Get Outside! An Innovative Program That Takes Therapy to the Park

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Outdoor play helps develop of a wide variety of skills, so CTN and its partners took therapy outside this past spring!

Last May and June, families and therapists from Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital (OSMH) and Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) in Collingwood and Alliston enjoyed weekly, small group sessions in local parks. The goals were to help improve strength, balance and coordination as well as improve confidence, social skills, communication and sensory processing in a fun and interactive outdoor environment.  

My daughter is so much more confident.  When we took her to another park she wanted to try all kinds of things she would not have before

- Parent from the Collingwood spring group 

Children are naturally drawn to active play outdoors. It allows them to explore their environment, develop muscle strength and coordination and gain self-confidence.  Playing actively outdoors also increases flexibility, builds fine and gross motor skills and helps children develop more mature self-regulation (ability to cope with stress and focus on tasks when needed). Kathleen Alfano Ph.D. Director of Child Research at Fisher-Price, describes playing outdoors as a form of exercise that ‘promotes well-being and wholesome physical development’.  

Why run a small therapy group in the park? Research shows that children are spending half as much time outside as they did 20 years ago – and much more time doing "inside" activities. (Thomas et al 2004).  According to research (Fjortoft 2004; Burdette and Whitaker 2005), children who play outdoors regularly:

  • Become fitter and leaner 
  • Develop stronger immune systems 
  • Have more active imaginations
  • Have lower stress levels 
  • Play more creatively 
  • Have greater respect for themselves and others

Outdoor play and exposure to park settings can be intimidating for some families, especially for those families that have children with special needs. Some children are apprehensive of climbing, swinging, sliding, and walking on uneven ground. Perhaps the child is unsure of their balance, doesn’t like movement, is shy or struggles to interact appropriately with other children at the park, or has a hard time leaving the park when time is up.  

Regular, supportive exposure to a park setting can assist with overcoming these difficulties. The most common parent feedback received from these small group sessions is how much parents see their child’s confidence improve with weekly park sessions.  

Tips for your visit to the park;
  • Help your child to step up on a tree stump or walk across a bridge until they have the strength and confidence to do it themselves.
  • Encourage them to climb a ladder and join them on the slide or swing if they need more help or support.  
  • Use visuals to assist them in knowing when park time is over.  
  • Go on an adventure hike that includes walking on uneven ground, up and over rocks and stumps, roll or run down a hill as able.  

The outdoors is a wonderful place for children to practice and master emerging physical skills while having fun. It can also assist with social and emotional development. Though the leaves might be changing there’s still lots of opportunities to get outdoors with their children and have fun together exploring some of your own local parks!

Submitted by Jeannine Sproule, Physiotherapist (PT) with Children’s Therapy Services, Orillia Soldiers Memorial Hospital (CTN Network Partner).