“I go into nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order”
– John Buroughs
Life is a multi-sensory event. Many people are familiar with the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Balance and body movement, and body awareness are two additional senses that influence the unique ways in which each of us experience the world. Activities that engage our sense regulate our mind and body on a cellular level. This blog article will highlight some ways in which spending time outdoors can benefit the mind and body for people at any age and stage of development.
Stepping outside is a quick coping skill for people of any age to regulate the nervous system. Going from inside to outside offers a change of scenery to refocus our attention. Our lungs expand as oxygen from the air and trees circulates through our body and up into our brain, improving mood, attention, and focus. When asked to imagine a calming scene, most often people picture a scene from nature. Studies have supported that even looking at a picture of a tree lowers the body’s stress response (Glawell, Brown, Wood, Sandercock, and Barton, 2013). We are able to feel the temperature change as the sun shines on our face. We notice the breeze as it blows through out hair. The sky is its own visual masterpiece. Laying on the grass with your child, watching the clouds move across the sky, is a simple strategy to practice deep breathing, co-regulation, and relationship building. When our body is calm, we are able to think more clearly.
Working with young children has helped me to appreciate the vibrant experience of spending time outdoors, and to witness the dynamic impact that simply being outside can have upon mental and physical health, emotional regulation, and child development. One way or another, children will find a way to meet their developmental needs. Environment does not often dictate where children will scream, climb, jump, throw, crash, tumble, rebel, and create mess. The rules of the indoors require many children to exercise greater emotional and physical control than their biology can tolerate. I have worked with many children who seem out of control both physically and emotionally in their home and school environments. When confined in the four walls of a building, these children often rebel against the constant barrage of limits placed upon them. Outdoors, they are allowed to ‘break the rules’ in a contained way.
I am often able to observe children playing at recess. I love seeing children running around and screaming at the top of their lungs. The liberation they feel from no longer having to ‘use their indoor voice’, and the release they feel when they get to scream out their emotions is visible. For some children, being outside barefoot is enough to satisfy their need for rebellion. Creating a mess or getting dirty is another restriction placed upon children in an indoor setting, for many understandable reasons; however, children still need outlets to interact with their environment in ways that are not always tidy or tightly controlled. Playing in dirt, water, or rain is another form of ‘rebellion’ that activates the sensory system.
The ways in which children become alive, expressive, curious, and calm through this kind of play is therapeutic. With repeated engagement with the outdoors in a manner that awakens our senses, the entire body, brain, and spirit become more deeply connected and more fully alive. As you are planning your summer activities, don’t forget to include your backyard as a place to explore.
Written by: Jessica Hendon