Today I am thrilled to have TimberNook founder Angela Hanscom here to share her occupational therapy perspective about the therapeutic benefits of exploring nature!
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Imagine pulling off your socks and shoes, stepping onto a mossy covered log, and walking in your bare feet. You experience sensations of dry, rough, warm bark on the bottom of your feet. The next minute you feel the cool, wet, squishy moss sink between your toes. The varying temperatures, textures, and sensations all provide important sensory feedback to your feet about your surroundings and your own body.
Although walking on a plastic balance beam may offer some challenge to the balance system, the log found in nature can offer SO much more in terms of varying sensory feedback. In addition to the sensations the log provides, children also get to feel the warmth of the sun on their body, a slow gentile breeze playing along the length of their arms, and birds singing all around them – keeping them in a relaxed and alert state as they walk along.
Children NEED frequent opportunities to be immersed in a rich array of sensory experiences in order for them to foster healthy sensory and motor development. A plastic balance beam stays one temperature, one texture, and one sensation. It isn’t enough.
Nature provides the ultimate sensory experience – and it is free!
During the last 30 years, the amount of children’s free time outdoors has significantly declined, in favor of more structured indoor activities. For example, between 1981-1997 alone, unstructured outdoor activities fell by 50% (Hoffarth, 1999). At a time when children are spending less time outdoors than ever before, it is crucial that we get children outdoors and immersed into natural environments.
Their sensory development depends on it.
As a pediatric occupational therapist and the founder of the growing TimberNook movement – I spend hours outdoors observing children all over the country (and even the world) maneuver, create, take risks, and experience nature fully through their senses.
It doesn’t matter if I’m observing in the most rural parts of New Zealand or in the city woods of Miami, Florida – something magical happens when children are allowed plenty of time and space to play outdoors. They start to overcome worries, challenge both their mind and their bodies, take their shoes off when that was initially hard to do, create new friends, and overcome many fears — all because they were given access to nature, time, and trust.
All children, from babies to adolescence can and should enjoy frequent time in nature in order to become strong and capable individuals.
Here are just three examples of how nature can benefit the senses:
- Bird Sounds: When children listen to the sounds of birds out in the wild, they hear different frequencies of sound at different locations around their body. This helps them orient their body to space, enhancing their spatial awareness and relation to the world around them.
- Swings: When children swing outdoors, they are activating their vestibular system – also known as their balance system. We need to stimulate the vestibular system on a regular basis in order to develop a strong sense of body awareness for safe navigation of our environment. Also, swinging outdoors offers us other sensations such as exposure to warmth or cold, wind, rain, etc.
- Playing in Mud Puddles: Not only is playing in mud puddles FUN for children, but it activates many of the senses all at once. The mud splashing on the skin offers great touch feedback. Maneuvering through the mud challenges their balance and sense of space. And scanning the mud for toys, frogs, or other nature items uses their visual skills.
Learn more about the therapeutic benefits of engaging with nature on the TimberNook website.
Fear has kept many children away from the outdoors for the past 30 years — fear of insects, strangers, and other dangers. The therapeutic benefits of nature are so immense and extensive that this article only touches on a very small aspect of these developmental advantages.
Maybe it’s time we start running towards nature, instead of running away from it.
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Angela Hanscom is an entrepreneur, author, pediatric occupational therapist, and mom of two creative children. After spending years observing and working with children with behavioral issues and sensory deprivations, Angela wondered if these issues could be remediated and even prevented through more playtime in the great outdoors. She put her ideas into practice by developing and running an experimental nature program in her own backyard, with the hope of reconnecting children to nature at an early age. What she saw was inspiring. Today, TimberNook has grown into an internationally recognized program to get children playing outdoors.
Angela holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy (OT) and an undergraduate degree in kinesiology (the study of movement) with a concentration in health fitness. She specializes in pediatric occupational therapy, especially in vestibular (balance) treatment and sensory integration.
Connect with Angela and TimberNook!:
Previous posts in this series on Mama OT:
Additional posts coming up in this series! (in no particular order):
Therapeutic Benefits of Bowling
Therapeutic Benefits of Bike Riding
Therapeutic Benefits of Dance
Therapeutic Benefits of Gymnastics
Therapeutic Benefits of Running
Therapeutic Benefits of Surfing
Therapeutic Benefits of Yoga
Therapeutic Benefits of Exploring Nature (from a Speech Therapy perspective)
Hofferth, Sandra and John Sandberg (1999), “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981-1997,” University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. http://www.puttingfamilyfirst.org/research.php