Keeping Our Footing In Nature

Posted November 23, 2022

Keeping Our Footing in Nature

By Ruby Kramer

Walking toward the muddy lake this month with the preschoolers, wrapped up in rain gear, I was struck by the physical immersiveness of playing in nature. That day we covered up everything but our faces so we could dive into the cold, wet mud by the lake. And dive we did. After sinking in the muck and losing their balance, some children began to laugh and purposefully roll around in the mud. The preschoolers monitored their bodies in space, preparing their muscles to catch themselves when the mud trapped their feet in place. I began to think of all the “body management” that playing outside requires. Climbing hills, dodging fallen branches and rocks, walking through dense grass, and staying upright on an icy lake all require an intuitive knowledge of where the body is in space and in relation to other objects. This knowledge is what allows us to adjust our muscles so that our bodies can move how we want them to.

Keeping our bodies stable is the job of the vestibular system. Housed in the inner ear, the vestibular organs work together to sense angular motion and linear acceleration of the head. The system then outputs to the eyes and larger muscles, informing movement and smooth vision. It is the interface of our bodies with our environment through sensation.

The vestibular system works together with the sensory organs and perceiving / conscious brain to create the “sensorium,” or the apparatus which allows us to experience, perceive, and interpret the environment in which we live. Without outdoor nature play, supporting the vestibular system and its interface with perception would require contrived situations and special equipment. The developing vestibular system must be challenged by a diversity of inputs, with which nature is brimming. Indoors, the terrain is flat, the floor is solid, and the wind doesn’t blow. We easily become habituated to our indoor spaces since very little of their geology and sensory landscape ever change. The woods and fields and hills, however, provide an ever-changing and immersive landscape.

The following are some examples of preschoolers exercising their vestibular systems as they navigate mud, grass, uneven terrain, rocks, trees, inclines, snow, and ice. The smiles and looks of intense concentration remind us that this is fun work!

Mud sucks our boots into the earth. We must twist our bodies, use our muscles to pull up our trunks as momentum throws them forward. The feedback of our bodies on the mud feels different than bodies on a hard surface. It’s almost as if we are walking on a foamy surface. when our feet or bodies land, there is a cushion that slows us down before we stop.

As we navigate around fallen trees, under sticks, and along deer paths, our bodies have to change direction suddenly and repeatedly without losing balance.

Long grasses entangle our feet and threaten to trip us!

Climbing rocks not only gives children a sense of accomplishment and grandeur but offers lots of input to the vestibular system. Children must push their bodies up using their muscles without throwing off their balance. Then they must stay steady on the uneven surface of the rock. Looking down at the world from such an angle inspires stories of birds or queens.

What a balance challenge! Walking along fallen branches has been irresistible this year for Autumn Room preschoolers. Recently, a huge fallen limb on a hill was a make-believe train for many days.

Rolling down a hill provides huge amounts of vestibular input, which can have an organizing effect and provide relief to confused vestibular systems. Intense vestibular input is often used in occupational therapy for children with vestibular dysfunction.

These children’s entire game had to be played at an angle! Our vestibular systems keep us upright in opposition to gravity. These children’s bodies are not perpendicular to the tilted ground, but they still feel stable, upright, and move normally.

As they trudge through deep snow, preschoolers have to stay upright even as their legs are taking more muscle than usual to move!

Thankfully, a blanket of snow provides a soft landing, so children can practice huge jumps! The vestibular system allows them to feel that they are flying and to land safely on the ground again.

Snow and ice can make all our surroundings slippery! The vestibular system must account for this slipperiness in each movement.