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My favorite activity is so simple it sounds silly……HIKING! Living in the great state of Arizona we have many, many trails of hiking to take advantage of exploring. Hiking is a wonderful activity that the entire family can be involved in and benefit from. Hiking provides a way to be outside in nature. Natural spaces stimulate children’s imaginations and creativity, and playing outdoors enhances cognitive flexibility, problem-solving ability, and self-discipline. For children with sensory needs, the outdoors provides stimulation in all areas of sensation; balance as the child traverses rocks and tree limbs, visual-spatial skills as the child finds the correct path to walk on, auditory processing skills as they listen to the leaves blow in the wind & birds singing, and proprioception during climbing.
For many American children, quality playtime outdoors has been replaced by televisions and computers indoors. In a survey from Hofstra University, 70 percent of mothers reported playing outdoors every day when they were young, compared with only 31 percent of their children. Fifty-six percent of mothers reported that, when they were children, they stayed outside for three hours at a time or longer, compared with only 22 percent of their children. A study of Sandra Hofferth at the University of Maryland reported that, from 1997 to 2003, there was a decline of 50 percent in the number of children ages 9 to 12 who spent time doing outside activities like hiking, walking, and playing at the beach.
In recent years, health care providers have begun to recognize the therapeutic attributes of nature for treating conditions like attention disorders and depression. Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that the greener a child’s everyday environment, the more manageable their symptoms of attention-deficit disorder. Studies also show that nature in forms as simple as a plant at work or trees in front of an apartment complex help reduce stress, improve coping skills, and develop self-discipline.
Children with sensory issues typically have motor planning problems coupled with low muscle tone and a decreased sense of body awareness. To improve body awareness and motor planning the child must participate in self-directed movements that challenge the child’s body and sensory systems.
During movement, proprioception updates our body precept so that the brain can plan the next movement correctly, and then contract the right muscles at the right time. For children with sensory issues, proprioception can be a mental task where they must think about how their body moves constantly, rather than it being an unconscious movement. With practice and repetition these children can make movements automatic, bettering their balance, coordination, and ability to predict their next moves.
Hiking gives our muscles, joints and skin information as we move throughout nature and also use our vision and hearing. This incoming information helps complete our body percept. Vestibular information is used as well when we move up and down along hills and windy trails. The impulses from the vestibular system generate the muscle tone that keeps muscles firm and ready to respond. To improve their motor planning, sensory children need activities involving a lot of vestibular, tactile, and proprioceptive experiences, such as hiking.
So over the next weekend or holiday, I urge you to consider taking a hike with your family and friends. Enjoy the views and go at the pace of your children. Watch them learn while taking in the beautiful views, sights, and sounds of nature. And please always watch the child with poor balance, as they are prone to falling. (Pictured below is my family on a lovely red rock hike in Sedona, 2014).