Playing in the Woods Can Help Kids Reach their Full Potential

A couple of months ago, I wrote a column advocating for more recess time for children. Recently, I’ve read some research that indicates that active movement is actually critical to healthy neurological development. The human body has a vestibular system which contributes to balance and a sense of spatial orientation. When we were children, we spent lots of time outdoors developing this vestibular system: running and jumping, climbing trees, rolling down hills, spinning on swings and merry-go-rounds, even going down slides. Many of our children rarely have a chance to do these things – parents are hyper vigilant, and most playgrounds have eliminated swings, merry-go-rounds, see-saws and slides due to the possibility of litigation. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, believes that an underdeveloped vestibular system may be the reason for the rise in attention deficit and sensory processing disorders in the United States.

Nationally, the percentage of children and teens diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has grown from 7.8% in 2003 to 11% in 2011; over 6.4 million children in the US are diagnosed with ADHD. Sensory processing disorder (SPD), sometimes called sensory integration dysfunction, is characterized by clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, and depression; some sufferers are very sensitive to touch, light, or sound. Up to 16% of all children may have sensory processing challenges, although the medical community is not united on whether or not the disorder is an actual medical condition. Some doctors believe that sensory processing issues are a symptom of a larger diagnosis. Regardless of the name, more and more children are showing signs of SPD; the SPD Foundation, incorporated in 2005, suggests that at least one in twenty people may be affected by SPD.

As a teacher, I saw the rise in both ADHD and SPD over the years. These are the children who have trouble sitting still long enough to listen to a story or impulsively leap up to share their latest thought, the ones who can’t stand having their hair brushed or who kick off their shoes under their desks, the ones who cover their ears when the bell rings; the ones for whom school is a struggle, day after day. And how do we help them? We ask them to sit at desks for 6 – 7 hours every day, and when they can’t do it successfully, we medicate them.

Angela Hanscom founded the TimberNook camps as an alternative. The TimberNook activities are carefully planned to provide gross and fine motor challenges, social interaction, creative outlets, and to build visual and auditory processing skills, all while giving children an opportunity to engage with nature. This approach also incorporates recent research demonstrating that spending time in nature provides health benefits for children (and adults). There are numerous outdoor adventure clubs and family camps designed to help parents encourage their kids to explore nature; locally, we have RI Families in Nature, which coordinates monthly hikes around the Ocean State.

What is stopping us from incorporating the knowledge we already have into our school system? We know that children need to move their bodies regularly throughout the day for optimal development. We know that children who spend time outdoors with opportunities for unstructured play are more creative, imaginative, and collaborative, and that they exhibit greater leadership qualities. We know that schools in other countries have longer school days specifically to provide additional recess time. We know that children who are physically active are healthier overall and are less likely to be obese or develop diabetes.

As our schools have placed more and more emphasis on assessing academic subjects like reading, math, and science, we have placed less and less emphasis on the healthy development of the whole child. And that is doing a disservice to our students and our society. If we want to raise a generation of healthy, emotionally well-adjusted, creative and thoughtful adults, we are going about it all wrong. School should be a place where students are actively engaged in learning, a place where creativity and innovation is encouraged; sitting at a desk all day is not only intellectually stifling, it is also physically repressive. Students should have time each day to play outside, both during and after school, in self-directed activities where they have to negotiate their roles in the group and where they have opportunities to be leaders. We know how to help our children reach their full potential; we just aren’t doing it.

This post was originally published on GoLocalProv.

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