Welcome back to the Mountain Mom and Tots Outdoor Book Club! Today I review the book Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children by Angela J. Hanscom.
Balanced and Barefoot encourages parents to get kids outdoors by focusing on the benefit outdoor play has on a developing body. Written from a pediatric occupational therapist’s point of view, Balanced and Barefoot discusses gross motor skill, fine motor skill and sensory development in children.
Like many modern parenting books, Balanced and Barefoot fights against an over scheduled, over structured childhood. Efforts must be put in place to protect free play for children, especially outdoor play.
I completely agree with the idea of scheduling kids less. In five areas of life, I will push my kids into lessons and clubs, but other than that I want them to have time to be kids.
We make an effort to spend time outdoors everyday. I could say that’s for the health and well-being of my kids, but that’s a lie. We play outdoors for MY health and well-being, but after reading this book, it’s nice to know that my kids get benefits from being outdoors as well.
“We need to expose [children] to the great outdoors on a frequent and regular basis…so they can reap the countless health benefits…” (page 84).
The outdoors are a perfect place to stimulate the senses, encourage motor skill development and engage imagination without overwhelming anyone. Nature encourages movement and creativity in a calming environment.
Kids Skate Night Disaster
In Balanced and Barefoot, Hanscom contrasts man-made play structures and environments with the great outdoors. She presents evidence that plastic playgrounds and indoor play arenas overwhelm the senses and aren’t the best for kids.
The concept of man-made environments overwhelming the senses was brought into sharp focus a few nights ago. A school rollerskating party came up for Big E. The whole family got in free to the disco-lit, music-blasting, fog-machine-filled skating arena.
The music and chaos of hundreds of kids on wheels forced us to yell in order to hear each other. Before we even made it onto the roller rink floor, Big E covered his ears to block out the screaming. My pulse rocketed just trying to keep an eye on my kids in the crowd.
It was supposed to be a fun family night, but Mountain Dad and I left feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Big E left complaining about older boys rough housing and Little G cried about wanting popcorn and cotton candy.
Contrast that with a walk by the river I took the girls on a few days before. The sound of moving water and bird calls filled the air and the only harsh lighting was when the sun shone in our eyes. The experiences could not have been further from each other. I bet you can guess which I liked more.
True to its title, Balanced and Barefoot discusses the benefits of letting kids play outdoors without shoes. Uneven ground allows immediate response and adaptation, developing foot muscles and balance. Allowing children to crawl, climb, feel rocks, dirt, trees, plants and water encourages sensory and muscle development.
While I’m not sure I agree with the statement, “Many of the ailments we suffer from musculoskelatally speaking, are the result of our dependence on footwear…” (page 106), after reading Balanced and Barefoot, I’m not going to make a big deal about my kids wearing shoes outside this summer.
In my opinion, the best part of Balanced and Barefoot is the discussion of the hygiene hypothesis on page 105, because it gave me permission to have a messy house.
Studies suggest that an over clean and sanitized environment contributes to underdeveloped immune systems and allergies in children.
“According to the hygiene hypothesis, the problem with extremely clean environments is that they fail to provide the necessary exposure to germs that strengthens the immune system…” (page 105).
This is great news! Now instead of having mom guilt about not mopping my floor once in the last six months, I can give myself a pat on the back for helping my children’s immune systems develop. I’m an awesome mom – I have the dirty floor to prove it.
One new thing I learned from Balanced and Barefoot is that sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch aren’t the only senses we have. Humans have two more senses.
The vestibular sense is awareness of where your body is in space. It’s vital for developing good coordination and balance in gross motor movements such as walking, running, and climbing. Varied movement such as hanging upside down and spinning help develop the vestibular sense.
Hanscom contends that the outdoors is the best environment for developing all the senses, but especially the vestibular sense and proprioception.
“Propriosception comprises sensory receptors in the joints, muscles, ligaments and connective tissue that tell you where your body parts are without having to look at them” (page 45). Someone with undeveloped propriosception would have to look at their feet in order to walk, or watch their hand reach for a familiar object on a shelf.
I never realized that the ability to step on a brake pedal without looking at my foot was a skill. Nor did I think swatting my kid’s hand away when they repeatedly poke my back proved I had a developed sensory system.
Now I consider proprioception my spidey-sense. Sure, most people have the same sense, but still! Seven senses! Humans amaze me!
Balanced and Barefoot offers research findings and real world experiences related to getting kids outdoors. I enjoyed hearing the perspective of a pediatric occupational therapist. Before reading this book, I had never considered how the muscles in the body moved outdoors or how the senses developed.
While I enjoyed many things in this book, at times I felt like Hanscom repeated herself. I get it. Trees are good for kids. Also, some of the evidence presented is anecdotal. That’s fine with me, as long as I remember that one person’s experience is not necessarily statistically accurate.
I got bored in several places, perhaps because I listened as an audiobook.
All in all, Balanced and Barefoot is worth a read if you’re interested in kids and the outdoors. If you already get outdoors with your kids, you’ve probably experienced the benefits discussed for yourself.
Now it’s question time. Remember, you can respond to this question on facebook, twitter or instagram or right here in the comment section. Let’s let the discussion flow! And remember to check out my other book reviews at the Mountain Mom and Tots Outdoor Book Club.
How has spending time in nature contributed to your family’s physical and emotional development?
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