Earth Matters: The case for unstructured nature play

  • Ariel Ginsberg of Amherst climbs during the Hitchcock Center’s nature play program. Balancing barefoot on logs, climbing trees and hanging upside down from branches all strengthen the body’s vestibular, or balance, system. Jessica Schultz Photo

For the Gazette
Published: 4/5/2019 1:46:25 PM

Recently the Hitchcock Center hosted an eye-opening talk called “Balanced and Barefoot” by Angela Hanscom, author of a recent book by the same name. Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist whose work with children led her to create a popular international outdoor play program called Timbernook.

Throughout her career, Hanscom made troubling observations in her work at schools, hospitals and outpatient clinics. She noticed that children had decreased strength and balance, poor attention and increased fidgeting. Kids in the 2000s had a fraction of the physical abilities of children thirty years earlier. At the same time, they were spending less and less time outdoors, as school recess times were shortened and more time was spent indoors, often sedentary. Hanscom connected the two trends and saw the solution: giving more opportunities for kids to play outdoors in unrestricted, unstructured ways.

As an occupational therapist, Hanscom has a unique perspective on the benefits of outdoor play. I was fascinated to learn about the vestibular, or balance, system we humans have, and just how crucial outdoor play is in strengthening and maintaining it. I already knew that balancing barefoot on logs, climbing trees and hanging upside down from branches were great activities for kids. In my programs at the Hitchcock Center, I witness them get stronger and more confident as they practice week after week to get up into a tree by themselves. What I didn’t realize was that these activities are actually critical for a healthy vestibular system. 

The vestibular system, made up of tiny structures in the inner ear, requires “input” in order to get stronger. According to Hanscom’s book: 

“Children develop a strong vestibular sense by having frequent opportunities to move — especially activities that go against gravity. Walking and running offer some vestibular input, but activities that encourage children out of an upright position provide rapid input to the inner ear. In other words, children will benefit immensely by going upside down, spinning, tumbling, and swinging.”

Hanscom considers the vestibular system a sense, just like sight, hearing, touch or smell. After all, input to the vestibular system gives the brain information about the person’s surroundings, just as the other senses do. Without a strong sense of balance and spatial orientation, which the vestibular system provides, other senses are negatively affected. An overarching theme of her work is that children need abundant opportunities to strengthen their ability to integrate sensory input. The more input the brain receives, the more sensory integration practice the child has. 

Hanscom’s talk at Hitchcock included a particularly effective demonstration of this concept. She showed two photos side by side. The one on the left showed a child walking barefoot on a colorful playground balance beam. It was level, but it curved side to side and had a knobbly surface. The picture on the right was of a child walking barefoot on a slippery log over a muddy stream in the woods. Angela asked us to observe the differences. The first photo, we noticed, was designed for kids to have a unique sensory experience. They had to pay attention to their feet in order not to fall, and the knobbly surface provided some unevenness and unpredictability. So, all in all, it was a fun activity involving some sensory integration.

But the second involved so much more. Walking on a curved, slippery log, a child needs to be truly alert. Her feet need to grip the curved surface of the log, activating and strengthening countless foot and ankle muscles. Simultaneously, the child is aware of the muddy water below and is challenging herself not to fall. Core body muscles are activated to keep her steady as she navigates a surface that is narrow, curved and slippery all at the same time. Furthermore, just by being in the woods, this child is experiencing a high level of sensory integration. She is taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest as well as the feeling of the log on her feet. 

As the child returns to the log again and again, what will the log be like in the rain? Snow? Sun? How does the surface of the log change as it weathers and breaks down over time? What kinds of moss or mushrooms will grow on it, and how will they affect how she walks there? The plastic balance beam on the playground was designed to be fun and physically challenging. But the experience of being in the woods on an ever-changing log is so much more dynamic and sensorily rich than anything a playground could provide.

As an environmental educator, I was excited to learn about the specific body systems that are strengthened by the play we do at the Hitchcock Center, and more reassured than ever that kids everywhere are in great need of programs like ours. And now I’m itching for warmer weather so I can give my own bare feet some rich sensory experiences!

Katie Koerten is an environmental educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

If you didn’t make it to Hanscom’s talk, check out her book: “Barefoot and Balanced: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children,” available in many local libraries and in bookstores. If you know school-age children who could use more of this play in their lives, check out the Hitchcock Center’s many programs for children and families:




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