Taking care of the heart through nature, play and connection in chaotic times

By October 14, 2020Uncategorized

By Lindsay Coulter, Director of Communications, Culture and Community of EPIC Learning Centre in Victoria, B.C.


The human experience kind of sucks right now. How do we not get crushed by the magnitude of environmental collapse and devastation plus increasing rates of aggression and fear?

We all need to be affected by our world.

I’m a mom of two young boys (7 and 3 years old), extremely grateful each has a forest school to find sanctuary for their feelings and to rest in caring relationships. (Sure, I had to create a K-2 forest and nature school from scratch for my eldest…that’s an entire stand alone blog post!)

Now more than ever, I see forest and nature schools (FNS) as the key to help children develop the grounding they’ll need to find rest and play in our living world. 


At FNS my children develop an understanding that we are not separate from the Earth or each other. (And it’s not all about us.) Their wellbeing—physical and emotional aspects—are also primed and nurtured. If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with FNS holding core values like play- and inquiry-based learning, experiential learning, risky play, and often child-centred or child-led activities. What may be less deliberate and under advertised is what I’ve witnessed unfolding naturally, that FNS are places for:

    • adaption
    • maturation and,
    • perseverance

Adaptation means you change from the inside by those things you cannot control on the outside (external factors). It’s deep and spontaneous. Maturation is something we have no control over. We can only provide the conditions that give rise to it. Perseverance is “a day-by-day decision not to give up”, as defined by Meg Wheatley. Perseverance is the ability to stay on the path, to keep going forward which is different from resilience which is the capacity to keep bouncing back (a coping strategy). 

Even before the pandemic, you can see how crucial these processes would be to the unfolding of human potential and creation of a good human society!

These uncertain and chaotic times are calling all parents and educators into a new way of holding space and creating safety in a wounding world. Luckily there is a lot we can do to support the children in our lives who are stressed, anxious and alarmed.

Whether your child is in a forest school or not, try this at home:

    • Provide kids with opportunities for self-reflection. Find a sit spot in nature — a local green space or in your yard — and stop to tap into all the senses. Kids can journal (write or draw) or simply reflect on what they hear, see, smell and can touch. Go back to the same spot over and over again, even through the seasons.
    • Create gratitude rituals which enhance our resilience and ability to face challenges. You can journal three things you’re grateful for before bed. Or, speak gratitude at supper time and go around the table.
    • Make time for true play! It optimizes a sense of agency and in play, your will is preserved. It can also give us a chance to touch sadness, melancholy, etc. Because play is safe and “doesn’t count” cause it’s not for real, it can also be rest. Don’t make play work. (See more about emotional playgrounds below.)

It’s simple practices like these that can increase a sense of connectedness, a sense of purpose, a sense of awe, wonder and inspiration. Play can take care of the heart, allowing kids to work through feelings and fears.

As a mom and forest and nature school co-creator, I am committed to creating sanctuaries for feelings with two simple ingredients in place, emotional playgrounds and connection (attachment to caring adults). What’s in the secret sauce?

Emotional playgrounds

Emotions move us, have hidden intelligence and they take care of us. “Feelings are the answer, not the problem.” shares Dr. Gordon Neufeld. In fact, he also recommends a campaign to “Protect the Feelings” in his course, Keeping Children Safe in a Wounding World

Emotional playgrounds are places to work through feelings, even help feelings come back since we can’t protect our children from all that is bad, sad or uncertain. Last week my kids were playing dress up when my 7 year old announced, with a lace and silk fairy skirt over his face, “This is the Queen’s face mask!” Other ways to make space for processing these crazy times are by:

    • Reading poetry and stories
    • Exploring theatre, dance and drama
    • Playing music, even starting a choir
    • Art
    • Use puppets or dress-up instead of separation-triggering games such as chasing, hunting and finding. Or find a balance.

Note: Poetry or dance, etc. can feel like work for some and play for others. Tune into what is activated rest (play) for your learners!

Use instruments of connection

A child’s relationship to their adult is what helps create a shield. The presence of a shield can help make space for kids to feel their feelings which makes us more human and humane. We can feel caring when we’re attached, as well as cared for and cared about.

    • Create a Connection Philosophy (instead of a behavioural policy) for your school with ideas on how to keep a child’s heart soft and relationships strong (you cannot lead a child whose heart you do not have). Share this with parents and paste it on the fridge!
    • Create an intake questionnaire for parents and ask what lights their child up, what makes them smile and what information has been shared with kids about the pandemic to gain insights.
    • Always connect before you direct: get a child’s eyes, smile and a nod. (And don’t only do it for compliance but for the sake of it!) Make time to greet students so they feel seen, known and are collected.
    • Practice matchmaking as a bridge for students
    • Create community so children can find rest in that. We’re meant to care for one another. Togetherness has always been the key to survival!
    • Find rituals and customs to hold and create a safe container. Create the village for attachments. Allow children to be seen as significant.
    • Create a playful culture with staff and within your family! Did you know humour, lightness and play can increase our capacities to deal with suffering?
    • Eat together. Food is a relationship connection and can be a pause. It can help reset all the separations the children have faced throughout the day. They learn to count on coming together. The table or stump circle or creek side can become a place of rest. Think about how to begin the eating. Maybe grace or a gratitude or a story or a poem?

The world doesn’t need more numb, fearful and emotionally stuck people. It doesn’t have to be all there is. It does require us to put relationships first — with ourselves, one another and our living world. And play like your soft heart depends on it!

These insights and tips have been inspired by the tender hearts at the Neufeld Institute like Dr. Deborah MacNamara and Dr. Gordon Neufeld. Check out courses and books by faculty, including the newest title Reclaiming Our Students: Why children are more anxious, aggressive, and shut down than ever—and what we can do about it by Hannah Beach and Tamara Neufeld Strijack. (You’ll receive a free download of classroom activities that can work in any forest, beach or farm setting.)

Lindsay Coulter seeks to inspire others to claim sane leadership and find better ways to be in this world together using skills of compassion and insight. To prepare for chaos she believes in creating a good human society wherever we are, whenever we can with the people and resources available to us now. Her expertise is as a green living expert for more than a decade, as former David Suzuki’s Queen of GreenTM, leader, facilitator, community catalyst, compassion cultivator, soul activist and courageous conversation starter. She’s a dedicated mother, naturalist and community leader.

Find her @SaneAction on Instagram and Facebook. She’s also the Director of Communications, Culture and Community of EPIC Learning Centre, a forest and nature school in Victoria, B.C.