Headstart for Life

Exploring Sensory Play Opportunities in Nature!

Posted on Tuesday, November 17, 2020 by 2 minutes

Welcome back Headstart readers! It’s been a while since we publish an entry. So, what better way to start anew than talk about nature!

Since the pandemic early this year, the world is beginning to heal. Nature has been an important part of that healing.

Being a parent of two children and as an Occupational Therapist who has been working closely with children, I have gained substantial experience and knowledge of their developmental needs. Surviving the lockdown period with family and children at home was genuinely challenging.  This “new normal” experience has proved the importance of being out in nature, especially for children. My wife, who is also an Occupational Therapist, and I realized the impact of outdoor activities on the emotional and physical wellbeing of both our children and us. A simple walk in the evenings in the park does makes a huge difference.

These moments instigated a viewpoint about sharing my thoughts on including important outdoor activities during routines for children with sensory processing challenges. As we look forward to Phase 3 to hopefully open up shortly, I would like to share some outdoor play ideas to fulfill the sensory needs of our children.

Many research articles support the fact that being out in nature improves activity engagement and thereby enhances the social, emotional well-being of children. Discussing the importance of being out in nature, one cannot forget their childhood life, where we spent our time mainly outdoors. I can relive those moments with fond memories like the smell of rain falling on the ground, running behind butterflies to see them move from flower to the other, building a mud house from a puddle, climbing trees to pluck tropical fruits such as mangoes.

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Back then, before the era of the internet and social media, parents often send their children outside. And children, during those days, spent most of their time wandering around the wild, playing pretend play and getting dirty. They would ride their bikes to their friends’ houses and catch frogs at the creek. If they happen to live in a landed house, they would be helping with chores. If they lived in the city, they would be in the park with their friends. Slowly over time, our children’s lives became more structured at an earlier age.

With a significant decrease in unstructured, spontaneous play, the number of children diagnosed with some form of Sensory Processing Disorder increases. More and more children are needing intervention in learning how to “play.”

It is essential to understand how children develop and how they form all these significant connections in their brains. The more of these sensory explorations are included, the easier it will be for kids to be able to process all of the signals that their senses are bringing in. If there are not enough of these connections are formed or may form in the wrong way, then that’s when children start having problems with sensory processing. The best option is to spend time with the sweet, generous Mother Earth herself!

We cannot compare nature by making a sensory bin at home with sand and other materials. For sure, it is helpful to experience different touch textures, but going to the beach gives a different kind of sensation on textures as well as other input in our senses. This includes the breeze that we feel when we walk along the shore, the sound of the waves licking the sand, the changes in the textures of sand as you walk on the different part of the beach – from finer to more coarse texture, and the smell of the salty water.

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And that’s not all! They will be digging, lifting, running to the water to fill heavy buckets, getting wet, having the sand dry on their skin, feeling the heat of the sun. All of these activities have high therapeutic values.  It gives them tons of input for their brain tubes to be making connections. They are building fine motor skills when they are picking out rocks and tiny shells to decorate their castles or to collect in their buckets. In the same amount of time, they could be getting a much higher quality experience.

Another great example is creating a family art project such as a montage. Collecting natural elements to make an art or a picture can be a fantastic activity to include in the child’s regular play routines. Touching and walking through different textures. Feeling the breeze on the face, or feeling the warm sun, walking without shoes on grass, looking at different colors in nature and smelling other flowers, collecting twigs, digging mud to gather stones. All of these are exceptionally fantastic opportunities for children to experience different senses.

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On a concluding note, the best opportunity for parents to do a child-led activity occurs in nature. So, go on, bring your child to one of these parks or trails and follow their lead and join them in play. You will be able to differentiate and notice the way they interact easily. Also, being in nature enhances both ours and our child’s ability to use their imaginations. Be creative and live the moment. Enjoy your outdoor play and now that our society is slowly opening up, planning to be outside more often can help relieve anxiety and stress for both the children and us.

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Kalai

Kalai is an Occupational Therapist who likes to keep his sessions lively and enjoys spending time with young children. He has a strong belief in intervention that is child-led and family-centred. He prefers to understand children through play and observations in their natural environments.

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