An Outdoor Office – the good, the bad and the muddy

In 2019, Jump Up For Kids made the decision to more closely align two parts of our business – our clinic based Occupational Therapy (OT) services and our outdoor play programs. Whilst we have always had a joint vision and mission statement, we felt like we were running two different businesses with two models of care. So we moved our Occupational Therapy clinic to Bald Hills, where we have run our outdoor play programs for the past five years. This gave us full time access to our amazing outdoor space, with hills to climb and slide or billy cart down, enormous trees to climb and hang tire swings, large grassy flats where you can build cubbies, slip n slide and run, a range of wildlife (including our resident 2.5m carpet snake, Sebastian) and access to the ever changing Pine River.

There were lots of plans and preparations, including writing some pretty inspiring mission statements and policy documents like:

Jump Up For Kids exists to support the healthy development of children in our busy and complex world. Jump Up For Kids combines expert knowledge of the demands of the modern world, the education system and child development to provide a service that advocates and promotes a common sense approach to raising children in the modern world.

and

Jump Up For Kids upholds the belief that a connection to nature is a necessity not a luxury. Therefore we are increasingly using the outdoors, particularly natural spaces, as a therapeutic tool. By combining natural spaces with Occupational Therapy knowledge we aim to counteract aspects of the modern world that hinder the healthy development of children.

and

At Jump Up For Kids, we promote that natural spaces support healthy development by providing:

  • enormous variability which:
    • provides infinite opportunities to assess and manage risk
    • affords opportunities to practice, master and extend skills at the ‘just right’ level
    • encourages skills to be applied in a range of contexts and settings
    • provides opportunities to learn about natural cycles and variations – seasons, day/night, temperature variation
  • the ultimate multi-sensory experience
  • health promoting properties (eg: increases Vitamin D levels, boosts the immune system)
  • a reduction in stress and anxiety
  • an understanding and appreciation of the world in which we live.

And to top it off, we’re based in sunny Queensland, “beautiful one day, perfect the next”, so what could go wrong?

The plan was that we would conduct all therapy sessions outdoors, but we would also need to set up an indoor office as we needed somewhere to store equipment, write reports and other administrative tasks and have appointments when there is hail and lightning.

The 13 January 2020 saw the arrival of our mobile office, all of our equipment and a whole lot of rain. We gave ourselves a week to set up before our first OT appointment…furniture installed, equipment organised in cupboards, toilet facilities sorted, outdoor furniture for our ‘waiting room’ delivered, alternative routes to our outdoor space (for those not wanting to rappel or slide down a hill) established, therapy backpacks stocked to help us transport equipment up and down the hill, lolly jar filled, electricity to office connected, clients of our service contacted to remind them of the move, etc….it was busy week! At the end of the week we felt just about ready for business, but nature (the very same nature that we sing the praises of pretty much every day of our lives) had other plans.

January saw 165.6mm of much needed rain fall in Bald Hills (January average: 81.5mm), with 70.2mm falling on 18 January, just two days before our first family visited for our highly anticipated outdoor OT session. Whilst this rain was so very needed, it created some significant logistical challenges for the Jump Up For Kids crew:

  • An enormous puddle (aka Lake Jump Up) formed right in front of our front deck and after a couple of days it stank
  • The car park closest to our ‘clinic’ became a giant puddle forcing clients and staff to park about 500m further to get to our office
  • Path to the toilets (across a sports field) became a swamp requiring full wet weather wear to access
  • All access points to our outdoor space became muddy, slippery and/or gigantic puddles
  • Mosquitoes swarmed and seemed to be particularly drawn to the black of the Jump Up For Kids polo shirts
  • Grass grew and grew and grew and the ground was too wet to mow resulting in increased risk management measures related to snakes and families having to walk through puddles and knee high grass to get to our ‘clinic’.

So after just one month of outdoor OT our heads were spinning. It was a month of new procedures and problem solving. Here’s a quick snapshot of of some of the solutions that have worked:

  • Having clothing and accessories available in a range or sizes, to suit all weather conditions – gumboots, rain jackets, hats, sunscreen, insect repellent, towels
  • Meeting families at their cars and incorporating activities that address OT goals into the trek from the carpark (stomping, jumping over puddles, looking for insects etc)
  • Having wagons available to transport children to toilets, from car, to the creek if their endurance &/or sensory tolerances made the walk challenging
  • Working with the weather – if it’s windy, make kites or find items that will blow along the ground; if it’s rainy, jump in puddles or find a path around the puddles, make mud, watch raindrops roll; if it’s hot visit the creek, make a bucket shower
  • Being clear about OT goals for each child and employing on the spot, flexible clinical decision making (helps to work with weather whilst maintaining effectiveness of OT session)
  • Talking and smiling with EVERYONE…our team, parents, children, landlords, landscape staff, electrician…being willing to listen to and share concerns and work together with everyone to find solutions that meet everyone’s needs
  • Stop apologising – yes the puddle stank, yes everyone left wet, muddy, grassy &/or hot but nearly everyone left happy. What we knew through research was unfolding before our eyes.

I suspect you’re reading and thinking “this all sounds like a lot of work with not much reward so I think we’ll stay where we are”, but keep reading because this is the bit that I hope will challenge your current practices and make you think about getting outdoors more.

We are commencing work with Australian Catholic University to research the benefits in a more rigorous and systematic way. But for now, here are some initial, anecdotal observations that suggest the use of nature as a therapeutic tool is positive and powerful.

  • A seven year old who avoids playground equipment at school due to difficulties with balance, mastered climbing up and down the hill during a therapy session (tentatively at first and then with great gusto). His mum reported he started climbing on the fort at school and across the wobbly bridge
  • A four year old who cries and has been described as ‘oppositional’ at school because he refuses to use messy substances like paint and glue. He looked at the mud on a rainy day and said “I don’t like mud and I’m not allowed to get dirty.” He left with a mud stripe on each hand after his first session and returned the following session with his “OT shoes”/gumboots and was stomping in the mud and mixing the mud with shaving cream
  • A twelve year old who came to OT sessions in our inside clinic room last year during which she sat with her hair over her face grunting in response to questions and refusing all activities. During her first outdoor OT session she proudly went down the hill without assistance and then chose to ride billy carts. While riding the billy carts she laughed, talked and outlined things she would like to get better at this year and would like some help with
  • A parent who was reluctant to come to outdoor sessions because she had younger children and was concerned that it would be difficult to supervise them and they may be unsafe. She now sits relaxing under the tree as her oldest child is engaged in their session and the younger children explore and play outdoors.
  • A thirteen year old who is very reluctant to try new activities, often refers to his parents to answer questions on his behalf and has a very limited social circle, went down the hill without his parents and has plans for things he wants to build in future sessions (eg a raft and wooden tent peg).
  • A nine year old with Cerebral Palsy, whose mother describes her as ‘therapied out’, is excited about her OT sessions this year in which she plans to build a treehouse and cook by the campfire.

So why didn’t I lead with the warm and fuzzy stuff? Because we were fairly confident that we would see these positive results in the children with whom we work. Research strongly supports the developmental benefits for children of time in the outdoors, plus we have lots of good news stories from our five years of running outdoor play programs during school holidays.

What we did not expect, was nature providing some of its most extreme and variable elements as we established our outdoor OT clinic. Nor did we fully appreciate that this same variability and all the benefits that nature provides children, would impact the Jump Up For Kids team in exactly the same way.

The natural space at Jump Up For Kids has provided our team with opportunities for creativity, innovation, critical thinking, physical activity, coordination, reducing stress and anxiety, problem solving, negotiation, risk management, developing knowledge and awareness of the natural world and a place to ‘unplug’, focus and attend.

These experiences and opportunities have not only improved the skills and knowledge of our team, but have strengthened our conviction and belief in the research and philosophies that underpin our model of care and practice. We are more resolved than ever to ensure that all who work for and with Jump Up For Kids have the opportunity to reap the benefits of time in natural spaces.

I implore you to embrace the challenges and wonder that nature provides and to keep the benefits of time in natural spaces at the forefront in your minds, so that they are central to your decision making each day. The more we are outdoors, the healthier we will be.

To find out more about Jump Up For Kids visit jumpupforkids.com.au or find ‘Jump Up Outdoors’ on FaceBook.

 

Author:

Madeline Avci is the Director of Jump Up For Kids. Jump Up For Kids brings together twenty five years of Madeline’s experience in Occupational Therapy, teaching and parenting, to support children and families to develop independence and resilience in their daily lives. Jump Up For Kids provides:

  • Occupational Therapy services
  • Outdoor Play programs
  • Professional Development and Parent Information programs.

Madeline is passionate about reducing children’s time in front of screens and providing them with a balanced childhood , including lots of outside play.

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