Providing a nurturing environment for young people in a residential child care setting

By Jane Dalgleish

Date Posted: 15 June 2013

Starting with Fife Council in Scotland Jane has been a residential worker for 14 years. She has worked in children’s residential units, in field social work, in a residential school, and in secure accommodation. Jane is now back in a children’s unit. Residential care is the sector of child care she enjoys most. Currently she is studying for a masters degree in Advanced Residential Child Care.

Jane hopes to complete her dissertation for her Masters during the next year. Her area of study and research will be Play.

Jane has three children – two teenage girls and a little boy.

Providing a nurturing environment for young people in a residential child setting.


I am the senior practitioner of a new residential unit for children and young people aged between 12 and 18 years which will be opening in the near future. It is situated in the west of Scotland. Like my colleagues in our staff team I feel we are at the start of a journey towards providing a nurturing environment for our children and young people. In this article can be found some of the thinking we did and are doing at the outset of this new venture.


Our vision to create a nurturing environment

While writing the Mission Statement for our new unit the staff team is very much driven and motivated to create a nurturing and fun environment where young people grow up to share their joys and sorrows in an atmosphere of understanding and caring. It will be a place where young people will be encouraged to participate and be empowered to initiate action in their lives in order for them to develop, grow and become all that they can be.

As residential child care workers we often talk about a nurturing environment, but what exactly is this? How do we create it? “Nurture” and “nurturing” are words which we use a great deal when we are thinking about the care of children and young people but a great deal of the time we felt that they were terms that were used for decoration rather than having a real meaning.

For sure we can look up the dictionary definitions of nurture in relation to a child’s development. “The act of feeding and nourishing”, “the process of bringing up a child” and “fostering and cherishing” are just a few that might be mentioned. There are any number of books and articles, for instance, Bennathan (2011) or Rose (2010), which deal with the provision of a nurturing environment and from which we learn much, but it is our intention to create a nurturing environment which is uniquely ours.

When I asked around most people described it as a loving environment and for me love fits in with the idea of providing for all a child’s needs. All children should be loved. So, if our new unit is to be a loving environment, how is this to be achieved when so many residential child care workers are afraid to use the word “love” in any way, shape or form?


How do we love and nurture our young people?

This question was playing on my mind while I was driving to work. I got to thinking about my Uncle Harry. He was a typical Irishman. He served his time in the British Navy during World War. II. When he left the navy he visited his brother in Scotland before he headed home to Dublin. Well, that was his intention. However he never did head home to Dublin. He made a choice to settle with his brother and stay in Scotland. He never married. He adopted his brother’s family and treated them like his own. My Uncle Harry loved his family very much. I remember the relationship I had with him. He absolutely adored me and I adored him. Now Uncle Harry was not a man who would say, “I love you.” In fact I can only remember a few occasions when he actually said the words and that was usually after a visit to the pub on a Sunday afternoon, but I just knew he did.

So how did I know if he seldom actually said the words? I knew because of all the little things he used to do for me. That cup of tea on a cold morning before I headed to school or the flick of the switch on my electric blanket making sure I had a warm bed to go into on a cold night. The stories he used to read to me as a young child. The help he gave me with my homework. The rides I had on the back of his motor bike. The time he found to listen to me. Even after the arguments we had, he would always be there for me. He would defend me, (even when sometimes he knew I was in the wrong). Then he would tell me off about it the next time he saw me on his own. I remember the smile on his face whenever I was in his company. All these things let me know he loved me. He didn’t need to tell me.

“So that’s it,” I thought as I parked the car at my workplace. “ You do not have to say literally ‘I love you’ for a young person to feel loved and nurtured.” I thought about all the little things we could do and how we could put them into practise in our new unit.

So, in the spirit of finding the answer to my original question “How do we love and nurture our young people?” we as a staff team have been discussing these matters in a series of meetings we have held to consider how we create a nurturing environment.


Some of the ideas we have considered so far

As residential workers we can create a nurturing loving environment by taking a look at where we spend our time and whom we spend it with. We can encourage our staff and young people to spend time together. For example by all sitting around the dining table together for meals but also if we do this for informal discussions and activities, we are making a place where the group is both nourished and nurtured. Drinking hot chocolate together in the evenings and playing board games. Any activity from learning to peel potatoes to playing noughts and crosses can all turn the dining table into a nurturing hub where many of the most important, interesting, long lasting relationships can begin to form and where lessons can be learnt. A part of nurturing is the doing of things together. When we read stories, dance, sing, draw, paint, garden, knit, sew, cook, and bake cakes we provide a nurturing environment which will cultivate our young people’s imagination, creativity and self-esteem.

Young people love to listen and also to tell a good story so perhaps the purchase of a rocking chair might help to create a warm ambience for both the young people and the adults. Rarely would any of us refuse an invitation to be rocked when listening to a good story!

Residential workers can pay more attention to the young people at bedtime. It is sufficient for one worker to give the handover whilst the other staff stays out in the life space preparing the young people for bedtime. Do you remember how it felt to be wrapped in a nice hot towel when you come out of the bath or shower and to be dressed in warm pyjamas, to have a hot water bottle to warm your feet on, to sooth an achy stomach or just to cuddle up to ? Staff can run a hot bath for a young person and perhaps warm their towel and pyjamas on a radiator in readinessfor them coming out of their bath and have a hot bottle at the ready for them to cuddle up too. It could also be an opportunity to use some aromatherapy all in the hope off making settling to bed so much more appealing.

Most young people like to be around water. A visit to the swimming pool, the river, or beach always creates excitement. If a safe place can be found a fish tank with a pump and filter in the house would be an excellent acquisition as it creates the sound of running water. The sound of running can water create that soothing atmosphere that a nurturing environment has.

Young people like nothing better than sitting under the stars around a camp fire toasting marsh mallows. Or when the power goes out and you need to use candles for light the children will have your undivided attention while you play at casting finger shadows on the walls, as there are no other distractions like televisions around when there is an electricity cut. Of course you can create a comforting communal environment in the unit by having a DVD night or story telling night by candle light. (If you’re worried about the health and safety aspects of this, you can always purchase battery operated candles which are safe to use in the home).

Young people love to dig in dirt. They enjoy being in the garden planting seeds and watching them grow. This lets them feel that they are connected to earth and nature. We can create a nurturing environment by planting a tree on a young persons birthday and watch it grow with them. We can plant herbs in window boxes if our unit doesn’t have a garden. We need to think creatively as any connection to living, growing things cultivates a nurturing environment. Most children love all living things and enjoy being around them. It may not be possible in a residential setting to have pets but there are ways around this. We can ask your young people to gather stale bread and cereals from the house to take to the park to feed the ducks, birds and squirrels. Together we can set up bird houses in the back garden that you can see from the windows and ask the young people to take turns in putting the food out for the birds. This is an ideal way of connecting young people to nature. We have decided that one of the most important aspects of a nurturing environment is routine and ritual. Rituals and consistency become an anchor for our young people as they journey through lives which can be filled with inconsistency and uncertainty. As residential workers we should strive to create the same rituals in our workplace as we do within our own family home. Things like Saturday night’s take away night, eating together at the dinner table, Sunday night shower or bath hair wash and then an early bed for school the next day, making pancakes on pancake Tuesday, carving pumpkins at Halloween, sending Valentines cards, and having new pyjamas on Christmas Eve, Whatever we choose to do, if these things become rituals in our unit and we do them consistently. Daily, weekly or seasonally, these rituals will give our young people a sense of security, stability and belonging. One of the reasons children love holiday periods is because of the nurturing rituals associated with them. Decorating the home at Christmas time, putting up the Christmas tree, preparing special foods, baking special occasion cakes, and filling the unit with spices such as cinnamon, gingerbread and nutmeg at Christmas. In the future these smells will bring back memories of the happy time we shared at this time of year. By introducing these elements into our holidays and at other times we can keep our happy memories alive in our hearts for a very long time. This is surely the true essence of nurture. Some may think our ideas sound lightweight or even trivial. In a way they represent our own memories of being nurtured as children. What is important for us is what these things stand for: the love that lies behind them.

Getting down to it happening In a sense I have written a progress report. We are still involved in our blue sky thinking about how we will grow our nurturing environment. We continue to take time for this creative process but while we do this we are also looking forward to our young people joining us in our (meaning the children and the staff together) new home and then the real journey with all its ups and downs can begin. In my next article I’ll let you how it is all going.



Bennathan, Marion(1911) “How Nurture Groups Help Children in Schools” in goodenoughcaring Journal Issue 10 accessed on 25.5.13 at Article171Bennathan.htm

Onion, Charles (ed.) (1973) The Shorter Oxford Dictionary Vol II Oxford Clarendon Press

Rose, Jim (1910) How Nurture Protects Children: Nurture and narrative in work with children, young people and families London Responsive Solutions




Derek Cunningham writes :

Enjoyed the article : nurture is something everyone has their own ideas about because it’s such a personal thing. Looking forward to reading about the kids’ input to your nurturing environment.

William Huber comments :

Jane, I used to work at a residential treatment facility for children here in Virginia for three years. Now I work at a large private day school. It’s amazing how far ahead of the times you are in your country. The place I worked was more like the one descibed in the Orwell story that preceeded yours. I left after three years because it was breaking my heart to see these kids given all their material needs but none of their emotional ones. They used “timeout” rooms to control the outbursts and even restraints on occasion. It was truly a terrible place for most of these kids, many of whom had physical and mental disabilities as well as emotional ones. Anyway, good job on the article and keep up the good work.


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