How have children’s lives changed in the last 30 years? According to author and Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom, children’s lives today are much more structured and busier than when she–or I–was a kid. Kids now often have an extracurricular activity or sport every day of the week, plus homework beginning in kindergarten in some districts. We’re all aware of the “screen time” issue; regardless of how you feel about the impacts of up to 11 hours a day (for the average American teenager) of computer, video game, and cell phone time, one thing that’s for sure is that that is time our children aren’t outside climbing trees and engaging in imaginative play.

Add to this the fact that recess is shrinking and becoming more structured (one school she mentions in her blog has instituted mandatory lap-walking around the track at recess time to fight obesity); children today spend much less time in outdoor free play than they did in the 70’s or 80’s.

Parents are being told that the modern world is a scary place, and that they should be fearful of allowing their kids to do many of the things they themselves grew up doing. This is in spite of the fact that, statistically, we live in a safer society now than we did then. On top of that, the society is more risk-averse. So even when they have the time for it, children are often disallowed from playing outdoors, alone or with neighbors; riding their bikes to school or around the neighborhood alone; climbing trees; and many of the other outdoor activities you and I grew up with.
Many of these points were made in Richard Louv’s seminal work, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. What’s different here is that Hanscom examines how these changes are impacting our children’s bodies, brains, and sensory systems, from the perspective of someone with a master’s in occupational therapy. She does a really nice job of presenting well-researched and referenced information about how free play in nature positively impacts every system in the body. She makes the case that “nature is therapeutic” and that nature play can prevent and treat many of the issues that her pediatric OT clients present with.

Did you know that, statistically, American children’s bones are getting more brittle? Hanscom relates this to a lack of weight-bearing exercise in early childhood. Remember the “bent arm hang”? Children today perform, on average, worse on the same national physical strength and agility tests we took in school. Clearly they are not getting enough of the kinds of physical activity we had. Increasing numbers of children are presenting with sensory development and sensory integration issues. Hanscom compares the state-of-the-art OT classroom with a natural environment and finds the classroom comparatively lacking in the right kinds of sensory stimuli.

She notes that a common treatment for certain types of auditory processing issues is to listen to pre-recorded birdsong; she maintains that listening to real birdsong, outdoors in a 360 degree environment, is far superior.

And she examines what’s wrong with modern playgrounds, both in terms of the types of physical and sensory stimulation they provide and the lack of opportunities for healthy risk taking.

Hanscom also points out that, while organized sports have many benefits, they cannot replace outdoor free play. One of the main arguments she makes in the book is that stimulation of the vestibular (inner ear, or balance) system is essential for optimal brain development; lack of stimulation can cause myriad problems from poor balance and coordination to difficulty focusing and lack of emotional regulation. Kids intuitively want to stimulate this system; this is why they seek out spinning, tumbling, swinging, and upside-down activities. Most organized sports and modern recess activities do not provide adequate vestibular stimulation. Swings have gotten shorter and merry-go-rounds have been deemed too risky for school playgrounds. In some places, kids are even being prevented from spinning around for fear that they will fall and hurt themselves.
In addition to sounding an alarm about children’s shrinking access to free play outdoors, Hanscom includes many ideas for how to help the children in your life reap specific benefits from nature play. The book is highly readable and well-organized. It’s aimed mostly at parents but anyone who works with children would benefit from reading this book. Most of all, the children will benefit!

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Ithaca Forest Preschool is a nature immersion program for children ages 3-5. Our program is run in cooperation with Primitive Pursuits, a project of Cornell Cooperative Extension.