TimberNook: A One-Week Children’s Program With Lifelong Benefits

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Summertime images used to be filled with children running around outside, climbing trees and filling their time with creative play — but electronics and busy lives have taken the place of those memory-making moments. TimberNook was designed to bring them back.

TimberNook encourages children to build motor and social skills through outdoor play. The Ashtabula County program launched in 2015 after Brenda Richards, occupational therapist and owner of The Center for LifeSkills, knew something had to change.

Through her work in her practice and in schools, she saw an increasing number of students having a hard time sitting still and focusing.

“Teachers in every school that I go to have the same complaint,” Richards said. “I stumbled across an article titled ‘Why Children Fidget: and What We Can Do About It.’ I read one article and then another article, and ended up finding TimberNook, and it just seemed to be such a good fit.”

The article was written by Angela Hanscom, who created TimberNook in 2009 as a direct response to the overwhelming need to help children improve their abilities and attention. She discovered that children weren’t getting enough time playing outside, which negatively affected their sensory systems and quality of life.

The company has five core beliefs, which include:

  • Outdoor play is therapeutic
  • Children need time and space to be able to move
  • Nature is filled with sensory experiences
  • Children deserve to have distance from the adult world
  • Outdoor play provides physical, mental and emotional benefits for children

Those beliefs are the solution to many of the difficulties Richards was seeing in children, and she felt that a TimberNook location in northeast Ohio would help. In October 2014, she attended a training in New Hampshire at the TimberNook headquarters. Her Ashtabula County program opened in 2015. Richards is one of 30 international providers.

“More and more research is showing the benefits of nature for everybody,” she said. “At The Center for LifeSkills, our motto is helping children grow. We’re looking at children very holistically. It seemed like such a good fit, because at TimberNook we are, again, looking at the child as a whole and trying to encourage them and inspire them to grow.”

That growth happens for children of all ages. Each week-long program has a theme, with new activities each day that are based on that theme. Age groups typically range from four to seven years old, seven to 10 years old and 10 to 14 years old, although the exact age range depends on the ages of participants registered that week.

The mixed age groups allow for a variety of interesting dynamics, Richards says. Younger children watch and learn from the older children in their group. They get a nudge and are encouraged and emboldened to try new things that may have intimidated them previously. The older children learn patience and nurturing. Richards said she’s seen them become caretakers for the younger participants. “It’s really a great combination,” she said. “It’s good for every child.”

Parents have also seen a difference. “I hear regularly from parents that their kids are more calm and relaxed at home,” she said. “Often, I hear, ‘My kid will not play outside in the yard by themselves for an extended period of time.’ That first day, there’s nervousness. They’re not sure what to expect. They might be more rambunctious or more shy than others, but that seems to go away quickly once we’re in the woods. “There’s a huge shift in their demeanor. They’re calm and focused in woods, but if they want to run and be loud, it’s ok. It’s cool to experience.” The running, yelling and exploring that comes with being in the woods has many benefits. “We have a greeting, like circle time,” Richards said of each program. “The main goal is to get kids to move their bodies in free play and explore nature, so we allow a good chunk of time where kids are involved in free play, negotiating, collaborating, working together, moving their bodies and experiencing all kinds of sensory experiences.” What seems like kids just being kids, though, is making a tremendous impact on their lives and health. When kids are climbing and running on uneven ground, they’re working on their balance and strengthening their core. When they’re playing in mud and water, they’re reaping the benefits of connecting nature. Of course, the program curriculum helps.

For example, one of last year’s programs was called Friends in the Wild. Children were allowed to bring stuffed animals with them. One experience day let them give their pets a bath “It was a huge bubble experience,” she said. “Think a bubble bath times a thousand. There were mounds of bubbles in the woods. The kids were up to their waists in bubbles, rubbing them in their hair, sitting in the mud.”

Curriculum for 2018 will be announced on the TimberNook website in January; registration opens in February. The Rome location posts regular updates on its Facebook page about the four program weeks it runs in the summer,  along with one-time Friday or Saturday evening programs.

Long-term, Richards wants to make TimberNook available to more children. “I would like to be able to run more than one location, so children can experience this and reap the benefits of being outside, the calming, sensory input from nature, and the social and psychological benefits. I would like every kid to be able to experience that.

“I love hearing the laughter, hearing the kids experiencing true joy and feeling free. Hearing that echo through the woods is really special.”

This article is brought to you by TimberNook

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