Balanced and Barefoot Author Speaks to Strengthening Kids Body Systems

By Katie Koerten

On January 17 and 18, 2019, over 50 people attended talks hosted by the Hitchcock Center called “Balanced and Barefoot” by Angela Hanscom, author of a recent book by the same name. Angela is a pediatric occupational therapist whose career has led her to creating an international outdoor play organization called Timbernook.

Throughout her career, Angela made troubling observations in her work at schools, hospitals and outpatient clinics. She noticed that children had decreased strength and balance, poor attention and increased fidgeting. Kids in the 2000s had a fraction of the abilities as kids thirty years earlier. At the same time, kids were spending less and less time outdoors, as school recess times were shortened and more time was spent indoors, often sedentary. Angela connected the two trends and saw the solution: giving more opportunities for kids to play outdoors in unrestricted, unstructured ways. Timbernook programs offer this experience, and are now found throughout the U.S. and four other countries.

As an occupational therapist, Angela has a unique perspective on the benefits of outdoor play. I was fascinated to learn about the vestibular system, or balance system we have as humans, and just how crucial outdoor play is in strengthening and maintaining it. I already knew that balancing barefoot on logs, climbing trees and hanging upside down for branches were great activities for kids. In my programs I witness kids getting stronger and more confident as they practice week after week to get up into a tree by themselves. What I didn’t realize that these activities are actually critical for a healthy vestibular system.

One moment during Angela’s lecture was particularly demonstrative of this concept. She showed two photos side by side. The one on the left was a child walking barefoot on a colorful playground balance beam. It was level, but curved side to side and had a knobbly surface. The picture on the right was of a child walking barefoot on a slippery log over a muddy stream in the woods. Angela asked us to observe the differences. The first, we noticed, was designed for kids to have a unique sensory experience. They had to pay attention to their feet in order not to fall, and the knobbly surface provided some unevenness and unpredictability. So, all in all, a fun activity involving some sensory integration.

But the second involved so much more. Walking on a curved, slippery log, a child needs to be truly alert. Her feet need to grip the curved surface of the log, activating and strengthening countless foot and ankle muscles. Simultaneously, the child is aware of the muddy water below and is challenging herself not to fall. Core body muscles are activated to keep her steady as she navigates a surface that is narrow, curved, and slippery all at the same time. Furthermore, just by being in the woods, this child is experiencing a high level of sensory integration. She is taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest as well as the feeling of the log on her feet. This experience is so much richer, sensorily, than anything a playground could provide.

As an environmental educator, I was so excited to learn about the specific body systems that are strengthened by the work we do at the Hitchcock Center. If you didn’t make it to the talk, I encourage you to check out Angela’s book: Barefoot and Balanced: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children.” If you know school age children who could use more of this play in their lives, check out the Hitchcock Center’s many programs for children and families.

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