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Little Wild One: Why Kids Need to Play in Nature

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There is nothing better than escaping the house and getting out in nature with your baby. But playing in nature is more than pleasant for children, it actually plays a critical role in their development, explains Angela Hanscom a paediatric occupational therapist and the author of the upcoming book Balanced & Barefoot.


Why is it so important that infants and children have opportunities for free movement outdoors? What are some of the issues that can arise in children who don’t get enough of it?

Play outdoors is an inherently therapeutic experience for young children. For instance, even just listening to the birds chirping in the trees help children orient their bodies to the space around them; walking barefoot helps to develop arches in the feet; and climbing trees provides necessary feedback to the joints and muscles in the arms and legs to support the development of the proprioceptive system (positional sense in the joints and muscles). Spinning in circles just for fun or hanging upside down off a tree limb, help children to establish a strong balance system.

Children who don’t spend enough time moving and playing outdoors may have trouble with knowing where their body is in space. They may have trouble with coordination, attention, sensory processing, and emotional regulation. If children aren’t given enough time to play, they may also have trouble with social interactions and creative play.

What are some of the ways that we as parents can support our children’s natural motor sensory development?

The best way to support our children’s motor and sensory development is actually to step back and allow children to explore their environment. Children will naturally seek out the neurological input that their brain and body needs in order to foster healthy sensory development. For instance, if a child is spinning in circles – that means they are seeking this type of input for sensory integration. If they are climbing up on rocks and able to get there independently, it means their body is ready for this.

It is only when we stop children from doing this on a consistent basis, when we start to see problems. In other words, we create a barrier to letting sensory integration and natural brain development run its course. Instead of constantly telling a child, “no spinning,” “no climbing,” and “no jumping” – lets encourage children to take age-appropriate risks.

From what age do children need to be spending time in nature engaging in unstructured play?

I would get children outdoors and in nature even as babies. Let them have tummy time in the grass and learn to walk barefoot in the dirt. These early experiences in nature will help set children up for natural integration of the senses at an early age.

Children should really be playing outdoors every day for at least 2 to 3 hours at a bare minimum. In other words, the more time children spend outdoors, the more benefits you will see in their strength, coordination, tolerance of change, play skills, attention, creativity, imagination, social and emotional intelligence, and sensory processing.

How would an ideal outdoor play area for and young child (say 1-3 years) be set up?

For young children, it is beneficial to have a space with some trees that provide natural shade. Large rocks and boulders are great for children to practice their climbing skills on. Have an area where they can access water, sand, and mud to inspire creativity at an early age. You can always place some real pots, pans, and kitchenware near the mud area to encourage imaginary play. Some other ideas to have available outdoors: a pile of sticks, bricks (provide great proprioceptive and touch feedback), sheer curtains, and empty baskets outside.

Similarly, What sort of toys/activities would you recommend for indoor play for this age group?

My favorite toys are things that are open-ended and inspire the imagination. They are very simple in design. I love masks, sheer curtains, pots and pans, basic figurines (fairies, dragons, kings, queens), and different sized wooden blocks. I also recommend a few games, puzzles, crayons, and a drawing pad. I believe keeping it simple also helps to inspire the imagination. Sometimes when there are too many toys, they overwhelm the child and they end up not playing with any of them. Simplest is always the best.

Shoes for toddlers? Good or bad? When to start? What kind of shoes?

The more you let your toddler go barefoot the better. Walking barefoot gives necessary tactile (touch) input to the feet, helps to develop the arches in the foot, and to integrate a reflex in the foot that can affect balance and toe-walking if not integrated properly. When you go shopping and into town, try putting on minimalist shoes that still allow a lot of input to the foot, while still offering them the necessary protection that they need.

ABOUT ANGELA HANSCOM

Angela Hanscom is a paediatric occupational therapist and the founder of TimberNook, which focuses on nature-centered developmental programming in New England. Angela holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy and an undergraduate degree in Kinesiology (the study of movement) with a concentration in health fitness. She specializes in vestibular (balance) treatment and sensory integration. She is also the author of the upcoming nonfiction book, Balanced & Barefoot, which discusses the effects of restricted movement and lack of outdoor playtime on overall sensory development in children.

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