Virtual reality surrounds us. We even distance ourselves from ourselves with computers, cell phones, and electronic games. We distance ourselves from others and from ourselves, by filling the void with things that can’t give us an honest experience of life.
In her pioneering work in sensory integration, A. Jean Ayres described children who had difficulty relating normally to the world through their basic senses. Occupational therapists (OTs), in working with these children, were creative in devising equipment and toys to provide the appropriate sensory experiences these children needed. Clinics became surrogates for the natural world. This virtual reality was an attempt to bring the sensory experiences of the outside world inside four walls.
Our Natural World
We need to look beyond four walls to our millennia of evolutionary interaction with the natural world, to see the importance of connecting with this ancient foundation. It reaches far beyond the OT’s wonderful, but artificially created environments.
Enhancing the Current OT Clinic
I once consulted for a state-of-the-art children’s outpatient clinic in a hospital in Japan, although it could have been a hospital clinic anywhere in any culture wealthy enough to afford special and innovative equipment. The therapists were proud to show me their visually, auditorally, vibrationally, and tactilely stunning and stimulating environment.
They asked me what I thought. My reply was “You need a big cardboard box added to this room so that the children can be creative. You have a lovely courtyard enclosure just outside your clinic doors—you could build rabbit cages, plant vegetables, even plant carrots to feed the bunnies! The children could be outside for some of their therapy.”
I shared the idea that developing relationships and empathy can be as important as developing strength and coordination and can be incorporated into therapy sessions.
Mixing the Natural World with the Virtual Clinic
These young therapists loved outdoor activities, had pets, loved to hike and ski, and rode horses; they hadn’t thought to adapt their own passion for the out-of-doors into their work as therapists. Perhaps they will develop a “hybrid” therapy program, with the best of technology complimenting the best of Earth’s reality, as well as the best of the therapists’ skillful caring.
Benefits to a “Hybrid” Program
Human beings’ bodies and nervous systems have evolved over millennia, with a hard-wired neurological need for caring relationships. The important role of mirror neurons, in humans as in other forms of life, are being investigated with excitement and in-depth. Individuals with autism have a difficult time connecting with others, with research demonstrating that inadequate mirror neuron activity as a major culprit. Are there ways to help cultivate an improved sense of connection?
- I have seen children and adults with autism connect more easily with animals, a step toward relating to people.
Must we “prove” the benefits of outdoor experiences and of connection with animals?
- Our small farm provides a circumscribed environment in which children can have their developmental needs met.
- They learn, explore, and are presented with expectations and responsibilities that are “real, not made up”, as one child commented.
Occupational Therapy, while seeking the affirmation of research in its approaches with clients, must also remember its connection to function. And, underlying the meaningful occupations of self-care, work, and play is the broader and vital connection to the environment of the Earth.
Educators, parents and therapists are increasingly aware of the importance of this Earth connection, not only for children with special needs, but for everyone.
As an Occupational Therapist, I am an advocate for natural experiences for all the lives on our planet. We need a connection, a caring, an empathy, with each other, not only within supportive surrogate environments, but outdoors, with the Earth itself.
© Lois Hickman 2011