If you have a child, or you work with kids, you should be aware that they are living in a seriously depressed and anxious world. The World Health Organization reports that “Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide” (World Health Organization, 2018). Depression is a regulatory disorder and emotional regulation is dependent on a healthy sensory processing system, both of which should be listed on the“endangered list” of human development.
The senses are the interface with which children interact – touching (tactile), seeing (vision), smelling (olfactory), hearing (auditory), tasting (gustatory), balancing (vestibular), moving (proprioceptive) and feeling (interception) the world. Making meaning out of these seemingly random interactions and events in one’s environment is at the core of being human. It is our Human Nature. If one is not given the opportunity to perceive and put together a coherent picture of the what, where, when, why, and how of something, they cannot develop an internally cohesive perceptual map and thus an integrated neurological system, allowing for emotional regulation.
A child’s main job is to grow through the processing of both external and internal information. Processing information in a healthy system gives a human the integrative experience of making meaning of the world. They do this through multi-sensory motor experiences. A child who is ‘connected’ between self and environment has embodied meaning and this means they might avoid becoming part of the growing statistic from the World Health Organization.
In the modern experience however with ubiquitous societal busyness, adults inadvertently turn off a child’s innate pursuit of sensory and developmental needs. They remove the child’s experience from a constant and active interaction to a relatively passive experience. For example, instead of a child answering an internally driven curiosity of bending down and filling a hand with fresh mud, the child must resist because an adult says, “no, dirty.” The child therefore missesan easy developmental (tactile) experience. This missed opportunity confuses the neurological system and leaves it longing for answers like, “What did that feel like? What did it smell like? What was that?”All answers that could have been answered by permission to interact with the very basic material of the earth we all live on. The missed opportunity shifts from a potentially expansive experience, to a contracted one. Missed opportunities like this happen both in nature and also in man-made places like homes, buildings, parks, and stores.
For example, yesterday I was in a store and witnessed a common, seemingly innocent scene, but one that frequently makes me cringe. A parent shopping with her two young children, one sitting in a cart, the other boy approximately six years old trailing along behind. The boy trailing behind was gently touching everything. He was not harming anything in his exploration, although that was likely his parent’s fear. What this parent and so many forget in a hurried life, is that exploration and touching are cornerstones to a child being able to listen, attend and eventually NOT touch when asked. Feeding the sensory systems develops them and calms (or integrates) curiosity. Once a curiosity is sufficiently met, the neurological need for interaction moves on to something else. The tactile sense is one way to explore and gain information about the environment. It is one of three significantly important senses that build a foundation for all other learning. (The other two are proprioceptive sense and vestibular sense). Information that is processed, integrated and given meaning becomes neurological expansion; also known as learning.
To a child, a store is no different than a built or natural playscape in its perceived function, with respect to the fact that it is a whole world waiting to be explored through sensory-motor experience. When a child is put in potential exploratory environments whether it is a store, the small adventure from the front door to a car, a park or an airport, and told “no” enough times within those contexts, they begin to change the way they engage with the world. That change results in slowly turning off the natural desire to engage with tactile information. The same is true for audition, vision, proprioception (muscles and joints), vestibulation (balance), and often gustation (taste) and olfaction (smell) too. Think about how many times a modern child hears “no.”
Our sensory systems have been intact for hundreds of thousands of years, firing and wiring (developing) 100% outside until very recently. Our children still house these same sensory systems, and the outdoors is still right outside your front door… neither one is going anywhere fast but they are both demonstrating massive misfiring. While children suffer from a plethora of disorders and disabilities to the tune of 1:5 (CDC), the natural world loses species, habitat, and future caretakers.
A child who is raised lacking access to developmental opportunities that for millennia came through sensory engagement with nature puts us all at risk. Meaningful interactions during formative years, through relationship building with the natural elements of nature, are critical to healthy habilitation. When children can’t engage in this way they will continue in their hard-wired attempt to fill this original and ancient need. They may use whatever artificial means they can find to create what feels like connection with the intelligence that built them, hence the dependence on things like indoor two dimensional media, resulting in annoying or maladaptive behaviors, biophobic behavior, and misanthropy, leading us to the most depressed and anxious human population that has ever lived.
The amazing thing about understanding the underlying needs of our hard-wired sensory systems and also to nature’s involvement with their development is that we can make things better right now. How?
Try these two things:
- Every time you find yourself starting to say no (barring serious harm), pause and ask yourself “What sensory system might be fed by saying yes to this?”
- Demonstrate curiosity about the outdoor environment by stopping, looking and listening.
World Health Organization (2018, March 22) Depression: Key Facts. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression