time in nature

Never Enough Time in Nature: The Benefits of Being Outside

As the temperatures start to cool off in many places, this is an excellent opportunity to take advantage of some fabulous time in nature.  Nature enthusiasts would say that there is never a bad time to go outside, but as a parent, I understand the challenges of dealing with children when it is 100 degrees.  

I am a play therapist and an outdoor lover.  I also live in Hawaii - which is basically nature’s paradise.  And I like to think that my children spend plenty of time outside in nature. You can read about our hiking adventures here.  

Balanced and Barefoot

But, as I was reading this awesome book, Balanced and Barefoot by Angela J. Hanscom, last week, I was reminded that making an effort to be outside as often as possible has real benefits for our children. (And honestly, aside from weekends, even my family spends way too much time inside).

Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook- an award winning developmental and nature-based program.  I don’t know her personally, but I learned so much from reading her book, that I am now a devoted fan! 

A few interesting highlights from her book (Balanced and Barefoot):

Children are WEAKER than they were ten years ago

Ms. Hanscom cites a study published in Acta Pediatrica that shows that children can do 27% fewer sit-ups, arm strength fell by 26%, and grip strength by 7% in the past decade.  And her own observations have shown that more children have trouble holding onto and swinging from ropes. She also noticed a decline in core strength (ability to hold a Superman position) and in posture during her work at schools. 

Children get hurt more easily

Ms. Hanscom cites research that fractures (especially those in the arms from falling) have increased despite efforts to make playgrounds safer than ever.  She reports that injuries in dance classes and physical education classes have also increased tremendously. Children are clumsier and more prone to falling than ever before. 

Emotional and behavioral concerns are on the rise

Ms. Hanscom notices that issues with aggression, regulation and even anxiety are more prevalent than in past decades. Discussions about the lack of ability to sit still in class, aggression and disruptive behaviors during recess and overall anxiety among children are all on the rise. 

A Difference in Play During Recess

Ms. Hanscom interviewed teachers who reported that the way children play outside has changed.  In Balanced and Barefoot (page 29), teachers reported: 

“There is less imaginary play. We used to see a lot of ‘pretend play’ in the past - children creating their own games and worlds on the playground. Now, they gravitate toward the play structure or play a game of tag until the whistle blows to go back inside. It is really noisy and crazy. It seems like they run around without a purpose.  There is little creativity like we have observed in the past. It is like they don’t know what to do with themselves. There are a lot of children tattling and coming up to us to seek constant direction and reassurance on what to play or do. It is both frustrating and sad to watch.” 

As a play therapist, I have noticed this same trend inside the playroom. When children arrive, they often wait for me to tell them what we are going to do even after I have specifically said that they are free to choose “most anything they want”. They have more difficulty making up stories using the puppet show or dollhouse.  

Increased in Rules About Play

One thing that I was surprised to read in this Balanced and Barefoot was Ms. Hanscom’s report that so many schools now have rules about SWINGS!  For real. Of all the crazy things in this world, it is now common for schools to say that children on swings are not allowed to:

  • Jump off the swing (in mid-air)
  • Swing too high (in fact, they shorted the chains and lowered the poles so that there is less opportunity for this)
  • SPIN in circles

In my own practice, I have heard of schools banning freeze tag!  And the creative children actually came up with a within-the-rules version called “Shadow Tag” so that they would not get in trouble for touching other students!  

Other helpful play behaviors that are often banned or frowned upon:

  • Going up the slide
  • Sliding backwards or face-first
  • Climbing on top of anything high
  • Climbing trees
  • Merry Go Rounds
  • See saws

Ms. Hanscom reviews all of the sensory benefits of these and other outdoor, unstructured play activities in her book.  It’s truly fascinating to me. 

But, it was the recommendations in Balanced and Barefoot about the AMOUNT of outdoor play that stopped me in my tracks.

TODDLERS: 5-8 hours

PRESCHOOLERS: 5-8 hours

SCHOOL AGE: 4-5 hours

ADOLESCENTS: 3-4 hours

PER. DAY.

My children are 5, 5, and 6.  When I stopped to think about their actual average day, it is possible that they spend less than one hour outside each day.  We walk in/out of school (from our cars), they have two 20 minute outdoor play sessions per day (if it is not raining) and then, honestly, they stay inside most of the night.  Occasionally, we ride bikes, go to the playground or play outside, but that is not every day. And even on the days we do this...we are outside for….maybe 45 minutes.

Now, on weekends, we might spend the entire day outside at the beach, pool or in the woods.  But, I realized that our normal daily routines included very little play. (And I am a play therapist who believes 100% in what this book is talking about).  But life takes over and the routines of work, dinner, baths, just get in the way. 

RECOMMENDATIONS

In Balanced and Barefoot, Ms. Hanscom recommends

  • Fewer organized sports and structured activities
  • Time to play outside BEFORE school (or outdoor chores)
  • More movement breaks during school (A LOT MORE)
  • More unsupervised play outside for older children
  • Increased risky-play (climbing, jumping, using tools, etc). 
  • Fewer decorations in classrooms and/or more nature scenes or plants
  • Messy play (in the rain, mud, cold, snow, etc)
  • LONGER recess (at least 45 minutes to an hour in a row!)

This book challenged me to be more mindful of the time and the way that we play outside. During the week  that I spent reading Balanced and Barefoot, we went to the playground after dinner one night, rode bicycles outside, and then stopped to collect sticks for about 20 extra minutes outside of my kids’ school.

Journey Sticks

We used those sticks to take a nature walk (in the rain) around our neighborhood.   We created “Journey Sticks” which is a fun activity that I found in another great book, Play The Forest School Way: Woodland Games and Crafts for Adventurous Kids.  In this activity, children are encouraged to take a stick and use rubber bands and/or yarn to attach items that they find in nature to it to have a tangible way to remember their “journey” outside.  And it was a HUGE HIT!

time in nature

The kids collected flowers, rocks, leaves and even garbage to add to the sticks.  Some items fell off, but it was their increased interest in finding things of different colors, shapes and textures that really made our time (IN OUR BACKYARD) so much more exciting.  And they were hooked. They are already talking about what they are going to look for for their NEXT journey sticks.

TimberNook programs, Forest Schools, and other nature-based programs are becoming more and more popular; however, they can still be challenging to find.  

I encourage you to look for opportunities to expand your interactions with unstructured play, outdoor play, risky and messy play throughout the week.  You will find tons of ideas in that Play the Forest School Book or even by searching Pinterest for Forest Building School ideas.  

Enjoy this wonderful fall weather...but enjoy the terrible wet/cold/hot/rainy/snowy/humid/dry/ weather too.  

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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