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An Interview with Angela Hanscom on the Importance of Movement, Nature, and Play in Children’s Lives.

When I read an article by Angela Hanscom titled, “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/07/08/why-so-many-kids-cant-sit-still-in-school-today/), I instantly thought of my daughter wiggling out of her chair every evening at dinnertime. Some nights she literally cannot sit still long enough to eat. We tell her to sit down – which of course is the problem; she’s been sitting most of her day already. The article raises concerns over how too much sitting can lead to a weakened sensory system. I began wondering if my daughter’s fidgeting wasn’t symptomatic of a larger problem…

Fortunately, I was able to talk with Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of the nature-based development program TimberNook about these concerns. Unlike traditional camps that structure activities and rotate kids through a schedule, TimberNook’s philosophy is to “empower rather than entertain”. TimberNook allows children lots of space and freedom to delve into the natural environment, believing that outdoor play enriches and supports the developing child.

Below, Angela shares her expertise and her experiences from TimberNook with me. What I discovered after speaking with her was that movement – while extremely important – is only one piece of the puzzle. What kids really need to develop healthy bodies and minds is to play freely in nature. Hopefully our conversation will help parents gain a better understanding of how movement, play, and nature all combine to offer the ultimate sensory experience – and why that is so vital for our children!

Can you explain how learning and movement are connected?

In order to develop a really strong balance or vestibular system, we need to move the body in all different directions, and go up and down, to move the fluid in the inner-ear. If that fluid is not stimulating the little hair cells inside the inner-ear then your balance system is not developing like it should. That controls almost everything else; all the other senses. It’s all connected, and connected to the brain. So if you mess with one thing, you’re going to pull everything else out of alignment. It’s almost like malnourishment. You can’t malnourish your body by not giving it enough stimulation and expect it to perform at top level. You really need movement in order to foster all the senses and get them working at a normal level. If you test most children, about 1 out of 12 kids has normal balance and strength.

So if I’m a parent and I’m observing things like fidgeting, tripping, wiggling in my child, or my child is easily frustrated and quick to tears, should I be looking at those as the warning signs that maybe their vestibular system is not as strong as it needs to be?

I think that the vestibular system is one of those things, it almost always needs to be treated. When it comes to sensory-integration work, there’s usually something wrong with the vestibular system. But it’s not always the case. I won’t say it’s a hard and fast rule. But I think it’s one of the biggest underlying components that gets missed because most therapists are not trained in that. They might work on fine-motor skills and that isn’t getting to the underlying issues. It’s a complicated system; it’s one of those things that gets missed many times.

The brain needs nutrition but it also needs movement in order to function properly. We were just built that way. Even being outdoors just in general is therapeutic. So, like the sounds of birds; when you listen to birds tweeting outside it actually helps orient your body to space because you hear a sound – a tweet – on one side of your body and then you hear a tweet following on the other side, and it helps you with spatial awareness. So even being outside, and walking barefoot helps develop the arches in your feet, and so all those things are therapeutic and then you combine that with movement. We were born to be outside and now we separate ourselves (from the outdoors) and we’re telling kids to sit still. It’s just not normal. We keep questioning it, but it’s just the way we were made.

Why is outdoor play so important for children?

Every aspect of play outdoors is therapeutic for different reasons. When you’re doing sedentary play indoors you’re cutting off a lot of things. Let’s say you’re building a fort outside. If you’re running through the woods – which a lot of people would stop by the way – but if you let them run, they’re learning. Running through the woods, you have to learn how to navigate quickly through the trees. It’s not even-ground so now you have that challenge; outdoors is up and down versus indoors which is flat. You’re working the hand-eye coordination and the balance. You go to pick up sticks and rocks and they’re heavy, so now you’re doing ‘heavy work’. That’s the stuff we use for treatment, but they naturally get through play, so I guess that’s the biggest thing I would say: through play they will get what their neurological system needs if you let them. The biggest problem is that we stop them from doing that. We say don’t pick up that stick or don’t run through the woods or don’t climb on that rock or don’t spin in circles or sit still – all those things are keeping them from developing a strong balance system and a strong sensory system which they need in order to function properly.

We’re seeing issues with kids at recess who are tagging each other too hard. Part of the problem is that their proprioception system, which is the senses in your joints and muscles, is off. That system helps regulate how hard you push or pull things, so when they go to tag they might push too hard. It’s because they’re not moving enough and they’re not doing enough heavy work throughout the day. To do heavy work, you really need to move your whole body – picking up a pencil is not heavy work, but climbing a tree is. You’re giving senses to the joints when you climb; there’s pressure there. So as occupational therapists we use heavy work as a treatment but they get that naturally through play. Play is the most meaningful occupation to children. We need to keep going back to that. It’s not something that needs to be dictated by an adult, it’s something that children will naturally seek out on their own. It’s when we say don’t do that all the time, we’re actually changing childhood development as we know it.

What do you say to parents who have some safety concerns about allowing their kids to play in potentially risky ways?

By not allowing children to take risks we’re actually creating a child that is more unsafe. What’s going on right now, if you think about it, is most children are in the upright position. During the day they are sitting and when they get home they’re doing homework; they’re still upright. When they’re in a car, they’re upright. Even if they’re in soccer practice, they might be getting a little bit of vestibular work but only one kind. They’re not going upside-down. They’re not spinning. They’re not doing all that great vestibular work that we like to see. So if you’re constantly in upright position, what’s going on is, inside your inner ear there’s little hair cells and if you’re not stimulating the fluid by moving your head upside down and moving in all different directions, that fluid is not stimulating those little hair cells. And so your balance system is not developing like it should. And that balance system, which is your vestibular system, is kind of the key to everything. It’s one of the first systems developed. It supports all six eye muscles. It’s kind of like a tripod for your eyes. So if you want to be able to read, you need a good balance system. The vestibular system feeds right into your limbic system – that’s the center for your emotions – so you’re going to get that crying much more easily, and they’re going to be much more easily frustrated, and that’s the center for your motivation too. Lastly, it activates your reticular activating system which turns your brain on so that’s why you see kids fidget . When they move back and forth, basically what they’re doing is activating the balance system to turn their brain on so they can pay attention. A lot of teachers say sit still, so they do, and their brain goes back to sleep. If you see kids fidgeting a lot that’s a good indicator that they’re not moving enough throughout the day. If you’re sedentary and sitting most of the day, that whole sensory system is not getting developed like it should, so you’re going to get emotional regulation problems like crying easily and quick to frustration; you’re going to get balance issues; kids are going to be clumsy; they’re going to trip over their own feet; they’re going to run into things; teachers are saying kids are falling out of their seats more. Those are all the issues that we’re seeing and that play into kids being more and more unsafe. If you have no awareness of where your body is in space, you’re going to run into things. You’re not going to be able to climb safely. We’re seeing kids that are weaker and that are less coordinated because we’re restricting them so much. So restricted movement and restricted play causes a big problem with development.

Even playgrounds have changed in recent years. Everything is shorter and we’ve gotten rid of merry-go-rounds which is funny because as a therapist when we spin the swing around on purpose we’re creating a centrifugal force that helps with attention. We’re doing the same exact thing as a merry-go-round; so a merry-go-round is actually therapeutic. We’ve taken those away saying they’re unsafe. So we’re giving less stimulation to our kids even on our playgrounds. It reminds me of old people, they’re more likely to get hurt and fall.

How much time do kids need in a day to spin and tumble and roll? The parents I work with are going to want to schedule it!

To give them a good guideline is to think back to their own childhood. Back when I was young, we were out all day long. And if you think about it, back when kids were farming, they were doing heavy-work all day long. Even just playing outside all day, we didn’t see a lot of kids with ADHD; so you have to wonder how much is just that they’re not moving enough. So my recommendation is to get them out every day no matter the weather. Fear is another huge barrier; they’re afraid to let their kids out by themselves, but you know there are ways around that. You can go out to shovel while the kids are playing. You don’t have to be playing with the children, and in fact it’s really good for them to learn to play by themselves because that’s a skill that helps them be able to think for themselves. I usually invite friends over for my daughter and they go play by themselves; they entertain each other. I don’t do play-dates for an hour, I don’t feel like that’s enough time, so I say drop them off for the day and let them explore. There’s always a way – you just have to get creative.

Do you have suggestions for parents to motivate their kids to play outdoors?

Keeping it simple is best. There’s two things you want to keep in mind. I think children do better with more space. If you have a very confined space they’re going to get bored quickly. So if you allow them to explore more space and you give them time to get bored, not just half an hour, but if you give them time and space you’re going to see big changes. The other thing is to not put too much stuff out there or put toys that distract. Just some basic stuff like a bicycle with a basket or a sled in the snow. They could play for hours sledding. I think sometimes we get so many ideas and we think we have to structure an activity for them; and then the kids become so used to that being a prop that they rely on it. You know sometimes it just takes them getting bored to start getting into their imagination a little bit. The more time they spend outside, the more ideas they’re gonna get. It’s when we get caught up in the busyness of life that we get distracted and we get away from that again. So, it’s a conscious effort to make sure we get them outside.

A lot of the parents I coach are very focused on academics and sports. These parents think their kids are getting all the movement they need…

But they’re over-stimulated and it’s not play. True play is having a choice. If an adult is organizing play and you don’t have a choice, it’s not play. They’re not getting that time to use their imagination and creativity – that’s actually going to give them a really hard time answering essay questions when they go to college. So yeah, they might be moving a lot, but then you’re sacrificing a lot of other stuff and you’re taking away the nature piece. I always give an example of how in the clinic we’d spend thousands of dollars on these balance beams with bumps on them versus walking out on a real log which actually feels much better on your feet and has all those different sensations that are constantly changing – it’s wet one minute then it’s dry and it’s crackling – so that’s actually helping you to form what we call ‘discrimination’ . You can discriminate in your foot the different sensations because they vary versus just a plastic beam which is sort of abrasive; it doesn’t feel good. So the most natural sensory work is going to be done outdoors. And so if you want to develop a child with normal sensory-integration, you need to learn outside. It’s just the best way. Again, you’re going back to that meaningful play that’s chosen by them. It’s all intertwined.

Unfortunately, with the best of intentions, we often over-complicate things for our children and for ourselves. That’s why it’s so important to remember that we always have a choice. We decide what’s right for our families. We dictate how we spend our time. We set our own priorities.

It’s amazing how common-sense the solution is: open the door and go outside. Feel your feet in the grass. Roll around in the snow. Play! Let kids be kids.

You can learn more about Angela and her work at the TimberNook website: http://www.timbernook.com

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