Preparing for School with Muddy Boots and Pockets Heavy with Rocks
Monday 18th November
This blog post was written by Nurse and experienced children’s Yoga Instructor, Laura Hellfeld, founder of KoKoPie, a platform for creating education in child development and uplifting children’s mental health.
I have always loved to be outside. I grew up in southern California and I could regularly be found on the muddy hill across the street, a soccer pitch, or the beach. Our family holiday growing up was a yearly trip Yosemite National Park.
I now have my own kids and our family lives next to the Yorkshire Dales. When we first moved to England, I loved finding walking paths that ended up by rivers and even amidst a herd of sheep!
Being in the great outdoors has been a haven for our family. We found ourselves outside more and more as we realised that both our boys have sensory processing disorder (SPD) and our oldest is autistic. Outdoor play gives us unique stimulation that is gentler than the fluorescent lights and sharp edges of the indoors.
Outdoors we can all breathe easier and focus on enjoying time together.
As we took on support for our older son, our family grew weary of the time indoors. I found that I was making it like my mission to create as much outdoor time as possible. Quickly I realised that as we were preparing our oldest son for transitioning into school, being outdoors would be one of our greatest tools for school readiness. The tool with the most amount of fun and the least amount of pushback.
How Playing Outside Prepares My Kids for School Success:
- Becoming Comfortable with What We Call ‘Expected Unexpected’: Nature is anything but constant. An outdoor environment changes with the time of day, season, and how people or animals interact with it. Autistic kiddos can find change difficult. I knew for my oldest that in order to be in school, he would be in the middle of ongoing changes. Have you met kids? The one sure thing about them is that nothing is sure. They constantly change their minds, make noises, or touch you unexpectedly.
Nature presents this concept gently in small and ongoing ways. I also support my kiddos by labeling an outdoor outing or part of outing as ‘an adventure’. Adventures have unexpected built in, that’s what makes them an adventure! I do this to activate the seeking part of their brains which in turn helps them manage when ideas don’t go as they planned. Thought adjustments can be made with more emotional management.
- Fine Motor Building: Being in school involves an incredible variety of skills that involves hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Do you remember all those crafts you made as a kid? Or doing those multiplication timed tests? Think of the added pressure if you don’t have the strength to grip a pencil or a pair of scissors.
My oldest is also dyspraxic and it affects both his fine and gross motor strength. Asking him to come practice hand writing next to me at the table will be met with near certain eye rolls and huffing and puffing. Best to build up another way. Get him outdoors to squash mud in his hands, grip rocks while
climbing, and sort through pebbles in a stream. Only then can we practice changing from his uniform and into his PE kit.
We are always on the look-out for chances to add in fine and gross motor building. Neither are too keen to KoKoPie build fine motor muscles by having a pencil in their hands. But climb along a fence by grasping the poles along the way? They’ll jump to it. There are 127 poles by the way.
- Large and Gross Motor Strength: Being outdoors invites movement. Movement that builds up shoulder strength to have proper arm placement while cutting paper. Core strength is supported which sets up kiddos to be able to sit more comfortably during carpet time or at a table. Therefore, kids can have more energy to focus on the activity or story rather than on how to support their body. I know this was a goal of mine. I wanted my oldest to look forward to playing games during PE versus feeling self-conscious and less able to join in.
I know our boys will find some things challenging that other kids won’t. So I made a conscious decision to help them feel confident in nature. Say to themselves ‘Well, I can climb a tree’ when they miss that jump on the running track.
“I can do it Mamma. I’m strong with these muscles.” This kid has played hard. He had been the kid upset at the playground since he struggled to physically join in. He couldn’t jump. He couldn’t hold onto the rings of a ladder. He couldn’t balance on the bridges. Nature has always invited him. It’s been there with accepting arms. Letting him explore, step over rocks, and stumble on roots. And now, now he climbs trees. And, as he says, “I just need to see what the view is up here.”
- Planning and Making Choices: We can’t expect kiddos to independently learn to get ready for school in the morning if we don’t provide opportunities to plan and achieve.
Nature is one of our favourite settings to let the boys explore. Playing in nature is often much less structured than play indoors. This gives children the opportunity to make decisions about how to interact with their surroundings. Creativity blossoms in children from the openness of free thinking and construction of their own games or structures. And what a confidence boost from being in charge of your own play!
This confidence in their decision making will support kiddos with creating steps to complete a homework project. When kiddos achieve what they set out to do, they get a dopamine boost which in turn activates maturing of areas that manage concentration, self-control, flexibility, and organisation. Meaning, more future success. What a nice feedback loop!
Ideas on How to Increase Outdoor Time with the Kiddos:
- Picnics: Pack up a snack or meal and head outdoors. Whether you have a proper picnic basket and blanket or just eat off a napkin, enjoy eating surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature.
- Gardening: With the children you care for, you can pick which herbs, flowers, or other plants you would like to grow. The staff at gardening centres have a wealth of information to help you start. Perhaps pick just one plant to start off with. Herbs are particularly low maintenance. Have fun choosing where to plant, getting messy in soil, and perhaps finding worms. Gardening has the benefit of calling you back outside again and again. Plants and flowers need maintenance like pruning, weeding, or picking. This is a great way to teach responsibility of caring for something. Again, find the plant that best suits you and what time you have
- Explore Your ‘Expanded Backyard’: Perhaps you only need to walk outside or perhaps you need to take a drive to find some local walking trails. Most public trails can be found online. Information such as duration, length, elevations, and who the trail is suitable for is often included. Get to know your area separate from the streets and motorways.
- Document Nature Changing: Try picking a spot in nature that you can easily return to. This can even be the child’s back garden. Encourage children to take pictures or even draw what they see from about the same position every time you visit. You can look in awe at how ever-changing nature is over the weeks or time of day.
- Create with Natural Objects Outside: Maybe some small rocks make a really cool circle or pile into a fortress. Or some large, fallen leaves can become wings to fly with. Large sticks on the ground may entice you to build a den. Encourage this activity with items that have already fallen or not living as to not disturb any creatures.
- Playground Challenge: Check out a new playground in your area. Changing up the scenery is a great way to boost a desire to explore. Perhaps you and the kids can make a pact to visit two new playgrounds a month. Community playgrounds can be found online with information about parking, accessibility, and facilities.
So cheers to the nature-inspired kiddos who carry their confidence and strengths into the classroom! And may we continue scraping off muddy boots and checking pockets for rocks.
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