Escape Outdoors

by Suzita on January 31, 2019

I remember the day the I hit the wall. It was in the middle of a long summer of what we referred to as “Mom camp,” and at the peak of our two-playgrounds-a-day phase—one in the morning, another in the afternoon. And I just couldn’t do it anymore.

That summer the kids were 10, 8, and 5, and Todd, who was working hard to finish his first book before his teaching semester began, needed quiet time to write. 

I’m not sure how inspiration struck—it was likely due to the desperation I felt. But out of the blue, I recalled a small slice of land on the edge of a pond, on the far side of a park, on the other end of town. I piled the kids in the car with some notebooks, pencils, bags for collecting, and snacks—and drove off.

We walked for half a mile to get to the spot. The children were somewhat cranky when we arrived, but it was fairly secluded so no one heard their fussing.

A Deserted Island

I informed the kids I was dropping them off on a deserted island. It was about 100 yards across with a big hill in the middle, and the pond on one side. On the other side was a creek-sized body of water separating it from the “mainland.”  The first job was to create a bridge. 

I sat on a bench on the mainland while they built and explored. It was one of those wonderful parenting experiences that worked—which is probably why I remember it. As Angela Hanscom says in Balanced and Barefoot, the first thing that happens when kids lose themselves in nature is quiet. The loud, whiny voices come to an almost instant halt. A sense of focus takes hold.

Once the kids made their way onto the island via their soggy bridge of sticks and logs, five-year-old Annie picked her way to the water’s edge and began searching for rocks and water bugs. Stephen, age ten, started surveying the landmass and later drew a map of it in his notebook—which I thought might happen as he was deep into his map-making phase. Eight-year-old Daniel got right down to building some sort of structure with plants and sticks, while keeping an eye out for natural treasures—he was in a pirate/detective phase.

When it was time to leave, the kids told me they’d christened the place “Moon Island” because it was somewhat crescent-shaped. Stephen pulled out his map, Daniel showed me various treasures he’d found, and Annie chattered about the bug species she’d discovered. All three begged me to return to their island soon.

Vitamin N

I love Richard Louv’s term ”Vitamin N” to describe children’s biological need for nature in their lives. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, reminds us that children involved in active free play outdoors are stimulating each of their senses and igniting their imaginations—their neurons firing on all cylinders. This type of play increases kids’ creativity, helps them regulate their emotions, and enhances their social development.

Play in the natural world reduces children’s anxiety, allows them to slow down and focus, and is less stimulating than much of the indoor world with its bright colors and loud sounds.

Nature Supports Sensory Integration

Hanscom says that the heavy lifting children naturally do outdoors—picking up boulders or tree branches—supports their proprioception, giving them a sense of body position and motion. This type of play helps kids discover and regulate how much force they need for completing varied tasks in life. She mentions that spinning and rolling, also common in outdoor play, stimulate the vestibular sense, telling children where their bodies are in space.

Free play in nature activates each sense, not simply proprioception and vestibular. It then helps kids weave the feedback from their senses into an integrated whole that clearly communicates signals from the outside world. Hanscom describes sensory integration as taking all the puzzle pieces and pulling them together into a bigger picture. She suggests imagining a child climbing a tree barefoot, experiencing the sensation through her eyes, feet, hands, nose, and even muscles and joints. Think of the information this child is taking in from all her senses.

What About in Winter?

Wintertime can be challenging when it comes to spending time in nature with children. When my kids were young, I had many “misses” on cold-day outdoor experiences, but a few did hit the mark, such as:

  • Walking along an iced-over creek, and letting the kids play beside it. They broke the ice by throwing big rocks and pounding it with sticks, and saw how far small rocks slid on the icy surface. As long as Mama stayed warm, this play could go on for hours.
  • Building snow forts in the backyard after big storms. We found kid-sized snow shovels for small, mittened hands, and let them loose.
  • Walking the neighborhood finding icy spots between the sidewalk and street. The kids then broke, crunched, and jumped on the ice while declaring themselves “The Icebreakers.”
  • Building winter dams. When it was a bit sunny and the snow began to melt into little streams along the sidewalks, the kids built small dams and other architectural creations in the flowing water.      

Final Thoughts

Being in nature calms a fussy toddler and soothes a disgruntled teen. And don’t forget that it makes the parents of these children feel more sane and grounded too. When we immerse ourselves in nature, even if just in bits at a time, we are reminded there are many things bigger than we are. Our problems aren’t so large when seen from this perspective. 

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My friend Katherine and her husband adopted two foster siblings at ages 1 and 2.  It was a big change—going from a 2- to a 4-person family overnight.  They had so much to learn about parenting and about these particular children.  Like many previously in foster care, these kids had experienced early traumas.  I tried to be a sounding board for Katherine when she had so many decisions to make in short order.  But I also watched her getting to know her new children, and laying down the foundation from which they’d learn to trust her—doing many of the things that new biological parents do.  Only Katherine didn’t have the luxury to move slowly with one child who she’d been with since birth.    

Young Childhood

I remember Katherine would try to make things as predictable and understandable as possible for her toddlers—sometimes cutting out photos of things which she was explaining.  But over the years, I saw that Katherine’s biggest strength was her patience.

When the kids were in elementary school, it became clear that each had a learning disability, as well as attentional difficulties.  However, their learning challenges weren’t as straightforward as they are for some kids—those with dyslexia, for example.  It took Katherine years to decipher the cause of the learning problems in each child.  During those years Katherine was patient—frustrated at times and tired a lot—but persevering as she consulted various experts to help her understand her children’s struggles. 

Adolescence

Now these siblings are adolescents—rarely an easy phase for kids or parents.  But I can see how far they have come.  It’s probably harder for Katherine and her husband to see this since they’re so close to it all—and the kids are middle-schoolers so some of their positive attributes are buried for now—but they’ve clearly flourished.  The kids are interested in the world around them, able to talk comfortably with adults, playful, funny, and kind—and this description is from my kids who babysit them.   

Sensitive Children

Recently when my teens were talking about Katherine’s kids, I was reminded of some reading I’d done on sensitive children—kids who are extremely aware of, and affected by their environments.  Katherine has at least one and likely two “sensitive children.” 

Personally, I describe these kids as the ones parents worry about the most.  Researchers who study both children and primates—where some of the work on sensitive kids originated—describe sensitive children as having a genetic make-up that makes them more: anxious, fearful, fussy, whiny, prone to social anxiety, and unfocused. 

These are clearly not your mellow babies or exuberant and upbeat toddlers.  These are the kids you babysat as a teen, and left their home exhausted because they’d been crabby and fussy, and never settled on any activity for long.  They are the kids who don’t transition easily due to  overstimulation from their environments.  These are the children who are exceedingly sensitive to sounds, or as they get older, offhand comments from other children.  And don’t get me started about seeing movies they find scary.  Heck, my son Daniel would have nightmares after seeing the “scary book cover at the school book fair.”  Yes, I myself am somewhat familiar with sensitive children.  I have at least two of them, and possibly three. 

In The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman mention that certain kids have a genetic predisposition to environmental sensitivity.  They interviewed primate researcher, Steve Suomi, who stated that though “some traits are inherited, it doesn’t mean they can’t be altered.”  His work has shown that if you put a naturally anxious and fearful baby rhesus monkey with a supportive foster mother monkey, that baby grows up to be highly social, able to turn to others for help, and often a social group leader. 

Orchid Children

This and other research has led scientists to dub these sensitive kids “orchid children.” 

According to researchers Bruce Ellis and W. Thomas Boyle, many children are “genetically like dandelions: hardy and able to thrive in various environments.”  For years we assumed that non-dandelion children—high-maintenance children—were the weak ones.  However, the “orchid theory” suggests that while sensitive “orchid” children may be more challenging to raise, if nurtured well they can excel even beyond their counterparts. 

A German study explored this concept in young children. It followed thousands of toddlers considered at risk, due to behaviors such as routine screaming, whining, and difficulty focusing. Researchers then taught their parents how to best work with these challenging kids.  All the children were also tested for a dopamine gene which causes high sensitivity to the environment and is linked to ADHD.  They found that although the entire group received positive parenting, the children with the sensitivity gene improved twice as much as those without the gene. 

Studies now suggest that strong, positive parenting can help sensitive kids throughout childhood.  The orchid theory posits that “genetically challenged” children raised with good parents “don’t just turn out fine, they actually excel. They thrive. They become stronger, healthier, and more confident than their peers.”  The natural sensitivity in these children makes them sponges in their environments.  While they have the potential to soak up “the worst” if they are in bad environments, they also have the potential to absorb “the best” if that’s what they are offered.   

As I’ve watched Katherine and her husband parent their kids over the past decade, I now see that I have been observing the orchid theory in action. 

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