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Why Nature Engagement Increases Quality of Life for Children of Differing Abilities

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The belonging and connection found in nature is important for all children, but perhaps especially important for children of differing abilities. Ruth Wilson, PhD, author of Naturally Inclusive: Engaging Children of All Abilities Outdoors shares why nature serves as a strong contributor to quality of life for children of differing abilities.

My name is Ruth Wilson, and I am the author of Naturally Inclusive: Engaging Children of All Abilities Outdoors.

Quality of life is so much more than just the absence of illness, the absence of fear, or the absence of anxiety. Quality of life is really about the joy, the excitement, the zest for life. 

A child probably wouldn't use the words, “I want a quality of life.” A child probably would say, “I want a life that is really good.” And if you ask a child, and some researchers have done that, “Well what makes a life really good?” One of the things children universally have said— it comes out maybe not in these words— but it has to do with connections. They want to be connected. They want friends. They want a family. They want connections with pets. They want connections with nature. That comes out in the way a child would describe quality of life. 

Unfortunately for children with disabilities, sometimes their life tends to be focused so much more on therapy and academic goals that they have to struggle to meet, or even social interactions that they struggle with. So their quality of life tends to be compromised in this sense that it's harder for them. There are more challenges for them to experience that sense of joy and discovery and to be out exploring. 

So we know that they do have more challenges, but nature for them can enhance the quality of life in a way that perhaps I would say professional interactions cannot. Because the professional probably has to focus on—What are your therapeutic goals? What do we need to focus on in terms of physical development or your speech and language?   

Out in nature, nobody is judging or has a check sheet. Did you do it this way? It's just non-judgmental! Nature is so much more open-ended. Again, a lot of our adult expectations for children—they're not open-ended. They don't allow for that freedom to just be yourself. Whereas nature does. 

Not that nature won't pose some challenges—nature definitely does. A child walking on sand or soft dirt, that's probably going to be, for a child with physical disabilities, a little more challenging than walking on a nice smooth floor. But for a child that kind of challenge is welcomed. It is something they want to do. 

So the motivation— there's a different kind of motivation when the child is outdoors. And it's not the kind of motivation of an adult or somebody else telling them, “Do it this way!” They get to figure it out themselves. And nature is just so open-ended in that sense. 

So, I can't prove—I can't even say research proves—that nature offers something special for children with special needs. But if you do talk to many of the parents of children with special needs, or you watch the children, you can see that there's something special going on. 

So in terms of quality of life, nature is such a strong contributor to do that for all children. But again, I would say perhaps more so for the children with special needs. It's also a place where they can let down their guard and just be themselves.

And that sense of belonging—sitting down under a tree— it's a place where they belong. So the belongingness and the connection is what I tried to focus on when I wrote this book, and why nature is especially important for the children with differing abilities.