Want to Know the Secret to Strong, Capable and Confident Children?
“Movement through active free play, especially outside improves everything from creativity to academic success to emotional stability. Kids who don’t get to do this have so many issues, from problems with emotional regulation, to trouble holding a pencil, to touching other kids using too much force.”- Angela Hanscom, Pediatric Occupational Therapist
Magda Gerber talks about the importance of environment in her RIE approach. She explains that a child’s surroundings should be physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing. What comes immediately to mind is Nature. Nature in its purest form is all of the things Magda describes. It is free from chemicals, plastics, dyes, and other manmade items; Nature is both physically challenging and forgiving; and most importantly, nature provides innumerable sensory experiences that can’t be manufactured.
As an assistant occupational therapist, I utilize scientific bases and a holistic perspective to promote a person’s ability to fulfill their daily routines and roles. My purpose at Forest School is to help learners engage in life activities that are meaningful to them. Last week, as I observed our learners getting ready to head off into the woods, gearing and packing up, I realized how easily each learner was demonstrating their bilateral coordination and ability to cross midline. You might be asking yourself “What is bilateral coordination and midline?” Simply put, bilateral coordination is the ability for both sides of your body to work together and the midline of the body is an imaginary line that splits you into right and left sides. Crossing midline is a crucial factor to a child’s physical development and future success during everyday tasks such as tying shoes, playing sports, and writing. The Occupational Therapy Toolkit describes crossing midline as “Moving the left hand/arm/foot/leg across this line to the right side (and vise-versa). Crossing midline also refers to twisting the body in rotation around this imaginary line.”
So why is this so important for young learners? “Crossing the midline is vital to the development of using both sides of the body together. It promotes the coordination and communication of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It also encourages bilateral coordination, the process of developing a dominant hand and development of fine-motor skills.” (CDC, 2021) A learner’s ability to efficiently cross their midline allows for both sides of the body to work together to accomplish their daily tasks with fluidity and without switching sides midway through. When a learner has poor midline awareness, they will tend to struggle with tasks which require both sides of the body to work in unison.
According to pediatric occupational therapist and author, Angela Hanscom, “The more we restrict children’s movement and separate children from nature, the more sensory disorganization we see. In fact, according to many teachers, children are frequently falling out of their seats in school, running into walls, tripping over their own feet, and unable to pay attention. School administrators are complaining that kids are getting more aggressive on the playgrounds and “can’t seem to keep their hands off each other” during recess.”
And in my opinion, Aishling Forest School is built in sensory and midline awareness integration! From the moment the learners arrive, they are solely responsible for their own gear and their own bodies. Body boundaries and gaining consent prior to touching another learner allows for emotional regulation opportunities. Stepping into their Oaki wear and securing the sleeves around their wrists and ankle straps around their boots would not be possible without crossing midline. As a learner develops good bilateral coordination, they can move one side of their body while using the other side to stabilize themselves or an object- in an activity such a using the handheld drill when making wood cookie necklaces or holding a nail on a piece of wood while hammering it in with the other hand. Crossing midline enables the development of the learners preferred hand (right or left-handed). Research shows that “without a strong preferred hand, your child’s fine motor skills may be delayed. That means, among other things, poor handwriting skills and poor performance in sports. These challenges may even affect your child’s self-image.” (Healthline.com, 2020)
Take a moment to picture a learner climbing a tree to get a better view of the forest- there are no rungs like a ladder at a playground, and it’s not a straight up and down shot. The tree branches are random and twisted, no two branches are the same in width, or direction. To achieve their goal this learner will need to carefully select each hand and foot placement, not only up and down, but across and out. Which of course means they need to trust in their own body to twist and reach, and their own ability to safely navigate this obstacle. Simply climbing a tree facilitates the crossing of midline because it would be impossible to do so without having to reach across oneself and rotate the body to safely grab the next branch. Digging up the dirt needed to play in the mud kitchen is another excellent example of how forest school facilitates crossing midline.
These outdoor, play based activities are laying the groundwork for not only life skills, such as cooking, getting dressed, and brushing their teeth; but also more academic based skills such as writing and reading. The more the learners use and develop these skills the sooner they will integrate and become second nature. So, when your little is telling you about how they learned to use a flint to start a fire, know that additionally the two sides of their body and their brain are learning to work together. The true beauty of Aishling Forest school is that where the learners are concerned, they are not even aware that they are working hard to develop these crucial life skills, as it’s fully integrated into their play. To them, all they are doing is learning something intrinsically interesting and having fun with their friends. But to the trained eye, I see the future of their own independence and success with all things that make us human.
Here are some nature-based developmental activities to try at home this week:
- Bird Sounds. Listening to bird sounds helps gives a learner a sense of space by figuring out where her body is in relation to the chirps and the tweets. In fact, therapists have figured out a way to capture and enhance these bird sounds on CDs to help children with auditory processing (the brain’s interpretation of sound), body awareness, emotional regulation, and attention. Spending more time outside, listening to birds and mimicking their calls is a natural way for children to improve these same sensory issues.
- Spinning in Circles. Occupational therapists encourage children to spin in therapy and will often use this type of rapid vestibular movement in treatment sessions. Spinning helps children to establish their midline–awareness of their center. It also helps give them great body awareness and supports visual skills and emotional regulation. So next time your child starts rolling down the hill or spinning in circles for fun – let him!
- Walking Barefoot. Walking barefoot outdoors is so great for little feet. Going barefoot helps to integrate the Babinski reflex and prevent complications such as toe-walking, balance, and coordination issues. Going barefoot outdoors also provides great tactile experiences that prevent intolerance to touch later on.
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