Friday, February 5, 2010

Children and the Outdoors: Therapeutic

Dr. Sebastiano Santostefano, a psychoanalyst renowned for his work with traumatized children, believes that the out of doors is therapeutic for his young patients. An article in the New York Times in 2005 described how Dr. Santostefano and his wife created a home for psychologically troubled children and built a garden around it. In his book, Child Therapy in the Great Outdoors, Dr. Santostefano argues that interacting with the children outside and in the garden has played a crucial role in their treatment and growth. Dr. Santostefano had the area designed with a running stream that goes to a pond filled with fish and frogs, hills to climb, a woodland to explore, a cave of tree branches, and a wide open space for jumping and running.

I think that Dr. Santostefano is most probably right. Once my daughter and I took two elementary school age children to a forest about an hour away. The two were siblings who had had a horrific early childhood and were now living with foster parents. They displayed all the signs of anxiety one can imagine such children would have. It was a hot summer day, and the road in the park follows the creek. We had a picnic lunch in a clearing and then walked a ways and found a nice quiet spot on the creek. The two waded in the creek picking up tiny shells and putting them into their socks, which they had turned into bags. My daughter and I never suggested this activity and did absolutely nothing to entertain them, just lazed on the bank and looked on. After three hours of this, we tromped back along the creek to the car. As we were driving back home, the older one smiled and heaved a huge sigh, “Ah, this has been the most relaxing day of my life.”

I have wondered why this is the case. Yes, the woods were nice; there were no distractions; and they felt safe. But is that enough to make it the most relaxing day of a child’s life? I think the source of the relaxation lies elsewhere. My hunch is that through the opportunity to explore nature in leisure and in play, a child's heart has an apprehension of God’s love for them, and it is this silent, unthought, unspoken receipt of God’s beneficence that relaxes them.

These verses in Psalm 136 (6-9, quoted in part in The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris) remind me of the same idea:

Who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
Who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.
The sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
The moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.

1 comment:

Jodi said...

At the risk of being too transparent on the world wide web here, I can tell you from experience this is true. I was sent to live on my uncle's farm when I was fifteen. It was the best year of my young life, and it was the beginning of my journey towards the Lord.