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.

The Kitty Cat Hill

Posted February 23, 2022

The Kitty Cat Hill

By Calley Roering

This year our group of preschoolers named the beloved hill in the Boulders area “The Kitty Cat Hill.”

It all started this fall when the children discovered that they could slide down the hill like penguins. They were eager to get back up the hill but struggled to do so. The children were heard yelling, “Help! Help me get up this hill!” As teachers, our first impulse was to jump into action and pull them all up the hill ourselves, but we didn’t do that. The teachers slid down the hill, sat with the children and brainstormed together ways to get back up the steep hill. Collectively, we thought that it would be easier to crawl like a kitty cat. Crawling up the steep hill like a kitty cat worked and the name has stuck ever since!

During the fall months, it was much easier crawling up Kitty Cat Hill because it was only dirt. By winter, it was covered in snow, which proved to be trickier to climb up. The children struggled getting up the snow-covered hill. After struggling for a while to climb up the icy, slippery hill, we went inside and once again brainstormed ways to get up the hill. We came to the conclusion that perhaps a rope would help us.

That afternoon, we brought a rope to the Boulders and discussed how it would be used. A few children slid down Kitty Cat Hill and yelled, “I need the rope!” The children who were standing at the top grabbed the rope and threw it to the children at the bottom of the hill. The children at the top of the hill yelled, “Grab onto the rope,” and “Pull!” in unison. The child holding onto the rope was able to walk up the hill or belly slide with the help of the children pulling at the top.

The children relish the idea of being the rescuer as well as being rescued. One morning, a child was at the bottom of the hill and yelled for the child at the top of the hill. Their conversation went like this:
“Please throw the rope to me. I need it!”
“I’ll help you! Come on, you got it. You’re almost to the rope.”
“Thanks for helping me up The Kitty Cat Hill. You rescued me!”

The Kitty Cat Hill in the Boulders has become one of the children’s favorite spots to play. This type of play has allowed the children to problem solve and work together. Playing on Kitty Cat Hill has naturally become a community building activity where all can all join in and help each other.

September – Back to school!

Posted August 25, 2014

For most children, the first day of school is often equal parts anxiety and excitement, while adults want total excitement without the anxiety.  But how can it be?

Without a doubt, there will be great excitement!  This is a day that has been talked about for weeks, even months.  The school is full of different toys, exciting outdoor spaces, and eager faces.  The possibilities to make new friends is endless.  But with new experiences also comes uncertainty.

Imagine being three or four (or five, as we witnessed our graduates contemplating the wide world of kindergarten) and being dropped off at a place we have only visited once or twice in the long-ago spring or summer.  The people who love us best wave goodbye as they head off to work, or worse – home with a younger sibling and not us!  At the same time, parents are feeling their own anxiety as goodbyes are being said.  Without a doubt, there will be some anxiety.

In truth, every parent and every child is different.  Some parents need reassurance for some time, from teachers and from their own child.  While some children might leap right in, even approaching a likely playmate with, “Hi, wanna play with me?” others prefer to paint at the corner easel for the first half hour while they get their bearings.

At All Seasons, as with any good early childhood setting, we greet each child at the door.  Each child has his/her own temperament, own family, own identity and own culture.  For the hours of school, we come together to form a cooperative community, but we try never to lose sight of each child’s particular gifts and needs.

Upstairs, we have the perfect helpers in this area – the grandmas and grandpas of Inver Glen.  Their delight and patience with the children help us all to remember the words of that wise and gentle teacher, Mr. Rogers– “I like you just the way you are.”

“Breathless, we flung us on a windy hill, laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.” – Rupert Brooke

Posted July 30, 2014

What have the children been up to this summer? Imagine the things YOU did as a child in the summer; that is precisely what we did at All Seasons Preschool. Climb trees. Dig in the garden. Have a picnic. Play hide-and-seek in the meadow. Build a fort in the woods. Get dirty. Roll down a grassy hill. Endless hours outside. These are the elements of which summertime memories are made.
Last week I walked our dog through our neighborhood park, the same park I’ve walked through almost every day for fourteen years. For possibly the first time, I saw young children (ages 7-10) at the playground without an adult present. This was so remarkable that I had to slow down to watch for a while. The neighborhood kids at the park in the absence of an adult was not the only thing that attracted my attention, the nature of their play was entirely different than what I see on my walks there.

Seven children huddled together, discussing the rules of their game of tag; who was IT, what bases were safe zones, and which parts of the park were off-limits. There were brief negotiations, but no arguments and certainly no fights. This was all accomplished without any parental input and everyone was happy enough to play the game. No parent stepped in to “rescue” the person who was unhappily selected to be IT, to negotiate the safe zones, or to remind everyone to take turns. Everyone was satisfied ENOUGH to play. Children, given the opportunity, understand that in order to be part of the play, they must sometimes concede to the wishes of others.

Not once did I hear, “Watch me do the monkey bars! “ or “Push me on the swing,” or the worst, “Come take a video of me going down the slide.” These children were not preoccupied with being the center of an adult’s attention. Rather, they were completely immersed in an elaborate game of tag with rules they came up with on their own. So engrossed were they in their game, they did not even notice me or my dog, who they always ask to pet when I walk past their homes. Absent was the erroneous belief that one must be the focal point at all times. How freeing for a child to know they can exist and have fun even when Mom or Dad isn’t there to watch or to document it for the scrapbook.

Breaking down this play, these young children were required to plan, organize, and make decisions on their own. Socially, they all needed to exhibit some flexibility and self-regulation in order for the game to succeed. Most obvious, each individual was immersed in vigorous exercise for an extended amount of time. This gift of free play in early childhood, is offered each day, under the careful supervision of teachers who trust in children’s ability to regulate their own play.