Nursery Management

Wellbeing activities: “We have to continually recognise and respond to what children need…”

  • Wellbeing activities: “We have to continually recognise and respond to what children need…”

Jenny Shaw tells TEY how Busy Bees’ mindfulness programme supports children’s wellbeing across their nurseries…

We encourage educators to use mindfulness activities with the children every day. By doing these regularly, we’re giving children techniques in their emotional toolkit to use if they feel anxious, frustrated or overwhelmed. 

When our centres reopened after lockdown, we knew this would be particularly important for supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing, and to help them adjust to being in an early years setting again. 

All practitioners have easy access to the wellbeing activities on Unleashing Potential – our learning and development app. The activities include a programme called Be Calm, which has three categories: Be Calm and Breathe, Be Calm and Positive, and Be Calm and Active. 

Tuning in

Be Calm and Breathe is a range of mindfulness activities based around breathing. This includes things like ‘handy breathing’. Children hold out their hands and breathe in as they trace up their hand, and out as they trace down. It’s a lovely, simple activity and, if a child feels self-conscious, they can practise this easily with nobody realising they’re doing it. 

Be Calm and Positive involves sitting still and tuning into our senses – what can the children see or hear or taste?

There’s also a gratitude exercise where we stretch up high and think about the best thing that’s going to happen today; stretch out wide and think of the person we’re happiest to see today; then stretch out our legs and think of the thing we’re most looking forward to tomorrow.

Stamp it out

All children learn and feel things differently, and some won’t feel relaxed by doing breathing exercises; they need to get that energy out instead. I was lucky enough to go over to some of our Canadian Busy Bee settings – they were the inspiration for our Be Calm activities. 

While I was there, I observed a child who was about to experience a meltdown. The educator said, “Shall we go and push the wall together?” And that’s what they did. The child pushed the wall as hard as he could, stopped and pushed it again. Then he was off and playing.

It’s about tuning into what works for each child and providing those tools to help them in the future. 

Be Calm and Active always focuses on movement, so it might involve stomps, bunny hops or jumps. We also ‘Stamp it out’ or ‘Clap it out’. Together in a circle, we clap or stamp as fast as we can and gradually slow down. It’s a great way of getting everything out then, together, bringing it back down again. 

These exercises are also perfect for younger age groups. Babies can kick their legs or clap, and I think it’s really beneficial to do these activities as early as possible, adapting them if needed, rather than saving them until preschool. 

All of our wellbeing activities are accessed via the Unleashing Potential app and there’s a version of the app for parents, so if we find that an approach works really well for a child at nursery, we can recommend that activity for families to try at home, too. 

Emotional literacy

As well providing ways for children to feel calm, it’s essential to support them to understand and name their emotions. As adults, we can usually say, ‘I’m tired’, ‘I’m hungry’, ‘I’m frustrated’, ‘I’m delighted’.  But when children don’t have that vocabulary, that’s when we see it play out in their behaviour. 

The more activities that we can provide where we’re naming emotions and talking to children about how they’re feeling and connecting with that, the better. We use things like emotion dice – where we stick pictures of different facial expressions onto a large, foam die.

We then roll the die and if it lands on an angry face, we’ll overemphasise how we look when we’re feeling angry and ask the children to show us their angry faces, too.  We also provide mirrors so the children can see their faces as we play.

Another activity is ‘Feelings and music’, where we give children an instrument and play different types of music that they can play along to. We’ll ask how the music makes them feel. Does it make them feel excited? Does it make them feel happy? Which is their favourite music? 

We, as early years educators, need to tune in and recognise children’s emotions, too. The most important thing is having a really strong key person approach, because you’re that person who knows if something’s not quite right. You can snuggle up with a story instead of that activity you’d planned, or go outside and act out being angry dinosaurs! 

Supporting transitions

Since the children returned after lockdown, they’ve certainly needed more outdoor play and physical activities. We’ve also found that they’ve struggled more with transitions.

We often talk about horizontal and vertical transitions, and tend to pay a lot of attention to the vertical transitions of preparing children for their move to the next nursery room or going to school, but it’s actually been those horizontal transitions of coming into nursery in the morning, or from the sleep room back to play again that children have needed support with. 

One really simple thing we do if a child has a sleep time at their nursery, is to try and put their bed out in a similar place and make an A4 photo of that child. On the back, we write information about how they like to sleep, so, ‘I go to bed with my snuggy’ or, ‘I have to have my dummy’. 

We then laminate the picture and place it on the bed for the child. Children have their key workers, but this way everyone knows what comforts the child, and it’s instilling that sense of belonging and independence – the child feels confident to go and find their bed. 

Transitions are especially important after the holidays. When children come back after the Christmas break, they’ve just had all that time off with their families, they may’ve been eating things they wouldn’t usually eat, they may’ve stayed up a bit later or had more screen time. And this year, parents may have felt anxious about COVID, and may have been unable to spend the holidays as they normally would. 

So, especially as they return after the Christmas break, we need to feel confident that we can throw all our planning out the window and go with what the children need. Whether it’s more physical activities or more quiet time and stories… whatever it might be, we have to continually recognise and respond to what the children need from us. 

Jenny Shaw is the Lead Academic and Research Developer at Busy Bees nurseries and leads on the development of Unleashing Potential. To try out some Busy Bees activities, visit their Inspiration Corner.