Gift of Nature

It’s hard to imagine that Sandstories was ever off the road during the pandemic restrictions because my capacity is by now almost completely booked up for the next 12 months. I’ve had so many enquiries from commissioners who are now feeling much more confident to deliver face-to-face training.

So, already, I’ve been travelling hundreds of miles around the UK and it’s been a privilege to reconnect with practitioners on the front line from across so many different agencies.

If 10 years of austerity measures had already taken its toll on the stamina and resourcefulness of the public and voluntary sector, then the impact of Covid has been the salt in the wound.

And yet, I continue to encounter extraordinary people who are digging deep to draw alongside some exceedingly vulnerable children and young people.

In addition to the delivery of Sandstories sessions, I have also been undertaking a diploma in trauma informed practice. This has been incredibly stimulating and has deepened my insight into the impact of trauma on the attachment, neurological, physical and immunological development of children.

You can be sure that I’m now weaving this additional learning into my training content.

An aspect which has perhaps taken me a bit by surprise is biophilia and the healing impact which the natural world can have on human beings suffering from stress and anxiety. Whilst I had a vague idea that it was good to get outside into the fresh air and creation, I have only recently learnt about the scientific evidence of the hormonal stimulation this provides in the human brain and body.

It’s amazing!

Here’s a quote from a book called The Biophilia Effect by Clemens G Arvay:

“Plants communicate directly with our immune system and unconscious without us even needing to touch, much less swallow, them. The fascinating interaction between human and plant is hugely significant for medicine and psychotherapy and is just starting to be understood by science. It keeps us physically and mentally healthy and prevents illness. In the future, contact with plants has to play an important role in treating physical illness and mental disorders. There simply must not be clinics without a garden or access to a meadow and forest, no new neighbourhoods without vegetation, and no cities without wilderness.

Plants heal without having to be processed into teas, creams, essences, extracts, oils, perfumes, or drops and tablets. They heal us through biological communication that our immune system and unconscious understand.”

I serve as a governor in a special SEMH (social, emotional, mental health) high school where the introduction of “forest school”, encourages the learners to spend time outside doing adventurous things such as lighting campfires and building structures. It’s hugely popular with some very traumatised teenagers.

The school is going a step further by introducing an indoor woodland within what is otherwise a very barren and unused atrium at the centre of the school building. It’s a huge project to undertake, but we have a dream of having real, living trees and plant life woven into the very fabric of the school!

Bringing this back to Sandstories, there have been so many times that participants of the training have commented to me that the heuristic materials I use make them feel calm, as they walk into the room and see the natural materials and colour tones of my storytelling resources.  

This is a very small and simple example of the power of biophilia.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Staying connected

Sandstories training has now been back on the road for a couple of months and I have been privileged to meet with extraordinary practitioners in Glasgow, London, Southampton, Shropshire, Cheshire, the north-east of England and the Home Counties. This has included health professionals, police officers, children’s services practitioners, schools, youth workers and family support workers.

A consistent theme, which has been expressed across all of the groups I have met, has been the toll which working through pandemic restrictions has taken on the crucial relationships between working colleagues and team members. Working from home and ‘holding’ so many vulnerable children and young people (often whilst sitting at their own kitchen table) has been deeply stressful and exhausting. Without the moral support and access to shared practice wisdom, which comes from face-to-face contact with colleagues and managers, so many practitioners have felt disconnected. Some have described feeling lost.

This links so powerfully, indeed it is like a mirror image, of the impact on children and young people who don’t feel connected with at least one emotionally available adult in their lives. These children also feel lost.

Attentive, meaningful relationships are crucial in helping children to overcome trauma, to avoid physical and mental ill health and to help them become the best they can be.

In the same way that an emotional available adult is considered the best protective factor in a child’s life; I sense that practitioner access to empathic, wise and compassionate support is an equally vital protective factor in sustaining and strengthening a committed and yet exhausted workforce.

Albeit just for a day at a time, Sandstories seeks to create a space where these needs are acknowledged and where mutual support and encouragement can be shared in a non-judgemental and empowering way. Staying connected.

Photo by Tembinkosi Sikupela on Unsplash

Repeating patterns

It’s been more than a year now since Sandstories was on the road, spending time with frontline practitioners across the UK and sharing stories about child-centred practice.

As enquiries and commissions have started to come back in, I admit that I have felt some anxiety that the messages within Sandstories might seem out of touch with a post-pandemic world. I have even wondered whether I need to recreate and remodel the core content of the training, so that it would speak to current practice experience.

And then I encountered the recently published 2020 Annual Report of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel:

The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel is made up of independent experts who review serious child safeguarding cases – when a child dies or suffers serious harm, and abuse or neglect is known or suspected.

The chair of the panel is Annie Hudson and she said this:

“The national Panel focuses on the most serious cases of child abuse and neglect; through this specific lens, we have been able to highlight the urgent need for everyone involved in safeguarding children to address some of the stubborn challenges which have bedevilled much child protection practice.”

These are six themes which the Panel has identified as some of these “stubborn challenges”

  • Understanding what the child’s daily life is like.
  • Working with families where their engagement is reluctant and sporadic.
  • Critical thinking and challenge.
  • Responding to changing risk and need.
  • Sharing information in a timely and appropriate way.
  • Organisational leadership and culture for good outcomes.

So, I’m pleased to say, I’m no longer anxious about the content of Sandstories training!

It’s not out of date.

The six themes identified in the annual report are woven inextricably through Sandstories training sessions, which recognise and respond to the “urgent need” to wrestle with repeating patterns and stubborn challenges. 

Sandstories remains passionate about keeping children at the centre of all we do and nothing, not even a global pandemic, will take this focus away.

Photo by Carlos de Toro @carlosdetoro on Unsplash

Facemasks, austerity and useful tips

Last month heralded the reopening of pub gardens and non-essential shops can also trade again!

Hopefully this will bring solace – and wages – to many people who have been struggling.

It won’t be long before the restrictions are reduced still further and everyday activities will be able to replace some of the socially-distanced isolation we have all been experiencing.

It’s hard to imagine being able to mix freely with people, with a renewed confidence that essential human contact is permissible.

For some young children, this will feel like a whole new experience.

Others will find it hard to remember being able to see an adult’s face without a mask covering it.

Anyone who has children in their lives, either in their personal life or through their professional/volunteering activities is acutely aware of the impact that the last year of social restrictions, reduced opportunities for schooling, societal anguish, poverty and uncertainty have had on so many thousands of children and young people.

Books will no doubt be written about this, over the months and years ahead.

Research will be undertaken to better understand the impact of Covid 19 and its inevitable viral successors on early years development, childhood self-esteem, young mental health, access to meaningful education, hopefulness for the future and expressions of creativity.

And in the meantime, we are responding to what is before our eyes in the here and now, as spring turns to summer in 2021.

No one on the frontline is able to ignore the fact that when we entered the period of a global pandemic, the infrastructure and resources for children and young people had already been under assault for 10 years. Social policies and public sector/ local authority funding were determined by political priorities which disadvantaged children and young people – and in particular those who were already incredibly vulnerable.

This link from NSPCC acknowledges much of what you already know in terms of the impact of the additional, pandemic stress on families, alongside some really useful and practical advice on how to respond to children and young people within these households:

Photo by Amin Moshrefi on Unsplash

Face to face

Throughout the long months of Covid restrictions, the word “unprecedented” has been used an infinite number of times.

This has applied to every part of our personal lives.

And it has also had an immeasurable impact on the work of professionals and volunteers, who have been showing unsung heroism in their determination to draw alongside vulnerable children and young people.

At no time in anybody’s professional training were they given training on how to engage “remotely” with children and young people.

The opposite is true.

The emphasis has always been on building meaningful relationships.

And these relationships rely on eye contact, understanding body language, and the reassurance of reliable and attentive face-to-face support.

Despite this, the creativity of many practitioners and volunteers has been extraordinary.

Online teaching, “garden gate” conversations, food parcels, social media contact, and telephone conversations have been harnessed in a way which was previously unimaginable.

So many of those adults offering this support to children and young people have themselves been experiencing Covid anxiety and social isolation. Working from home, without the day-to-day reassurance from the physical presence of colleagues and line managers, has also taken its toll. Whilst these arrangements have had some positive effects, that has depended very much on the individual circumstances and household arrangements of practitioners.

Alongside this, Sandstories has found itself set aside, as face-to-face training has had to be postponed and cancelled by commissioners across the UK because of the demands on the frontline and the requirements of social distancing.

There have been many requests for Sandstories to transfer its unique training model onto an online platform, so that it can be accessed virtually.

However, after much soul-searching, I have reached the conclusion that not only would this require a film crew (which unsurprisingly I don’t have!), to provide a 360° interpretation of the Sandstories presentations, but it would also strip away a crucial element of the training itself. 

And this crucial element is the creation of a safe space for a group of practitioners to be able to reflect upon, explore, and express the realities of their day-to-day experience of working with vulnerable children and potentially resistant families. This has never been more important than during a time of global pandemic.

Sandstories has developed new presentations to help practitioners reflect on this new reality, in a way which will acknowledge and strengthen their desire to keep children at the centre of all they do, capturing all the learning from the last 12 months and looking ahead at how this can be incorporated into increasingly intentional child-centred practice.

Sandstories looks forward to the day when face to face training can resume.

Finding our way

One of the joys of delivering Sandstories training is that I am able to draw on many different creative sources to illustrate the stories of real children, so that they can encourage us to strengthen our child-centred practice.

In telling their stories, these children cease being simply “cases” and instead can speak of their lived experience, even though their lives have been cut short.

Using a large labyrinth, rolled out on the floor, has been one of the storytelling techniques I have used to help us listen to the distant voices of children and young people. They remind us of our deep desire to be child-centred in our work with the children we know.

At first glance, a labyrinth looks a little like a maze – you know, the kind of thing that you find in a children’s puzzle book. But a labyrinth is different.

A maze is designed to make us lose our way, whereas a labyrinth helps us to find our way.

It’s impossible to get lost in a labyrinth, the path will always lead to the centre.

The labyrinth comes in different designs, is about 4,000 years old, and is found all over the world. 

Ideally, the labyrinth will be large enough for people to physically walk on, either outdoors, or perhaps on the floor of a holy building or in some other communal space. The Sandstories labyrinth isn’t quite as big as this – or else I would never be able to find a venue large enough to accommodate the training! But it is certainly big enough to bring children’s stories to life. 

Some people use a labyrinth to explore their life journey, others their spiritual journey, and others may simply want to reflect on a particular time in their life or a decision they are trying to make.

Those who walk a labyrinth are encouraged to pause and reflect as they travel towards the centre, listening to the deep-rooted questions that are arising for them. 

As I use the Sandstories labyrinth, I share stories of real children to help us pause and reflect – I often bring the children’s photographs onto the labyrinth too. This creates a very special and intimate space for everyone present to really listen to the child’s description of their life.

This rare opportunity to draw alongside children and young people whom we have never met, allows us to grow in our insight and wisdom. We can then offer this to the children who cross our path, with refreshed child-centred practice. 

Importantly, reflective practice works both ways. Whilst we reflect on the lives of vulnerable children and examine how we can best respond to them, we also need space to reflect on ourselves. What do we need to keep going and how we can hold onto resilience in the face of adversity?

It almost feels like a luxury to be able to step away from the usual commotion of the working day to be able to pause and reflect on why we have chosen to do the job we do. What is it about the lives of vulnerable children and young people that makes its mark on us? Why do we keep going when we so often feel exhausted and wonder whether we are making any difference at all?

There are many sources of advice and guidance on how to care for our mental health, our physical health and our emotional wellbeing. Within my training, I have shared the Sandstories labyrinth to support our professional and personal reflection, to help build and maintain our resilience.

“Unless you can create an inner sanctuary, a special chamber within, where you can be with yourself, slow things down, and direct your thoughts towards what nourishes you in body, mind, and spirit, you will be starving for meaning and purpose in your life. The labyrinth can help you create this inner chamber; it can provide a touchstone to return to when you need to remember who you are and where and with whom you stand.”

The Scared Path Companion, Lauren Artress, 2006

If you would like to learn more about labyrinths, this website might interest you:


This labyrinth can be found at the Quaker Woodbrook Centre.

This is the Sandstories labyrinth.

Animal-assisted therapy

Some of the most beautiful stories I have encountered as I deliver Sandstories around the UK, have been those about the relationship between animals and vulnerable children and adults.

I could probably write a book with the many descriptions that have been given to me of animals who recognise the feelings and emotions of vulnerable people and then draw close to them with concern and comfort.

Here is an example from a social worker who placed a distressed young boy with a foster carer who had a dog.

The dog was a Great Dane cross and was therefore very large. The foster carer went into her living room and found the young boy sobbing. He wasn’t crying, he was sobbing. And the big dog was leaning against him.

The foster carer was naturally very concerned and bent down to the young boy and asked him why he was so upset.

The child answered:

“I’m not upset. It’s just that your dog is squeezing all the sadness out of me.”

And this is what animals so often do.

Over time, I have become so convinced about the value of animal-assisted therapy, that I recommended to the headteacher of the SEMH high school (where I am a governor), that the school should have its own therapy dog. 

Long story short: I am now the owner of the school’s therapy dog! 

He’s called Baikka (which means ‘be calm, don’t stress’). Baikka is registered with Pets As Therapy and is an integral part of the school community. And he has proved to be the most wonderful companion for me, too!

And just because I can, here’s a photo of Baikka on his first day in school, then delivering his Covid safety message to the school’s learners.

Moral injury

The delivery of Sandstories training for more than a decade has coincided with many years of so-called austerity and reductions in resources for vulnerable children. This has meant that local authorities and other agencies have been very noticeably “raising the threshold” for the provision of services, in order to ration diminishing resources – all while demand increases.

What I have frequently observed are the moral dilemmas and subsequent “moral injury” caused to practitioners and decision-makers, who feel they are too often expected to compromise their professional and personal ethics in order to comply with process and procedures. These processes are directed by political and financial drivers, rather than the needs of children. 

It’s not uncommon for practitioners to weep when they describe to me the expectations on them to compromise their professional integrity and personal values. The stories shared by participants in my training sessions, of children and young people who are turned away from support services because they don’t meet the “threshold”, are too numerous to count. These children’s stories often keep practitioners awake at night.

I have an emerging hypothesis that the moral injury caused by the expectation of compliance with “thresholds” and resource-centred (rather than child-centred) practice is a major contributor to burnout, mental ill-health, and stress-related illness among frontline practitioners and first-line managers.

Whilst it has long been recognised that high caseloads become overwhelming for practitioners, I sense that moral injury is an additional, powerful and invisible layer to this story.

Interestingly, references to moral injury have become more frequent in recent commentary about the NHS response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The appalling dilemmas faced by some health practitioners who have to decide who can be given a bed or intensive care treatment, or even oxygen, have been recognised as increasingly unbearable for all of those involved.

There is also a body of literature focusing on the moral injury experienced by military combatants in situations of conflict. This is compelling material and I recognise shared themes between the experiences of battlefield/military leadership and those on the frontline of child protection and their strategic decision-makers.

If a person is directed to act in a manner that conflicts with their sense of right and wrong; if they find themselves compelled to act in the face of wrongdoing but do nothing; if they acted with the best of intentions but find their actions led to the worst of outcomes, it is very likely that the individual’s sense of themselves will be adversely affected.

Why? Because the principles that gave point and purpose, and meaning and direction, to their life, have been denied or violated in such a manner and to such a degree that the person is alienated from themselves and estranged from the world.

War and Moral Injury: A Reader, ed. by Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Prior,
2018, p 191-2

It’s my greatest hope that Sandstories creates a meaningful and respectful space in which to recognise and respond to the practical and ethical dilemmas faced by a multi-agency workforce which is working so hard, in the face of great adversity, to reach out to vulnerable children and young people.