How I finally Understood Sensory Integration and Why Nature Play is the Key!

Around a year ago was the first time I heard the phrase “Sensory Processing Disorder” and it really stuck with me. In this world of constant information via social media information doesn’t always stick. Phrases can pass by in headlines and blurbs without me ever notice them. But this time it was a doctor, and she was using those words in reference to my son. It was the start of this long journey of diagnosis that we are now nearing the end of. 

 

Of course I ran home and google my little heart out. Never has there been anything that confused me more. It got pushed aside while I researched the other, even more scary word, Autism. After the 15th or so book I realized I kept seeing Sensory Processing Disorder as a common disorder that goes along with the Autism Spectrum. Then Ivan started Kindergarten and his new Occupation and Physical Therapists explained sensory integration to me and what it could mean for our family. Still the lightbulb moment did not come for me. I read one book, thought I understood and made changes to our home and life. Not much changed. Then Creatures in the Wild began to grow in my busy brain and I purchased what I thought was just another book about outdoor education. Balanced and Barefoot by Angela J. Hanscom was my lightbulb moment. It drew the line between unstructured outdoor play and Sensory Processing Disorders that was not there for me before. Then my brain started working at full speed. 

 

Now I feel that it is my job to sum up Sensory Processing Disorder and share it with other parents. My goal is to make sure all new parents know how important sensory integration is to their child and why it is so important. No boring stats or long winded scientific explanations. Ill give you some links at the bottom if you like that kind of stuff of course, nothing wrong with stats!

 

Back before the land of internet, social media and Beyonce what did parents do with their kids all day long? They sent them outside! Children spent large chunks of their days wandering around the wild, making forts, playing pretend and getting dirty. They would ride their bikes to their friends house and catch frogs at the creek. If you lived on some land they would be helping with chores. If you lived in the city you would be at the park with your friends. Slowly over time children’s life became more structured and at earlier ages. Floor play as babies turned into bouncy seats and entertainment plastic flashy musical things. Digging in dirt and having large amounts of unstructured play morphed into play dates with agendas, special classes and lessons. Now many children are constantly busy and entertained. We are told that going out into the forest or even our backyards can be dangerous, they have to be supervised and have a planned activity! Elementary school kids are busier then most adults were 40 years ago. 

 

While time devoted to unstructured play decreases, the amount of children diagnosed with some form of Sensory Processing Disorder increases like crazy. More and more children are in occupation and physical therapy where they essentially are learning how to play! 

 

Now the important part here is how are they linked? When a child is growing from a baby into a full school aged kid (or one of those scary preteen things I’ve heard so much about) they are forming all of these really important connections in their brain. The more of these that are formed the easier it will be for kids to be able to process all of the signals that their senses are bringing in. If there are not enough of these connections formed, or they are formed in the wrong way then that’s when children start having problems with sensory processing. Some kids may have trouble with bright lights or loud noises. Some may have a touch issue, either they hate being touched or seek out touch (Ivan runs into things, leans, hugs, falls on purpose). The single best way for these super important connections to be made is lots of really high quality sensory input. There are tons of activities out there on Pinterest land to get children some sensory input but the single best way is to pack the kids up and get them into the forest. I’m talking unstructured play in the woods! Time with the sweet generous Mother Earth herself. When you make a sensory bin at home with sand and tools yes they are getting input like different touch textures but if you go outside, lets say to the beach they would be getting texture input… but they also would be digging, lifting, running to the water to fill heavy buckets, getting wet, having the sand dry on their skin, feeling the breeze and the sun. All of that works important core muscles! It gives them tons of input for their brain tubes to be making connections! They are building fine motor skills when they are picking out rocks and tiny shells to decorate their castles or just to collect. In the same amount of time they could be getting a much higher quality experience.

 

Another fantastic example of a planned sensory experience indoors compared to a child led one outdoors is this… Let’s say you go to one of those gyms with the fun ball pits and trampolines and all of that good stuff. Sure you get great input such as falling, jumping and having to dig yourself out of a ball pit. Now let’s look at going out to the woods with a group of kids and a leader saying something like “How many different colors can you find?!”. Imagine the kids running around, picking up rocks and logs to see if they can find anything underneath. Gathering plants and sticks of different colors. Getting dirty and maybe wet from stepping in a puddle. There would probably be a breeze or some sort of temperature change. At one point all of the kids would stop when they hear a really interesting bird song, asking what kind of bird it is and then talking about all of the different birds they know and what colors those are. Once they have gathered all of the colors they can find there will be piles of rocks, flowers, sticks and plants. Think of everything that they have experienced in this time, all of the senses have been triggered and connections have been made. When this is done outdoors it is almost impossible for a child to get overstimulated. The colors are natural, never bright and loud. Same goes for the sounds and smells. They are touching all sorts of different textures and moistures. At some point I’m sure they have accidentally tasted some dirt or a stone. 

 

This is it. I am fully convinced that this is what children are missing from their busy lives. The time to slow down, get outside and start working their brains is so vital to a child. And it feels as if no one is telling parents this. It’s being spoken about more now that time goes on. Parents are becoming frustrated and want a change in childhood. Kids need less pressure on themselves and more time to be kids and to play. You don’t have to completely change your life right this second. Start small, come and join a Creatures in the Wild class, see what we are all about and what kind of difference that time will make for your children. And please if you have any questions ask me! I love to talk about all of this, and this was just an overview.

 

The best part of this is outdoor play does not benefit just children with sensory issues, it is good for everyone. All children need this type of input in their lives for a million different reasons. Let’s get the creatures back in the wild!

 

See you out there,

Casey

Links: Balanced and Barefoot, Last Child in the Woods, Cedarsong, Children & Nature Network, National Wildlife Federation, American Forest Kindergarten Association