Back in March, I started working with a private practice providing Occupational Therapy group programming out in a nature setting (see my block post about starting this job here). Based in a busy city, sometimes it is hard for families to get out of their mid city apartments or houses that may not have the best green space, and find some nature to explore. We found a cute little ravine/”forest” as the kids call it, where we meet every Saturday to explore and work on various developmental skills! The kids have been fantastic at navigating the outdoors, challenging themselves, lowering risk of activities and socializing with new friends! We have just started our second session of programming for the spring and I cannot wait to see what new things we can learn together!
This past week I grabbed a new book off Amazon about mindfulness based therapy in nature, (see picture to the right) and I am very excited to add this information and activities into our programming. Nature offers so much to add into therapy, with my number one favourite being a natural space to learn! While some of the activities we do are very specific to nature (ex: climbing trees and learning to care for nature), many of the activities I plan for our sessions are things I would do with my kids in a clinical setting and are simply enhanced by being outdoors. For example, group activities for children already require them to learn various social skills, empathy, team work, problem solving etc, but in nature, kids also are exposed to risks that cause them to have to watch out for each other and themselves, different rules that they can help teach each other, and more freedom for natural interaction. You can teach higher level thinking to kids outdoors too through play, such as the concept of consent and respecting your own and your friends’ boundaries. Each week when we introduce an activity that might be a bit new, risky or scary, (ex: climbing a tree) I remind my kiddos that it is exciting to try new things but OKAY to be scared! We talk about helping each other out but also respecting when you want to stop the activity because you aren’t feeling safe or you’re too scared to keep going. AND that it is ok to ask for help!
Nature also provides a natural calming environment and a therapeutic space by simply engaging in it, as being around nature helps your body release neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine to make you feel happy and calm. Using nature and animal interactions in a therapeutic manner can promote calm and alert states, and is referred to as Nature based mindfulness (in the book mentioned above). I like to format most of my nature based therapy around our interactions with the nature around us, the people we meet on the trail and their animals as well. My firm belief is that any activity that you engage your children in with the intention to develop specific skills can help them grow, and the nature aspect provides a safe, engaging space to learn in! Finding a nature therapy program can be brilliant for your children, but you don’t need to be an occupational therapist to help your child grow in nature! Here are some favourite easy activities you can do with your children at home/outdoors!
Hiking / Exploring
As someone from a big city, I am NOT saying you need to travel tons of kilometres away from home to hike a beautiful mountain in order to engage your children in nature. Find a park, ravine, or unlevel ground to “hike” through with your children! Even in the mid city ravine that we visit each Saturday, children are challenged to practice walking with steady and focused feet as they walk over branches and roots, climb fallen trees, hop through puddles, and navigate balancing on rocks. Children are able to practice their gross motor skills with walking, you can also get them to help navigate where you will go on the path, and get them to figure out how you will be able to find your way back to the starting point!
While your child walks through the natural landscape, try avoid saying “be careful!” and instead redirecting your language to get the child to think of how to lower the risk of their play. For example, when approaching a space with lots of branches and roots on the ground, change “be careful!” to “it looks like there are lots of things on the ground! Keep your eyes out for things to step over!”. This way children will know HOW to be careful during your adventure! Also, give them the option to ask for help if they want to. Kids are better nature problem solvers than most adults, so if something seems scary or hard to you, chances are your child will excel at figuring out how to get through it! Something like “climbing this fallen tree might be pretty tricky! Why don’t you try it and if it gets too hard or scary you can ask me for help!” And if they do fall down, make sure YOU take a breath to let them process what just happened and then see how they are doing- sometimes a fall leads to crying not because the child is hurt but because the child is scared or because they are scared that the adult is scared! (lots of repetitive words there!)
Nature Scavenger Hunt
Another fun and simple activity that can really be done ANYWHERE in nature! Get out into the outdoors and go on a nature scavenger hunt! You can choose any items to search for and make a list! You can search for things of a specific colour, items to match each letter of the alphabet, or download a premade list online (Here is a link to one! – Nature Scavenger Hunt for Kids // Free Printable List (ourfamilylifestyle.com))
Scavenger hunts can be fun, can be done individually or in a group, and can help children build problem solving and communication skills, encourage teamwork, exercise their mind and body, and boost focus and observation! They’re also just super fun! You can also go the step further and either take photos of all your findings or collect them all (not damaging nature hopefully), and get your child to present all their findings to work more on communication! Or get them to use the pieces to create an art project, such as a collage on a piece of cardboard or make a journey stick!
Build a nature structure
You don’t need to be an architect or a beaver to create some neat structures out in nature! And remember the structure doesn’t have to be perfect, functional or beautiful – it can just be the attempt at creating the structure that can be wonderful!
After your hike to a location that you can build (gross motor skills), your child can practice focus while having to stay on task and search for materials, problem solve to get the structure to stay standing, and perhaps compromise their ideas as they work with you or in a small group to build this structure! For little ones you can also read the Three Little Pigs first to talk about finding strong materials!
Structures can look like anything from large wood huts like the one pictured above, to trying to stack rocks, or using twigs and leaves to make a “fairy hut”. Let your child take charge as the master builder and designer, and let them know you’ll be there to lend a hand in whatever way they need!
Nature is also a wonderful place to help your child let their creative energy out! Whether you just bring art supplies out to do some colouring/painting/cutting and pasting outdoors to work on fine motor skills, or really get creative using nature as an art medium, it’s a great space to create!
One of my favourite activities to do with my nature program kiddos is heading out for a walk to find items to either paint on (painting rocks with acrylic paint or branches to make pretty wands/journey sticks) or finding items to paint WITH! Our paintings below were made with a mix of practicing pencil grasp using our paintbrushes, and testing out different pieces of nature to use as paint brushes. My kids voted on the yellow tops of dandilions as their favourite natural paintbrushes!
If you are feeling super spicy and want to go even further into the nature art, here’s a link which shows you how to create paint using items from nature!
Nature Paint – How to make paint from nature – Messy Little Monster
As I am doing more research into nature based therapy practice, and running more nature programming, I hope to share more activities and information to help you bring these activities to your children/students/clients! If you have any experience in this area please feel free to comment your experience so others can see, or reach out personally!
Here are some of my other pediatric blogs
Movement breaks for kids – getting through your virtual school day
Breathing strategies for you and your child
The benefits of colouring for children
Check out the rest of my posts on my blog 🙂