“Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world - but themselves.” - Stephen Moss
Spring has sprung and so have many opportunities to reap the benefits of being outside. We already know that sunshine activates the production of Vitamin D and that natural light can elevate moods. The great outdoors can also promote social interactions and provide opportunities to activate various cognitive processes. Here are some ways that you can help support your child’s development beyond the walls of your home.
Goal-oriented activities like reaching the end of a hiking trail or planting seeds are great ways to establish joint attention, or the act of sharing focus on a particular object, person, or activity. While joint attention may seem like a trivial skill, it is the cornerstone of all social interactions. Without shared attention, individuals would be solely focused on their own agenda without a tie to connect them to others. Through joint attention we strengthen bonds, have shared experiences, and generate opportunities for language and learning.
Outdoor Reciprocal Activities
Frisbee is an example of an outdoor reciprocal activity that can set the framework for partaking in conversational turn taking. A participant needs to attend to and interpret another’s body positioning and facial expression to ensure that the recipient is ready to catch the frisbee, much like we read social cues to determine if someone is ready to converse. The back-and-forth nature of frisbee can also provide a nice illustration of how conversations consist of a back and forth exchange of ideas. Conversations can be directly built into such activities by asking related questions (e.g., “How would you like me to throw it?”). If your child is hesitant to respond to questions, try using declarative language. Declarative language refers to making statements rather than questions (e.g., "Wow, that frisbee went pretty high. I bet you will throw it even higher next time!”). Using a declarative language approach can provoke a response without expectations and it allows the child to control the content and quantity of information that he/she wishes to communicate.
Outdoor projects are a great way to target collaboration and executive function skills. For instance, a family goal may be to build a garden. Children can participate in creating a sketch to plan what the garden could look like. The visual could help a child engage in forward thinking (mental imagery for future planning) and help anchor his/her attention to the task. Together, the family can discuss the required materials for the project, the order of the steps, and the anticipated timeline. Providing children with jobs (pulling weeds) and choices (choosing what vegetables to plant) can help further engage their interest and involvement. Children can also take pictures of each step of the process. In doing so, they could develop a more in-depth awareness of the sequence of steps, re-tell their experiences to others, and build confidence and know-how in their future abilities to organize and execute plans.