Nature has so many therapeutic benefits for babies because it offers so many sensations all at once. Facing your baby outward while carrying him on a hike allows him to integrate the senses of movement: the pressure of his limbs against your body, the visual feedback from the images of flowers and trees, the sounds of birds chirping all around, and the sweet smells of the blossoms. Your baby starts to create associations (and memories) between these sensations as they are activated in unison, making meaningful connections with the world around him or her.
Children are born with eyes that aren’t yet well organized. Being outside offers a lot of visual stimuli for babies to observe and watch without overwhelming their visual system. As they stare at a flower or a colorful leaf, they learn how to control their eyes. They also get to practice tracking moving objects, such as a butterfly fluttering nearby or a squirrel racing up a tree.
Sounds in nature can be rhythmic and calming, like the crashing of waves, or alerting like the high- pitched calls of a hawk or cry of a fisher cat. Nature sounds help children orient their bodies to the surrounding environment because they hear a variety of sounds with varying frequencies and from different distances all around them. These variations help them establish a strong sense of spatial awareness. Babies also respond to noises by turning their head to look at the source. Responding to noise is the first building block in the development of speech.
The combination of wind on the face, feelings of warmth and varying temperatures, different smells, and even tastes are all sensory stimuli that children are exposed to when outdoors on a regular basis, setting them up for healthy sensory development.
Being outdoors forces the sensory receptors to make more and more adaptations, leading to a more evolved and organized sensory system. These adaptations are the beginning of intelligence. All academic abilities are the end product of varied and rich sensory motor experiences during infancy and early childhood.
TIME OUTDOORS CALMS BABIES
Nature is an ideal sensory environment for very young babies. Not only does it stimulate and challenge the senses to continually adapt and evolve into more complex systems, but it also doesn’t overwhelm them. To the contrary: nature has been known to facilitate a peaceful, calm state in babies. There is good reason why your doctor recommends taking your colicky baby outdoors to induce a peaceful state. Parents in Nordic countries know this and have been placing babies outdoors in prams to sleep for years, regardless of temperature or inclement weather.
“FLOOR TIME” OUTDOORS
Spending daily and frequent time on the floor is essential for developing the muscles of the core and lower and upper body. As children push against the ground, they work against gravity, establishing postural control and developing a strong proprioceptive sense. These become the foundation for stability, effective gross motor coordination, and later development of fine motor skills. Placing babies on the ground outdoors— whether on a blanket or in the grass— enhances their sensory experience immensely.
• Young babies who spend time on their backs and bellies on the ground have opportunities to move their arms and legs freely to interact with the world around them. They can reach for blades of grass and brush their hands across it to enjoy the tingling sensation it ignites on sensitive palms. They can shift the dirt around in front of them, feeling the fine little granules on fingertips. These sensations develop and refine the sense of touch in hands, feet, and other body parts that have contact with the natural world.
• If babies are on their belly, turning their head to watch bugs and birds fly by further develops basic neck and eye muscle control, both of which are needed for looking and listening skills. You don’t need to go out of your way to set up sensory experiences for your child; Mother Nature already has this covered. The soft wind, the swaying of grass and plants, the warmth of the sun, the novelty of hearing new nature sounds, and the moving bugs all engage the senses, inviting children to pay attention and interact with the environment. Connections are made and memories are formed. With each new interaction, children adapt and learn from the experience, furthering their motor and sensory skills each time.
WAYS TO GET INFANTS OUTDOORS
Spending time outdoors helps young babies maintain their health and well- being, develop strong bones and muscles, calm down, and integrate as well as organize their sensory systems, laying the groundwork for emotional regulation and more complex neurological skills and motor skills. The following are ways to get your baby outdoors.
Carry your baby outdoors on a regular basis, especially when she is awake. Save the carrying devices for when the baby is sleeping. When she’s awake, carrying offers close parent- child contact, which is important for her so she can establish a strong bond and learn how to regulate emotions. Also, carrying your baby offers a greater variety of positions that she can be held in while moving, fostering a healthy sense of movement and gravity.
Tummy time outdoors.
Don’t be afraid to let your little one enjoy tummy time on the grass, especially once he can hold his head up for extended periods of time. Belly time on the grass offers a great sensory experience. With so many things to look at outside, he’ll be motivated to push up onto his elbows to look at the world around him.
Touching new things.
If babies are on their back or belly on the ground, they are likely to explore their surroundings using their hands, feet, and mouth. This is how they start to process the sensations of touch. Also, go up to trees and plants when walking with your baby. Let her feel the rough bark against her soft palms, grab hold of a leaf, and swat at a flower. If you walk by a small body of water, dangle your baby’s feet in the water so she can feel the sensations of wet and cool. Let her stomp her feet and splash the water.
Make like the Nordic families and let your baby take naps outdoors. Not only will he reap the benefits of fresh air, but he will most likely sleep longer too. An American mother told me that she decided to take the advice of her Swedish aunt and put her baby outside to sleep. The baby was out “cold” and slept more than an hour longer than usual. Just make sure to dress your baby in weather- appropriate clothing.
Whether breast- feeding or bottle- feeding, there is no reason why you can’t do it outdoors. Being outside allows you to go on more adventures with baby in tow without having to find an indoor area to feed. Also, babies enjoy the peacefulness that being in nature offers, soothing them while they drink.
Increasing overall time outside.
The more time you spend outdoors with your baby, the better. Let her enjoy the fresh air, the sights around her, crushing dried and noisy leaves in her hands, feeling the wind softy blow against her skin, and the cold air of frosty mornings nipping against her nose. Old and new sensations mix together to create new experiences, new memories, and new challenges to overcome. The opportunities for sensory and neurological growth are endless in the outdoors. Nature offers the ultimate sensory experience for babies to explore and gain new skills from.
Photo Credits: Kim Ives, © Ashley D Scheider Photography
ANGELA HANSCOM is a pediatric occupational therapist, author of BALANCED AND BAREFOOT: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children, and the founder of TimberNook—a developmental nature-based program. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy and an undergraduate degree in kinesiology (the study of movement). She has been a frequent contributor to the Washington Post and featured on the NPR education blog, Johnson & Johnson TEDx talks, The Huffington Post, ChicagoNow, Times of India, Jerusalem Post, Children & Nature Network, and MindShift.
For more information visit www.balancedandbarefoot.com