The goal of parenting is to bring up healthy and well-rounded individuals, who live cooperatively in society. In the last few years, there has been a worrisome increase in Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD) among kids. Children can’t seem to process the input from their sensory organs. We were taught about five sense organs, but scientists now understand that there are others which handle our balance, our ability to avoid bumping into things, and one sensory system even builds an awareness of the position of our limbs as we jump!
When the brain finds it hard to respond to the stimuli it’s getting, it misbehaves. That’s when kids are said to have a Sensory Processing Disorder. E.g. Some kids who can’t handle bright lights, loud sounds, certain types of, touch and taste, throw tantrums, vomit, pinch or even bite. There are also those kids who bump into walls and fall off chairs they are sitting on. Yes, this is tragic but true.
Reasons SPDs could be on the rise
One of the big changes in children’s lives in the last few decades has been the increased exposure to digital devices. Over-stimulation. Parents use mensa puzzles, bedtime baby apps, reading games, and even virtual pet games to engage their kids. Even in schools, there is a push for digital education. Society has changed and the pace of everything has become faster, with the result that parents feel they need to help their get to their milestones quicker than before. Very young children are offered tablets to color and play. Pediatricians have observed that high levels of digital engagement generally cause shorter attention span. Interestingly many CEOs of tech companies are great believers of being ‘low tech parents’.
The other big change is the side effect of this tech blitz – time spent by kids on outdoor play has nosedived. Kids don’t group up to play informally. They rarely have simple fun, like climbing trees, digging through dirt, splashing through rainwater pools, eating fresh fruits off trees, swinging from a low branch, skipping stones on water, walking bare feet on grass, rolling down a hillside, climbing rocks etc. There is a certain alienation from nature. We must never forget that we too are a part of nature. These outdoor activities are wonderful stimuli for maturing brains. Varieties of textures, smells, sights, tastes and touch. Climbing trees and jumping are stimuli which human beings are now beginning to understand. Young children learn to cope with a variety of weather. It is in essence multi-sensory play, which is crucial for the all-rounded development of children.
What could help
In Washington DC, doctors are prescribing parks for many kids who come in with nature deficit disorders, as they call them. Not just SPD, but a bunch of other health problems like asthma, obesity, childhood diabetes etc. Sensory gyms have been introduced for kids with SPD. It’s trying to replicate nature indoors. Interestingly, occupational therapists who were indoors are now moving outdoors with the kids. Kids need play areas to associate with nature, either with their families or on their own.
Research has shown that a natural play area is superior to a designed play area. Uneven terrain and learning to negotiate a variety of textures with their feet is good for younger kids. Even as many young kids find it hard to play by themselves, spending time in nature helps them actually get to a stage where they can socialize, as their anxieties are calmed and simple joys flood them. Free outdoor play with other kids in a slightly mixed age group is the best for younger children. Learning to negotiate challenges in nature trains their mind and muscle to remember and judge difficulties.
Nature’s Generous Free Gift – vitamin N(ature)
It’s an important part of parenting to help kids understand that they are a part of nature, not separate from it. The best way to do this is for parents to take the kids out into nature from infancy. Parents and caretakers need to make spending time outdoors a part of their lives. This is a good way to lead by example and wonderful family activities can be planned around it. It could be going for a walk, gardening, enjoying a nature park, having a picnic under the trees, star gazing, creature watching, camping, building a castle on the beach, collecting stones, building rock walls….this list can be a long one! Encourage kids to play some of these outdoor games with friends, and over time kids will ask for more!
Associating with nature makes kids –
- Develop better health and immunity
- Have better balance and physical abilities
- Learn that persistence pays (watching the number of times the young of creatures tries to walk or fly is a great learning)
- Keen observers
- Trains them to be patient and watchful
- Gives an impetus to their creativity
- Understand that cooperation is key in groups (watching ants can be hypnotic)
- Look to nature and biomimicry for problem solving
- Respect and feel empathy for fellow humans and creatures
- Inventive (the imaginary games they can come up with!)
- Feel a part of the natural history they come from
- Be Happy
A Good Side Effect
Kids will consume digital media, but they must also spend time outdoors. In fact up to the age of 2, pediatricians suggest a device free life. Our kids enjoy the outdoors, and a large part of the credit goes to my wife’s mother, who inculcated this habit both in us and the kids!
Apart from being healthy, kids will grow up aware of how we must tread lightly in Nature and the importance of using nature’s resources judiciously. Kids quickly learn not to spit in the water they drink, metaphorically speaking!
George Schalter loves being a dad. He and his wife share the joys and responsibilities of bringing up their two children. As believers of good all round education, they spend a lot of time playing with their children and spending time outdoors. As George is the writer in the family, he blogs at Educational Kids Games.