Opportunities for sensory play in nature
A couple of weekends ago we were lucky enough to be invited by friends to beautiful Connemara on the West Coast of Ireland AND be blessed with clear blue skies all weekend!
I was struck by the endless opportunities for multisensory play and adventure that the children (and adults) had . As parents we sometimes tend to think that learning happens only in the classroom and as therapists we can sometimes forget about using different more natural environments to provide the sensory experiences the child needs.
The wonderful Connemara coast provided us with new sights, sounds, tastes, textures and ways of moving that we had never experienced before. I saw how the children used their senses to explore and challenge themselves. They naturally graded activities to get the ‘just right challenge’ we aim for in an OT session, making tasks more difficult for themselves as they grew in confidence (especially my sensory seeking rock climber!). I also saw how my youngest desensitized to the feel of the sand which he initially found uncomfortable through being motivated to play with the others.
They learned about the sea, tides, jelly fish, razor clams (which we caught and then ate- thanks Dave!), dolphins, seaweed and endless other things . They walked on different surfaces (sand, rocks, etc) which was developing their balance and coordination, improved their swimming, hand eye coordination through shooting water pistols at each other and skimming stones across the surface, different textures with dry and wet sand, different temperatures going in and out of the water, improved their vision through looking far out to sea at passing dolphins…etc- You get the idea! In short, mother nature provided us with a natural, fun opportunity for sensory integration. The kids were more calm, happy and confident at the end of the weekend than at the start and had a great sleep both nights a great outcome for any therapy session-!
Here are a few more sensory experiences provided by mother nature..
Eyes– Natural lighting is generally more calming than artificial fluorescent lighting. Changing your focus from far to close works the muscles of the eyes and happens naturally in any large open space such as a park. Looking at clouds/ birds pass in the sky improves tracking, scanning to find snails or ladybirds improves visual perception.
Taste- Food and drink provided by nature such as fruit and vegetables provide opportunities to try new tastes, textures and temperatures. Growing or (catching!) your own food is a wonderful motivator for a child to try something new.
Touch- There are endless opportunities to experience a variety of textures within nature. From smooth petals to rough stones. Cold water to warm sun. Wet rain to dry sand. Through simply playing outside a child will ‘feel’ their environment as they play and learn to integrate different sensations.
Smell- Flowers in spring obviously provide us with a wide range of beautiful scents. But there are more subtle scents such as the smell of grass, rain, sea air & trees to enjoy too.
Balance & Movement– Nature being natural is generally uneven. This means that when a child is walking on grass, sand, stones, in the woods etc they are having to constantly adjust their position to maintain their balance. There may also be opportunities to climb trees, balance on logs, jump over rocks, walk up hills, roll down hills, crawl under a hedge, step on stepping stones etc. Movement is the key sense needed to integrate information from all the other senses and there are endless opportunities in nature to move in different ways.
Body awareness- Body awareness comes from the muscles and joint when the body and joints are moving and especially against resistance. Activities such as pushing and pulling or tensing and relaxing muscles give you more body awareness. If a child is walking against the wind, walking on sand or through mud or soft ground, walking up a steep hill, swimming/paddling in the sea or climbing they will improve their body awareness. Body awareness (sometimes known as proprioception) is calming to the sensory system.
So, next time you spend an hour with your child jumping in puddles, running around a field, gardening, building sandcastles, or generally having fun outdoors, give yourself a pat on the back. Integration of the senses is the foundation on which all other learning (academic, emotional, social and life skills)are built. Playing outdoors in natural environments enhances sensory integration and the best thing is you don’t have to ‘do’ anything it all happens… well,… naturally!