A Lesson From Nature: Cold Penguins To The Middle

Breath To Breath cover

We asked child trauma specialist Dr. Donna Gaffney, Doctor of Nursing Science and Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, to create the Breath To Breath discussion guide and offer resources for how anyone can help or get help. Among the materials Dr. Gaffney shared was this powerful lesson from nature.

We all have times of vulnerability and times of strength. In the extreme conditions of Antarctica, Emperor penguins huddle in densely packed circles to keep each other warm and thriving. Healthy and fit adults whose temperature regulation is the most mature take up the periphery of the circle, and thus are buffeted the most by the frozen air and fierce winds. The youngest or those with more difficulty regulating body heat are permanently placed in the warm center of the huddle. But what happens to the cold adults?

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The adult penguins on the outermost edges of the huddle periodically work their way into the center of the circle with the immature and infirm penguins, in order to regain their own body heat. Meanwhile, other robust adults take their places in the frigid outer circle. Thus the herd keeps up the body heat of the whole group without sacrificing the young or old, and giving those in the prime of life regular opportunities to warm themselves in the middle.

Perhaps, the motto of the group might best be stated, “Cold penguins to the middle!”

Like the penguins of Antarctica, human beings try desperately to keep safe and comforted in the midst of a crisis or during times of grief. At times we may feel very cold, needing heat and contact from those around us. However, at other times we are capable of offering warmth and protecting others. The lesson of the Emperor penguins can serve us well.


Article by Dr. Donna Gaffney, DNSC, FAAN and children’s literature expert Mary Galbraith, who thank their colleagues at Liberty Science Center in NJ, in particular Dr. Emlyn Koster, for their research on the Emperor Penguin’s survival strategies.

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