“If you start at an early age, your baby will learn to love the outdoors and will enjoy herself there. These times will help her to be less clingy, nagging, overly dependent, constantly needing company or entertainment.
The stimuli which nature provides is unparalleled. Even the youngest infant becomes fascinated by listening to birds, watching the movements of flies, butterflies, shadows and leaves. Air circulation, temperature change, the playfulness of sunlight and shadow are strong stimuli to the senses. ” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect
Infant specialist Magda Gerber believed in the therapeutic power of nature and encouraged parents to find (or create) safe outdoor play areas for their babies to explore, enjoy and move in freely. Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom agrees and is successfully using “nature therapy” to not only treat, but also to prevent vestibular and sensory integration issues, which seem to be on the rise.
In her recent article for Richard Louv’s Children and Nature Network, Hanscom notes, “The more we restrict children’s movement and separate children from nature, the more sensory disorganization we see. In fact, according to many teachers, children are frequently falling out of their seats in school, running into walls, tripping over their own feet, and unable to pay attention. School administrators are complaining that kids are getting more aggressive on the playgrounds and “can’t seem to keep their hands off each other” during recess.”
“I’ve used my skills as an occupational therapist in an unconventional manner,” explains Hanscom. “I view nature as the ultimate sensory experience for all children and a necessary form of prevention for sensory dysfunction.”
Here she shares her experience and enthusiasm for outdoor baby play and some of its many benefits.
Nature Makes Sense
by Angela Hanscom
Magda Gerber talks about the importance of environment in her RIE approach. She explains that a child’s surroundings should be physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing. For me, what comes immediately to mind is Nature.
Nature in its purest form is all of the things Magda describes. It is free from chemicals, plastics, dyes, and other manmade items; Nature is both physically challenging and forgiving; and most importantly, nature provides innumerable sensory experiences that can’t be manufactured.
As a pediatric occupational therapist that uses the outdoors as both a form of prevention and treatment of sensory issues, I feel that even the youngest of children, whenever possible, should be playing outdoors, and at a very early age. Recently a local parenting organization asked me if I would be willing to host their group of mothers and babies. While I was thrilled by the invitation and absolutely willing to accept, I was somewhat surprised when the group’s director asked if we do this group indoors instead of outside. “We wouldn’t want the young children to have to sit on the ground. They would get dirty,” she said.
Is this a common worry, I wondered?
Many children are kept from crawling. Even more children are kept from falling. Plenty of children are told “no” when they attempt to climb on top of a rock or pick up a stick. Little kids are told not to spin in circles and are kept from rolling down hills. It is my opinion – supported by observing scores of kids, in clinic and out – that by constantly restricting children’s movements we impede the development of strong vestibular systems (balance), which most children will achieve naturally through physical trial and error. If we don’t allow children to take (safe) risks and test themselves, they can seem clumsy, uncoordinated, and unsafe at an early age.
In a perfect world, all children would be allowed not only to crawl, fall, climb, and spin – they would be experiencing it all outdoors. Not only does outdoor play inspire creativity and imagination, but it also engages all of their senses — setting them up for healthy sensory integration.
Outdoor play is important because we are the only animals who don’t live outside. Outdoors is real life.
– Magda Gerber
Crawling, for example, is so important for healthy child development. Crawling helps babies to develop a strong shoulder complex, develops both sides of their brain, develops the arches in their hands, integrates reflexes, and is the foundation for basic coordination patterns. By taking the crawling outdoors, other therapeutic benefits are added to the process. The change in terrain challenges their muscles in new ways. They also get to experience the sensations of the wind on their skin, the warmth of the sun, and the touch experiences of dirt on their hands and legs.
Here are a just a few examples of how nature nurtures child development:
- Bird Sounds. Listening to bird sounds helps gives a child a sense of space by figuring out where her body is in relation to the chirps and the tweets. In fact, therapists have figured out a way to capture and enhance these bird sounds on CDs to help children with auditory processing (the brain’s interpretation of sound), body awareness, emotional regulation, and attention. Spending more time outside is a natural way for children to improve these same sensory issues.
- Spinning in Circles. Occupational therapists encourage children to spin in therapy and will often use this type of rapid vestibular movement in treatment sessions. Spinning helps children to establish their midline–awareness of their center. It also helps give them great body awareness and supports visual skills and emotional regulation. So next time your child starts rolling down the hill or spinning in circles for fun – let him!
- Walking Barefoot. Walking barefoot outdoors is so great for little feet. Going barefoot helps to integrate the Babinski reflex and prevent complications such as toe-walking, balance, and coordination issues. Going barefoot outdoors also provides great tactile experiences that prevent intolerance to touch later on.
It is time we leave our fears and worries behind and start taking our children outdoors at an early age to let them fully explore the world around them through all of their senses, facilitating healthy sensory development.
I believe an outdoor play area is a must. The more that children play outdoors, the better they eat, sleep, and feel.
– Magda Gerber
Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist and the founder of TimberNook (www.timbernook.com), 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 nonfiction book, Balanced & Barefoot, which discusses the effects of restricted movement and lack of outdoor playtime on overall sensory development in children.
Angela Hanscom’s book, Balanced & Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children is now available HERE.
(In the “Outdoor Living” chapter of Magda Gerber’s book Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect she shares advice for developing outdoor play for babies.)