Academic Access: Vitamin N(ature)
02/23/2017 11:56AM ● Published by Jennifer Gonzalez
By: Dr. Dauphine Sisk-Wambles
I see her clinging to the tree. She’s wrapped around the thick trunk like a tree sloth, inching her way up. She's four years old. I step closer to see if she needs help. On her face there’s a please-let-me-be look, so I step back and watch. The tree rises at a 45-degree angle and the end is about three feet from the ground. In the last few weeks, other kids have already climbed the tree and jumped down. As she works her way to the end, I move closer. Now she’s dangling from the trunk, her feet edging towards the ground. “Need help?” I ask again.
She shakes her head. She wants to do it by herself. I’m there if she needs me, but when she’s back on the ground again, her whole attitude has changed. That same day and for several days to come, she will repeat her climb. “You should be proud of what you did,” I told her. Now, she’s climbing ALL. THE. TREES. And when she does, she’s relaxed. She improves her balance. She can stand upright. She loves it.
What did she gain from simply climbing a tree? Self-confidence. Self-awareness. Body coordination. She built muscle strength in her arms, her legs and her core. How does climbing a tree translate into school readiness? With that stronger core she can sit upright at her desk. Her upper body will have developed the strength and connection with the core to make fine motor work, like picking up her pencil and making letters, an easier task. Her hand-eye coordination will be strong from practicing in an environment that allows for constant shifts between near- and far-range visual targets. She also gained communication and social skills while playing alongside her peers. This “whole-body development at their own pace” is rooted in an evidenced-based approach.
A movement to get children outdoors is sweeping across the country. Richard Louv, author
of the books, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder and Vitamin N, has coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to help people understand how important outdoor experiences are to a child’s development. There is significant data out there highlighting the multiple benefits of time spent in nature for children. For example, the more children are exposed to nature and outdoor experiences, the more they show improved school performance, greater creativity and improved overall physical function. Louv encourages us to think about time in nature like a vitamin, specifically calling it Vitamin N (nature). When we consume it regularly and consistently, we reap the many benefits.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I see children in the clinic that are missing their core strength, visual motor skills and the upper body strength to be successful at school and at home. When I found TimberNook, an outdoor-based model that combined play-based learning and a child’s developmental needs with a special attunement to the sensory needs of a child’s growing body, I knew I had to bring that model to our community as a choice for local families.
One of the barriers to increasing nature play can be the perception of risk. Concerns of risk might include the physical risks in climbing a tree or even perceived risks of being judged for allowing a child to take age-appropriate challenges. One of the best ways to address these concerns is to reframe the thought. Switch “What could go wrong?” with “What will the child gain?” We’re focusing on the benefits first. In my early example, there was risk when she climbed that tree. However, the benefits she gained far outweighed the potential risk.
The fear of a negative judgment is especially strong in society today. But children will learn when you give them chances. If trusted and supportively monitored, children develop the good judgment they need and pick the “just right” challenges almost intrinsically. They start with options with just a bit of challenge and progress from there. When we encourage children to continue and give them even more chances, the more they can hone their skills.
So what can you do to get started? Plan your spring cleaning to include updating the rain gear for each family member. Boots, raincoats and umbrellas will keep everyone happy and ready to play outside, no matter the weather. Place a basket or bag with bubbles, sidewalk chalk and a ball near the door or in the car. Having these simple things packed makes it easy to begin a fun outdoor play session. Shoot for a 15-minute session each day to get started. Or, try something simple like doing tonight’s homework outside. Adding movement to homework sessions will also help improve recall. So, take those flashcards outside and mix in basic tumbling moves like jumping jacks or donkey kicks while your child recites the information. Pairing recall sessions with jumping on a trampoline can be particularly effective for older children. Even scheduling a weekly walk at the park will help your children (and you!) reap the benefits of being outdoors.
TimberNook offers a wide range of activities to get you and your children outside. Check out their Facebook page TimberNook of the Sandhills or check the “Registration” tab at Timbernook.com to learn more.
Dr. Dauphine Sisk-Wambles has worked with children for over twenty years, most recently as an occupational therapist in private practice. When not running TimberNook she enjoys reading and cooking for her family.