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Kids need nature: expert

Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, writes about the links between time spent in nature and child development

We step outdoors and into nature to get fresh air--to feel alive again. We want to feel the wind gently ruffle our hair, while we soak in the warmth of the hot sun. We appreciate the brilliant colors that nature has to offer and are overjoyed to touch and sample the ripe berries dangling from the vines in front of us. Our senses are engaged.

We enjoy nature. We need nature.

So do our children. In fact, their sensory development depends on it!

Kids need nature: expert

A disconnect from nature is creating sensory issues in children all over the world.

A disconnect from nature is creating sensory issues in children all over the world. On average, children are spending less time outdoors and more time in buildings than ever before. During school hours, they are expected to sit for hours at a time. When they go home from school, they are presented with piles of homework and driven from one organized activity to the next. This leaves little time to play and move outdoors!

Restricted movement over time actually causes damage to the middle ear complex. This leads to balance problems and hinders the brain's ability to use the eyes and ears efficiently. Lack of movement makes learning difficult for the child and paying attention near impossible. In fact, children need to be moving frequently throughout the day in order to develop strong and healthy sensory systems.

Nature is ... therapeutic in design.

Nature is also therapeutic in design. Everything from hearing the chirping of birds to wading through a giant mud puddle in search of frogs, are all working on different parts of the sensory system. For instance, when a child hears the chirping of birds from different locations, this helps to establish orientation to space for the child. In general, it helps them to gain better body and spatial awareness.

Playing in mud not only stimulates the tactile (touch) senses, but also challenges the balance system and visual system as the child moves slowly through the mucky mess in search of their frog.

Nature is the ultimate sensory experience and is therapeutic for all children. When we separate children from nature, we start to see more sensory issues such as a decreased tolerance to touch, noise, and temperature. We also see poor core strength, coordination, and balance issues.

The more time children spend playing outdoors, the stronger their sensory system will be. When looking for a summer camp or school program for your child, it is critical that you find a program that provides plenty of outdoor play every day.

Ideally, you want to find a program that allows for at least an hour (if not more) of unstructured play on a daily basis. Children need the time and opportunity to practice their social and play skills, use their imagination, and challenge their bodies.

Look for a setting that is surrounded by nature whenever possible. The ultimate location would have a wooded area that the children were allowed to explore and play in. Trees provide a sense of calm and often ground children. The woods helps to inspire children to create and use the natural setting for their play experiences, becoming part of the children's imaginative world.

The most important thing is that you find a program that allows your child ample time in the great outdoors to play and create -- and develop a healthy sensory system that supports their learning, safety, and overall well-being.

Written by Angela Hanscom -- www.timbernook.com


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