There have always been a few “fringe philosophies” in education at any given moment. One that is moving from the fringe into a class all its own is the idea of nature play. Sparrow’s Nest Play grew out of a love for teaching creation care, along with the belief that being in nature as co-creators and stewards of this place, is a witness of peace. Angela Hanscom’s book Balanced and Barefoot was one of the first resources I explored when looking for evidence about why nature seems to heal.
Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, began with the question: Why are so many more children struggling to sit still? She goes further to postulate, “Are we simply more sensitive to children’s needs these days? Or is there really an increase in sensory issues in young children? What is causing these problems?”
Research led her to found TimberNook, a nature-based developmental program for children because her conclusions were a resounding “Yes, there is an increase in sensory issues in young children.” Much of that foundational research is included in this book. It is exceptionally well laid out with plenty of specific examples about how certain activities meet sensory thresholds and what happens when those are not reached – or even explored. Just within the first chapter, Hanscom traces decreasing core muscle strength, poor posture, decreased stamina, fragile bones, poor balance, weakened immune systems, aggression, reading difficulties, and anxiety as issues that stem from a nature deficiency.
After laying out the many issues that can stem from a lack of experiences that come from free play in nature, Hanscom spends the next chapter speaking specifically to sensory integration. Her summation is quite dim, “There is a common thread that runs through the development of healthy motor, sensory, social-emotional, and cognitive skills. Any time there is a kink in that thread…your child is at risk for a range of problems, from having difficulty making friends to paying attention in school to controlling emotions to even losing the ability to imagine – not to mention being at risk for a range of physical injuries.” Her solution, however, as a therapist couldn’t be simpler – whole body movement and lots of it.
“When we constantly say no – ‘No climbing,’ ‘No riding your bike to Henry’s house,’ ‘no running,’ ‘There’s no time for that,’ ‘Don’t touch that,’ or ‘Get down from there,’ – we’re likely to see effects on children’s development.
As an educator, my ingrained skepticism comes out in the form of safety concerns. Having served as the Director for several programs, the words “liability” and “safety” are often out of my mouth before I’ve even had a chance to fully process the question. Even so, her chapter on allowing children to take risks (Chapter 5: “Safety First Equals Child Development Later) gave me pause to really stop and wonder how often I have defeated a child’s natural need and inclination in the name of safety. I am coming to the conclusion that while I may never describe myself as a “risk taker,” allowing for calculated risk taking is something I need to make more room for. Don’t miss her “Common Sense Safety List” beginning on page 129 to help you lay a foundation after reading this chapter. While you might not come to all the same conclusions that Hanscom does, I encourage you to read this chapter, along with Chapter 6 about the evolution of playgrounds and playground equipment with an open mind.
One of the most beneficial parts of this book, for me, was the confirmation that children need unstructured, independent play. Her research indicated that the “amount of time children spend in unstructured play has decreased by 50 percent [in the past few decades], resulting in children devoting most of their time to indoor activities.” Likewise with the average child spending as much as 5-6 hours a day in front of a television, computer, or video game screen, she makes a compelling argument for declining trends in creativity and problem solving among children as a result of lack of independent play.
“When children are deprived of both child-led and play experiences, they may struggle with higher-level thinking skills, such as coming up with their own ideas, problem solving, and other forms of creative expression. It is important that we allow plenty of independent play experiences, in which children have ample time and space to explore, create, and play with friends. It is then, and only then, that they will be able to practice the complex cognitive skills needed for a successful academic career and to reach their intellectual capabilities.”
Even if this book doesn’t inspire you to run right out and join a nature play group (or support us here at Sparrow’s Nest Play) I think it is well researched enough to stop and help us understand why we are seeing some of the fundamental changes in childhood behaviors – especially those related to sensory issues. I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a different way to reach a child who struggles to sit still and just seems all around “awkward.”
For us at Sparrow’s Nest Play, this book confirms that our bodies were made to participate in creation as caretakers and co-creators. Resources like this one help us articulate why we believe we’ve been wired to our places intimately and belong to and in them.