The Magic of Fresh Air for Babies & Other Beings

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CC by 2.0 Abigail Batchelder’s flickr photostream

For centuries it was common wisdom that a few hours of fresh air each day was an absolute necessity. Children from infancy on up were bundled in warm clothes and taken out in all seasons. The practice stemmed from a longstanding belief that time outdoors promoted strength and robust health. It was also believed that it kept various character weaknesses at bay. That is, until the practice was poo-poo’ed as nonsense. Nothing but old wives’ tales.

Fortunately, my parents thought otherwise. My mother knew childish energy is best expended outdoors. It never occurred to her that we required her participation as she sent us out every day. When we were small she told us to stay in the yard, checking every now and then from the window. Soon our range expanded to a few acres of woods behind our house plus pretty much anywhere we could go on our bikes while still making it back in time for dinner.

I learned even more about the importance of being outside from my father. He set a quiet example by paying attention to birds, the weather, the garden. If we went somewhere with him other than a hardware store, it was to go hiking in the Cleveland Metroparks.

It wasn’t until I had my first baby that my father showed me a deeper power of nature, again simply by example. When he held babies he almost always walked outdoors with them, particularly if they were fussy.

“Here’s the sky,” he’d point. “That’s a tree over there, you’ll be running on this grass in no time,” he’d gently tell an infant.

Their eyes would get big and they’d look around, more calm and focused than they were indoors.

I started to follow his example. If I couldn’t figure out my baby’s troubles, I’d go out to lie on the grass during the day, or wrap up warmly to look at the stars in the middle of the night. It nearly always settled a crying baby.

It worked even better for toddlers. They’d get cranky in the house, far crankier in the car. They wanted out in the largest sense possible. They’d stay outdoors as long as I’d let them, on our most glorious days this lasted for hours. When she was a year old my daughter liked to pick up little stones, hold them briefly, then place them in little piles. She’d look at me, shaking her head to remind herself they couldn’t go in her mouth. My little children helped me garden and sweep and rake. They dug in the dirt, made fairy houses out of sticks and leaves, filled their little wagons with the hickory nuts that littered our yard in autumn, stomped in puddles, squatted to watch bugs, climbed on logs, and asked endless questions. All these richly sensory experiences happened simply because we were outdoors. I had no idea at the time that all of this movement helped build essential brainpower.

As Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy explain in the wonderful book, A Moving Child Is a Learning Child,

A young child can learn only what her brain is primed and ready for. And in the early years, that’s everything the body has to teach—the tangible, physical, and sensory qualities of the world around her. It’s no wonder preschool learning rarely happens sitting down.

Influential 19th century British educator, Charlotte Mason, suggested children should spend four to six hours a day outdoors. She wrote in Home Education,

…every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself. They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of the air are inclined to make a new rule of life, Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.

Besides, the gain of an hour or two in the open air, there is this to be considered: meals taken al fresco are usually joyous, and there is nothing like gladness for converting meat and drink into healthy blood and tissue. All the time, too, the children are storing up memories of a happy childhood.

In Scandinavian countries, parents believe it’s healthier for babies and children to be outside for a few hours a day in all but the most extreme temperatures (and they mean extreme, as in 0 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s a common practice to dress babies warmly and tuck them in a stroller in the yard, balcony, or outside a shop to nap on a snowy day.

In fact, the Finnish Ministry of Labour specifically recommends it (see page 24 under “naps”).  Does it help babies sleep better? One study showed children took longer naps outdoors compared with naps taken indoors.

Pediatrician Harvey Karp points out, in The Happiest Toddler on the Block, how staying indoors is overstimulating while at the same time boring for children.

Our homes are boring because they replace the exciting sensations of nature (the feeling of the wind on their skin, the brilliant sun, the soft grass, etc.) with an immense stillness (flat walls, flat floors, no wind).

Yet at the same time, he writes, being indoors is overstimulating.

It bombards them with jolting experiences that kids in the past never had to deal with: crazy cartoons, slick videos, clanging computer games, noisy toys, and bright colors everywhere…which can make many little children feel stressed.

There are exhaustive studies showing that time outdoors, particularly in nature, benefit us in myriad ways—from better health to peace of mind.  I think there’s something intangible too, something to do with keeping alive the awe and wonder that is our birthright. That’s something the youngest children can help us relearn.

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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CC by 2.0 pixydust8605’s flickr photostream

Don’t Sit Up Straight: Why Natural Posture May Be Better

natural posture, don't sit up straight, stress relief, trauma relief, body wisdom,

Pondering the skeleton within (Image CC by 2.0 Dreaming in the deep south)

I come from a family of slouchers and after a typical day at the computer I have ample reason to worry I’ll develop the dowager’s hump my grandmother had by the time she was in her late 50s. Worse, my husband recently required back surgery due to longstanding problems after a car accident.

That’s why I’m on a quest to find out all I can about our spines and our posture. It has taken me in some unexpected directions. Here are some crumbs along this trail.

First off, don’t sit or stand up straight. At least not the way we think is correct, with our shoulders back and chins held high. That, my friends, is not remotely natural no matter what your mother or your gym teacher or your fitness coach told you. I learned this from a book with gorgeous photographs of people all over the world engaged in often strenuous tasks, yet moving with posture that is graceful and perfectly supported. The title, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back: Natural Posture Solutions for Pain in the Back, Neck, Shoulder, Hip, Knee, and Foot. The title doesn’t hint at how important this book is for those of us who don’t have back pain, but nonetheless plan to continue using our spines. The author, Esther Gokhale, teaches what she calls “primal posture.” Her book is packed with more than inspiring images. It explains how we can sit, stand, walk, and lie down in ways that contribute to our overall health and well-being. For example, by using a postural method she calls “stretch sitting.” She gives a brief intro in the following video, instruction starts about 4:20.

Next, all the fuss about building muscle doesn’t get to the core of the issue. Toned abs can’t replace strong, well-aligned bones. I learned more about this from another amazing book Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment
by Kathleen Porter Ms. Porter explains that children in the non-industrialized world naturally sit and stand with aligned posture they maintain their entire lives without the neck, spine, and leg problems that plague people in the developed world. She also contends that a child’s naturally good posture supports learning.

Why do we have so many slumped kids and achy adults in industrialized countries? Our fixation on TV and computer screens may be part of the problem. But Ms. Porter thinks it starts earlier. She notes that the design of car seats, strollers, and baby seats work against an infant’s developing posture. (She offers one solution, called a Baby Wedgie.)

I suspect it has something to do with how little free play today’s kids enjoy, a time when they can engage in brain-boosting and spine stretching movement. A recent study of 4 million U.S. preschool-aged children found that almost half were not taken outdoors to play on a daily basis, probably because we’re busy carting those kids around in car seats that incorrectly position their spines. Ms. Porter explains how to raise kids with healthy posture in her book Sad Dog, Happy Dog: How Poor Posture Affects Your Child’s Health and What You Can Do About It. The following video does a good job of showing how to grow up with naturally aligned posture.

And finally, it’s worth considering how our bodies react to strong emotion.

During frightening, painful, or otherwise highly stressful experiences our bodies are flooded with chemicals preparing us to react physically. Most often our response, in today’s world, is not physical. We aren’t running away from or fighting off predators as our ancient ancestors did, although our bodies respond in the same way (the “fight or flight” response). We staunch our physical impulses and sit still during all sorts of stressors, remaining immobile during a painful medical procedure, while the boss politely tells us we’re going to be laid off, or when our car is nearly hit on the highway. Experts in trauma tell us that mentally processing a frightening or powerfully upsetting experience doesn’t always resolve it. The bodily movements we wanted to take, but didn’t, are still locked within. There they can cause all sorts of long-term problems, including back pain. (Check out what movement can help alleviate this stress.)

I’m still learning about this as I read remarkable books by Peter A. Levine. The first one I waded through is geared more toward physical therapists and psychotherapists, but still highly relevant for the layperson. I stumbled on it initially because I loved the title’s implication, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. It’s one of those books to read with a highlighter in hand. Now I’m reading one of his far more accessible books, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience, which I heartily recommend. It casts a bright light on experiences adults may consider average, but which can turn into long-term trouble for kids (masquerading as behavior problems, hyperactivity, anxiety, or depression) unless we know how to help them deal with it.

I love the way seeking out information tends to lead us in new, unanticipated directions. I’m still on the lookout for what I can learn about natural posture. And I’m working on sitting as if I had a tail, one that is behind and not under me. I swear this effort makes me look taller than my almost five foot three inch height. See, another unexpected perk!

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Originally published in Wired.

Reading Readiness Has To Do With The Body

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Sitting down. (public domain by Jusben)

Today’s kids sit more than ever. Babies spend hours confined in car seats and carriers rather than crawling, toddling, or being carried. As they get older their days are often heavily scheduled between educational activities and organized events. Children have 25 percent less time for free play than they did a generation ago, and that’s before factoring in distractions like TV or video games.

Left to their own devices, children move. They hold hands and whirl in a circle till they fall down laughing. They beg to take part in interesting tasks with adults. They want to face challenges and try again after making mistakes. They climb, dig, and run. When they’re tired they like to be rocked or snuggled. Stifling these full body needs actually impairs their ability to learn.

Sensory experience and fun. (CC by 2.0 Micah Sittig)

We know that our little ones walk and talk on their own timetables. No rewards or punishments are necessary to “teach” them. Yet children are expected to read, write and spell starting at five and six years old as if they develop the same way at the same time. Academics are pushed on young children with the assumption this will make them better students. This approach is not only unnecessary, it may be contributing to problems such as learning disorders, attention deficits, and long term stress.

Studies contrasting reading instruction at age five compared to instruction at age seven find earlier lessons may damage reading development. By the time children reach the age of 11, students who were instructed earlier show poorer text comprehension and less positive attitudes toward reading than children whose instruction started later.

Literacy isn’t easy. It requires children to decode shapes into sounds and words, to remember these words correctly in written and spoken form, and to understand their meaning. Allowing reading to develop naturally or teaching it later tends to create eager, lifelong readers. Why?

why pushing school-like lessons hinders learning,

Children pushed to read early (not those who naturally pick it up) tend to rely on right brain processes because that area matures more quickly. These early readers are likely to guess at unknown words using clues such as appearance, context, beginning and ending letters. Their main tactic is memorizing sight words. These are valuable methods but not a balanced approach to reading. Such children may quickly tire after reading short passages or read smoothly but have difficulty deriving meaning from what they read. The procedure they use to decode words can make the content hard to comprehend. These reading problems can persist.

On the other hand, children benefit when they learn to read naturally or are taught later. That’s because, as the left brain matures and the pathway between both hemispheres develops, it becomes easier for them to sound out words, to visualize meanings, and mentally tinker with abstractions. They memorize short sight words but sound out longer words, an approach that is less taxing. As they incorporate more words into their reading vocabulary they more easily picture and understand what they are reading.

developing eager readers,

Developing eager readers (CC by 2.0 Daniel Pink

In order for children to read, write and spell they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at the age of four or five, some not for many years later. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness. It includes the proprioceptive sense developed through sensory receptors in the muscles, joints, and tendons: a form of maturation essential for a physical sense of self (even essential for learning how to modulate one’s voice and to hold objects carefully).

Such readiness isn’t created by workbooks or computer programs. It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.

These experiences happen as children play and work, particularly in ways that cross the midline. They includes expansive movements such as climbing, jumping, digging, swimming, playing hopscotch and catch, riding bikes, sweeping, running. They also include fine movements such as chopping vegetables, drawing, building, playing rhyming and clapping games, using scissors, and playing in sand. And of course there’s the essential growth that comes from snuggling, listening to stories, singing, trying new tastes,  enjoying make believe. Children are drawn to such experiences. Without them, they won’t have a strong foundation for learning.

how to boost reading readiness,

Play is related to reading readiness. (CC by 2.0 stevendepolo)

These activities stimulate the child’s brain to develop new neural pathways. Such activities also build confidence, smooth sensory processing, and create a bank of direct experience that helps the child visualize abstract concepts. Well-intended adults may think a good use of a rainy afternoon is a long car ride to an educational exhibit. A young child is likely to derive more developmental value (and fun) from stomping in puddles and digging in mud followed by play time in the tub.

There are many other factors contributing to reading readiness. Perhaps most important is a supportive family life where play, reading, and conversation are an enjoyable part of each day. But it helps to remember that young children want to participate in the purposeful work of making meals, fixing what’s broken, and planting the garden. They also need free time without the built-in entertainment of specialized toys, television, or video games. Their development is cued to movement. These bodily experiences prepare children for the magic found when shapes become words, words become stories, and they become readers.

raising eager readers,

Reading enthusiasm isn’t magic. (CC by 2.0 John-Morgan)

Portions of the post excerpted from Free Range Learning.