I have read a few really thoughtful and comprehensive articles recently that have made me excited for developing new ways of helping people in my practice. “The Overprotected Kid” was quite long, but takes the reader on a journey that starts at “The Land”, a free play area in Wales that has very few rules, very few structured, mechanized play things, and instead has old mattresses, tires, tools, garbage bins, a rope hanging over a creek which is at the bottom of a steep cliff…and a fire pit. It is staffed by professionally trained “playworkers” that are taught how to NOT intervene most of the time, and when to do so. Basically, it’s a place where children can go play the way those in my generation did: Without parents nearby and without parental supervision. The reader then is guided through a thoughtful discourse on the perception of child safety, and how parenting has changed to become much more protective and structured, and how while there are some benefits to the changes, mostly it’s impeded social and developmental growth – emotionally and physically – in kids.
The other article was about the rise in “Green Therapy” or “Eco Therapy” where many professions in the medical and mental health field are prescribing nature walks, and activity outside to help reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety, ADHD, and improve focus, memory, and satisfaction.
I read these and got very excited. I have always had a hunch about a few things. One, that children’s mental health needs include much more outside play than they get, but more than that, I now believe that they need unsupervised play and the opportunities to face perceived danger (key word: perceived) and conquer their fears. They need to learn how to negotiate social dynamics by themselves and not be guided through tough situations by a hovering adult. After reading the first article, I’m convinced that one of the major factors of the increase in bullying is that kids are not offered time to learn these things in a natural way. Instead, they react to being constantly supervised and structured a bit like caged wild animals that get aggressive. I believe if we let go of many of the rules children have to follow, and trust them to roam within an appropriate radius of their home, we would see a reduction in bullying in schools. It is what happened at Swanson Elementary School in New Zealand. When they rid themselves of rules on the playground, the kids actually got safer.
It makes sense especially with the increasing understanding of how much contact with nature (not just outside, mind you, because asphalt playgrounds and plastic play structures and uninspired play toys are not the same thing as nature) helps to reduce aggression and many other mental health issues.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child In The Woods coined the phrase, “Nature Deficit Disorder” which, not surprisingly, looks a lot like ADHD. He is an advocate for getting kids out in nature, and teaching adults how to advocate for that by getting out as a family. His thought is, and I agree, that if children aren’t making an emotional connection with nature then they will be less inclined to care for the environment as adults. He asserts that we need to get children and ourselves out camping, hiking, playing in streams and at the edges of bodies of water, exploring the natural world in all weather and seasons in order to save both the planet, but also to improve relationships, moods, behavior, and academic performance.
So I read all this, and get very excited. It’s right in my wheelhouse. I grew up with two parents who worked in the school system and had summers off. We would go camping for weeks at a time, two or three times each summer. Jumping from boulder to boulder across a rushing river, climbing trees, building campfires. In the winter we would go to the Washington coast and spend wintery, stormy days out on the beach, rock and shell hunting, admiring the force and results of storms and strong waves, noticing the changes to the coastline day by day, and year by year. During the school year I would be outside playing in all weather: Making dams in the gutter and sailing leaf boats in the gutter on rainy days, mudpies, and running around with the neighborhood kids on foot, bikes or skateboard. We had geographical boundaries but it was about a two block radius from our home and mom would say, “Come home when the street lights come on, or when you get hungry.”
But honestly, I have to check myself. Do I model this now? I have to admit I don’t. I go to CrossFit, but then I come home and sit. I have been asking myself, how can I prescribe homework for my clients of getting outside in nature daily when I don’t even do it myself? What am I doing CrossFit for if not to have the strength and stamina to enjoy outdoor activities? I live in a location rich with opportunities for outdoor enjoyment with the foothills of the cascades less than a mile from my house, one way, and just over a mile in the other direction is the great Columbia River.
So I’m wondering more and more how I can adopt some of these concepts into my therapy practice. Really, when I have a client who has issues with ADHD, aggression, behavioral issues, how much help can I offer in a closed space that just due to logistics, impedes rough play and doesn’t even have windows to the outdoors? Yes, I can help. But could I help more if I offered outdoor sessions? I wonder…
It’s time to get outside. For all of us. And perhaps, if you are my client, you might find we go for a walk by the river for your therapy session. Who knows.