Even before the pandemic arrived, we were living pretty sterile lives.
This is the age of the scheduled playdate and the sensory bin activity with fake sand that is somehow clean and doesn’t stick to fingers. It’s the age of “don’t spin around like that because you might fall” and “don’t go near the woods because you might get poison ivy”. And it’s the age of “Sure, you can watch another episode honey”, because even though it’s been on for 90 minutes, the episodes are so well done, and it’s STEM and they are learning! It’s not that an organized schedule and a bucket of clean sand are bad, or that we shouldn’t teach our children to be cautious in certain situations. It’s not that iPads or Netflix are terrible; in fact some of the children’s programming on marine biology and environmental science is remarkable! It’s simply that free, unstructured play and hands-on interaction with nature are crucial to healthy child development, and children today aren’t getting enough of it.
Author and pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hascom writes in “Balanced and Barefoot” about the importance of sensory-rich play experiences in the development of a healthy sensory integration system. She suggests that the more opportunities we give a child to make sandcastles at the beach, splash in puddles and play in the mud, the more integrated and organized the brain, senses and body become. If our child is not exposed to a variety of tactile experiences, they may develop a poor tolerance to touch. The child might get upset about clothing that doesn’t feel right or about getting glue or paint on their hands.
Hascom notes that this is one of the reasons behind the sensory bin trend, and that parents are pleased to bring sensory experiences for babies and young children inside and into a controlled environment. When we take a baby or child outside, however, what may have been a short activity in which only one’s hands are engaged now becomes a situation in which many more senses are activated. The warmth of the sun, the breeze, the tiny critters that scurry, the call of birds, the wet, the cold, the rough, the light, all allows for more dynamic and meaningful exploration and imaginative play.
Of course the wonderful side effect of bringing our children out to get “in touch” with nature is that it also improves our own moods, creativity and that underappreciated element of spontaneity, as parents. Indeed it is worth contemplating how much room we leave for spontaneity to work its magic in the lives of our children and in our own lives as adults. What does reaching for our phones first thing in the morning, or setting our kids up with a screen over breakfast, do to the potential for spontaneous thought? If we have two craft activities and a snack planned for our child’s playdate, what does that do to the potential for spontaneous interaction and imaginative play, not to mention the essential experiences of conflict and boredom? Parents of adolescents and teenagers, a slightly different question for you: what might be lost through peer to peer interactions in this age of the carefully crafted text message, the meticulously manicured social media profile, the edited and filtered post offering a split second window into one’s life? Is it all a bit too planned and polished?
I am convinced that mud and spontaneity are the answer to much that ails us. Every human being has a right to Thrive Outside. Join the movement and let your wild child out!
Sheila Dobbyn is Thrive Outside's Outdoor Learning Professional Development Consultant