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Nature? Nurture?

by Deborah Mugno, Ed.D.
Director of Education and Operations
Lucy Daniels Center

Nature is indeed therapeutic, but for some children, outside time, climbing, swinging, playing in sand or digging in a garden are not necessarily experiences they embrace. Most children move from the indoors to the outdoors with ease; to be in nature and enjoy, explore, play, interact with peers, and compete in games. Children who have difficulty with social skills, who are anxious, or who have sensitivities to sensory input are often likely to experience the outdoors in a more cautious way; the environment is less structured and at times,very unpredictable..

The benefits of being outdoors are universal. Children have the opportunity to work on gross and fine motor skills, engage in a multitude of sensory experiences, and interact socially with other children or groups of children, not to mention the many learning and life skill opportunities. But sometimes a parent might hear protests such as:

  • There are too many people; it’s too loud.
  • I’m scared of bugs/strangers/snakes.
  • I might get hurt/fall.
  • Everyone is better/faster than me.
  • My clothes will get dirty.   
  • I don’t want to get sand in my shoes.
  • I don’t know what to do. No one plays with me.

A parent may feel anxious themselves as they have less control over the environment and possible social situations that may arise.

Being outdoors is an attractive invitation to children to take more risks. Often the desire for safety can burden a child and delay or diminish emotional growth. Risk is a catalyst for growth. It is also inevitable. When children can assess and manage risk, they develop better judgement and their anxiety typically decreases. Children need to be able to assess risk. For example, they might think to themselves: What if I fall at the bottom of the slide? Should I try it anyway? How about climbing that tree? Are the branches strong enough to hold me? How will I know?

Some children may well need help to think through these types of situations while for others, these types of internal assessments are more instinctive. Risk develops autonomy and with every success comes confidence. Taking risks can also reinforce the link between movement and thought/emotions, the critical “think before you act” connection.

How can parents help? When a parent can convey to a child that their fears and worries are recognized and accepted and that the parent will support the child to move at his/her own pace, children can then assume a sense of safety knowing that help is available. They will come to realize that their efforts (not just their successes) are valued. Meeting children where they are is essential. Helping children define their fears and talking about the consequences of risks (falling or getting dirty) supports independent decision making. For example, if a child finally decides to try out the tire swing for the first time, a parent might say, “I get it that you are scared that you might fall off. I will be here if you need help and also if you change your mind.”

We can also help children by providing structure. Structure and outdoor/nature play are not mutually exclusive. Parents can help children plan before they go outside, talk about what they might like to do and then what to expect. Play with others can be intentional and facilitated to ensure successful interactions, then gradually give way to less supervised scenarios.

Nature does nurture and being outdoors, especially at this time of Covid, provides us all with ample opportunities to escape our screens. Enjoy more zoom-free time and in the words of Dr. Seuss,

   “Today… is your day! Your mountain is waiting.  So…get on your way.”


Lucy Daniels Center Farley-Manning Family Guidance Service (FGS) provides onsite and telehealth therapy for children ages birth – 12 and families at the Lucy Daniels Center. Currently, we are operating remotely due to Covid-19 and instead are taking referrals for telehealth services only.

Click Here to find out more or to request a consultation.

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