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When nature nurtures children: Nature as a containing and holding space


Nature-based resettlement initiatives can help immigrant children build resilience and attachment

This study looked at the effects of  week-long outdoor summer camps on the sociality and psychology of immigrant children in Montreal, Canada.  The authors draw on developmental theory which states that “holding” (both physically as well as in the sense of providing love, empathy, and receptiveness) is an important function that caregivers and communities provide children that fosters their growth, attachment, and eventually, the formation of a self-identity.  Caregivers also act as “containers” for children’s negative emotions—accepting anger, fear, and sadness when the child is unable to deal with them, and responding with care that eventually helps the child to manage these feelings on his or her own.  Throughout childhood and into adulthood people continue to seek holding and containment—functions that may be provided by nature.

Immigrant and refugee children need resilience, strong relationships to a caregiver, healthy social networks, and a sense of connection to their home country in order to deal with the stresses of their changing situations.  Past work has shown that nature helps buffer life stress for children, but this study also showed that it helped immigrant children adapt to their circumstances.

This was a small study that included 18 participants from five different continents. Most of the research was conducted in a community garden setting, while some took place in a large urban park.  Using a qualitative approach, researchers assessed children’s interactions, drawings, conversations, and data from semi-structured interviews.

Researchers found that children were engaged in nature using all of their senses, and were able to “let go” and become more comfortable both physically and emotionally.  In addition, their shared experiences and interactions in the process of exploring the natural world fostered the formation of friendships and the resolution of conflicts despite social and linguistic barriers.  Children who had been very withdrawn or very combative, and were facing difficult life experiences like a major move or the moving away of parents, were able to deal with their emotions, express themselves, and interact more positively with other children.  They related to nature as a presence in their lives, holding conversations with it, exhibited care for it, and saying that they wished they could spend more time in it.

Nature also helped these immigrant children feel at least a temporary sense of continuity and belonging, and, as a non-reactive entity in which they could express anger, throw sticks, and vent difficult emotions, it helped them moved beyond these feelings.  Finally, sensory experiences in nature also served as linkages that reminded them of their home country or of caregivers that they hoped to see again.  For these particular children, such experiences helped maintain attachments to places and people in their physical absence.



Hordyk, S. R., Dulude, M., Shem, M., (2015). When nature nurtures children: Nature as a containing and holding space. Children's Geographies, 13(5), 571-588.


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