner, unaware of the existence and reason for this storm, is overcome by their feelings. The group disapproves of this outcome and other storms begin to form in the hearts of the peers. Our Aishling Forest School Manifesto filled with child-led agreements is brought to the attention of the learners and some, being able to identify their own storms, have now taken charge of their personal emotions and calm is beginning to arise.

At our home in the woods, the above scenario is a daily occurrence and each learner has the opportunity to explore not only within our woodland but also within their inner landscape. For any person, dealing with intense emotions can be difficult and learning to emotionally regulate is essential for quality of life. Emotional regulation is a person’s ability to control emotions and manage them in order to change them and create an appropriate response. An example of emotional regulation is feeling sad about leaving a caregiver and then calming their emotions and changing them to contentment as they begin to play with their friends.

According to a study published in July 2017 by Karen Hebert, PHD, OTR “individuals who have difficulties in using emotion regulation skills experience less satisfaction with their performance in life.” According to the same study, these individuals are also likely to report physical and cognitive fatigue. And this makes perfect sense. If you’ve ever observed a child working on a difficult math problem, you’ll notice that cognitively strenuous activities require more cognitive resources, resulting in feelings of fatigue when completing activities. Emotional regulation is a cognitive activity that, if found difficult for the individual, can leave the person exhausted in a very physical way.

The building blocks of emotional regulation start early in childhood and at Forest School, time and space is given to this very complex and messy exploration. The exploration commences with the ability to recognize the emotion (emotional awareness), identify where the emotion is coming from and why, and then manage it. Self awareness happens before the learner can  learn to emphasize, take others’ perspectives or even notice norms and rules of engagement (social awareness). This takes time to develop and unstructured time in nature provides the learners with the perfect environment to do so. Research has proven that nature-based programs have shown a positive influence in physiological response (lowering heart rate at times of distress to help stay calm) and an increase in positive emotional state overall, according to Christine McQuay; Charlea Olmstead; Taylor Reamy; Elizabeth Richardson, MOT, OTR/L; Robert Koslow, PED.

Additionally, as a mixed age group, learners can observe their peers at different stages of emotional regulation. The benefit is that each child models the different stages of emotional regulation to each other. Below is a generalized emotional regulation developmental table to showcase these different stages. Please be aware that these are a general range and don’t account for temperament and other factors:

  • 3 year olds: The younger learners are at the beginning stages of self-regulation. At around 3 years of age, the learner has self-awareness and can self-evaluate. This ability increases with time and is closely related to language and communication skills. The more the child can name their emotions and identify different ways to manage their emotions, the better they get at it.
  • 4-5 years old: Children now have a better understanding of social rules and may need fewer reminders to remember the set rules of engagement/ play. At this stage, a child may be likely to try and assert control over others. This is also the beginning of abstract problem solving, which is why they may find themselves frustrated and needing help to deal with more complex situations.
  • 5 to 6 years: this is the age when they get a better hold of understanding others’ feelings and can emphasize more.
  • 6 to 10 years: learner is less egocentric, is less impulsive and better able to regulate behavior.

storyline aishling forest school

Storylining about a magical leaf that was both excited and nervous about going to school.

Storylining about a magical leave that was both nervous and excited about the start of school

At Forest School, we honor and celebrate each learner, their needs and provide tools for their personal discovery. Some ways we do that include:

  •  Storylining: this activity consists of learners standing together in a circle and continuing a story. The catch is that any learner in the circle could be picked at any moment to continue the story based on what was last said. Stories are ways to initiate conversations about a topic of conflict, emotions or other social dynamics. This helps with impulse control and language development.
  • Community circle: at the beginning of each class, we express gratitude and ask each learner a community-based question. These questions address social conflict, emotions, strategies and more. Some of our most interesting questions this season were “What has been hard for you this past year?” and “Have you ever felt 2 or more feelings at once?” What were they?”
  • Our Child-Led Agreements/Manifesto: helps establish social rules and boundaries for safe and healthy play. These child-led agreements teach children diplomacy and self-advocacy and be used as a visual or verbal reminder when needed.

Here are some ways to continue self-regulation skills at home:

  • Modeling and narration: ex- Mom is upset she broke a glass: “I am feeling sad I broke this glass because it was special to me” “I am going to take a deep breath and calm down”
  • Play pretend:  take roles and showcase different scenarios and a range of emotions and responses.
  • When reading a book: take a minute to identify facial expressions a character is illustrating. “What do you notice about his face?” or “do you see his eyebrows?”
  • When your child is in distress: be present and ask if they need help.
  • Model different techniques: ex-take a deep breath as you sit with them. You’ll be surprised to see them imitate you
  • Be in the emotional state you are trying to help your child achieve: Embody calmness if that’s what you want to achieve in your child (and yes this is often easier said than done.) Sometimes taking a breath for yourself and then taking a breath for your child can help you to co-regulate when feelings are on the rise.
  • Learn about the Zones of Regulations: these zones are designed to help children, caregivers and teachers recognize when they are in the different zones as well as learn how to use strategies to change or stay in the zone they are in. In addition to addressing self-regulation, children will gain an increase their emotional literacy, skills in reading other people’s facial expressions, perspective about how others see and react to their behavior, insight into events that trigger their behavior, calming and alerting strategies, and problem solving skills. Check out some free Zone resources here
  • Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns: as an occupational therapist, I’m always here to help!

So the next time sunny days turn grey, as they often do, we will be better able to weather the storm together.

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