Outdoor play is a natural and wonderful sensory experience which all children should be allowed to participate in. It is not enough to just give then once-in-a-week excursions,
They need to be allowed to do this on a regular basis for the effects to be optimal. Adult support of these activities of outdoor play and healthy risk-taking is also important.
According to author Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook, one day, they received a visit from a third-grade classroom to their nature center. The group was made up of mostly boys, typical, rowdy boys. The group went into the woods and the kids engaged each other in a loud discussion as they anticipated what was to come. As time went on, the kids were engaged in a quick game and after the rules were explained, they were allowed to begin. The children were quick to realize the freedom they had been given to explore and build in the woods, and as soon as they did, the funniest thing happened. The children went really quiet. Afterwards, they spread out and a lot of them began to build a large teepee as a group effort.
It was interesting to her, seeing them build, but then something happened as a shrill cry asking someone to drop the sticks they were holding, broke through the relatively quiet atmosphere. A chaperone was hastily running towards the children screaming "Danger" repeatedly. When Angela finally found her voice, she calmed the woman down and told her that she had told the children that they could use the sticks for as long as they wanted, as long as they respected each other's personal space. The chaperone didn't look happy with that, but she walked away to join a group of chaperones who were watching.
Now, Angela could have stopped the kids from continuing the exercise as a result of the fear the chaperone caused. She could have proceeded to tell them to do something else which society would have deemed less risky. She didn't do that, however, and instead, allowed them to continue their work.
With the help of a few adults, the children were able to build a massive stick teepee and were very happy to see what they had been able to accomplish.
Another interesting thing to note is that during the exercise, no child got even as much as a scratch. Of course this isn't very common. When left to their devices in the woods, kids usually get some bruises and scratches. But on that day, nothing of the sort was recorded. It seemed as though mother nature had gone out of her way to prove the dramatic chaperone wrong and show that kids are capable more things than they were usually allowed to try.
As a parent herself, Angela acknowledged that she could empathize with the fearful chaperone's fear. It was normal and common, for parental instincts to take over at times like that, causing us to tell the children to be careful or slow down while they tried to manipulate the environment around them. Being a pediatric occupational therapist who had spent countless hours watching children play in a natural environment, Angela also knew that the act of placing restrictions on a child's movements as well as limiting the child's ability to play outdoors, can in many cases be more detrimental than helpful.
With the continuous practice of decreasing children's time and space to play and enjoy the outdoors, a rise in the number of children who are presenting with sensory deficits, is being observed. A rise has been seen in the number of children who require a visit to an occupational therapist for sensory system treatment. The New York Times reported that New York City public schools have seen as much as a 30% increase in the number of students who are referred to occupational therapists, all within the past four years. It isn't limited to New York either. Places like Chicago and Los Angeles have also recorded similar experiences.
Owing to restricted movement and less time outdoors, more and more children have been observed with underdeveloped vestibular systems which just means that they have decreased body awareness and sense of space. There have been reports of children falling out of their seats, running into each other, pushing each other with more force than necessary during games and just generally being clumsier than has been previously recorded. What this means is that, the more we restrict these kids, the more unsafe they become.
The neurological system of a child is designed so it seeks out sensory input necessary for it to grow into a strong, capable individual. What this means, for instances, is that, if a child begins to jump off small rocks, it simply means their brain is ready for this particular activity. The child needs the sensory input. The constant occurrence of adults interfering with this perfectly normal development process results in development problems.
THREE EXAMPLES OF HOW PLAY OUTDOORS CAN BE THERAPEUTIC
For those lucky enough to have snow, sledding is a lovely sensory activity especially if one frequently changes positions while on the sled. As an example, when children go down the hill on their bellies with their head and legs up, superman style, it activates the vestibular system which improves body awareness as time progresses.
2.) WALKING BAREFOOT IN THE WOODS
Walking barefoot on an uneven terrain actually, helps challenge as well as strengthens the muscles in the ankles while also developing the arches of the feet. It aids the development of foot reflex which prevents toe-walking. Healthy touch senses are developed with the help of the sensations of dirt, leaves and the likes on the bottom of the feet. It also helps prevent sensory defensiveness on that body part. Running through the woods also challenges their balance and navigation skills.