NATURE SENSE: Tuning into Nature’s Operating Manual

About the Author

Kathleen has been an occupational therapist for 22 years, trailblazing new paradigms of therapeutic intervention and working with children in the outdoors even longer. She has raised two highly spirited daughters who are forces of nature in their own lives. Kathleen founded RxOutside, the Nature-Led© Approach to growing and healing children, co-founded The Central Coast Village Center (DBA as Outside Now!) a non-profit organization, and she works privately with families and offers trainings to parents and professionals. You can find her at or reach her at

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Twenty-one years ago I sat at the base of a sugar maple tree. Both of us were bursting. The tree heavy with her seeds and me with a growing womb. 

I felt respect for the maple and her innate sense of how and when to shed her perfectly designed helicopter seeds. They twirled their way to the ground in front of me while I contemplated my current dilemma: Why don’t human babies arrive clutching a manual that spells out how to raise them as cooperative, respectful kids who achieve their full potential?

It sure seems like most parents of other species come with their own, built-in parenting manual. So why wouldn’t we? 

Sure, I found many books written from human perspectives about raising children. But I yearned for a more organic manual, one that speaks in something other than words, one that shows the child and the parent the way to happy balance. That’s what the maple seemed to have. I dreamt of this mythical manual and then something happened. One of the most profound moments in my personal and professional pursuit of the holy grail’of parenting, was gifted to me, by my child’s attention to nature, and I almost missed it.

Five months after my first daughter was born, winter broke and it was finally warm enough to crack the front door. We stepped outside, in a blur of a sleepless-winter and newborn-vomit, to greet the world, and my daughter did something that was so subtle I could’ve easily missed it.

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She turned her face into the wind… and as if in slow-motion… closed her eyes… and as the wind lapped her face… she heaved her little body… gasped and laughed… over and over… breathing it in… over and over.

I was captivated.

In that exact moment, I realized she was presenting me with the very manual I had been searching for, one directed by nature. The way she leaned into the wind was a natural response from her developing system. It was as if her senses of vision, hearing and balance were being nourished by nature itself. And it hit me, there it was, her gift to me, the organic operating manual: The Nature Sense.

It became clear through my personal and professional pursuits, that the natural world is what awakens our developmental capacity through the sensory systems. The more I allowed my daughter to be nourished by her nature sense, the more I understood that engaging with nature is the the primary way our neurological system is continually expanded and made stronger.

How we feed the senses radically influences the health of those senses, and thus builds a foundation for all our executive functioning skills, attention, emotional regulation, organizational abilities, and more. We are designed to be guided and built by nature’s cohesive multisensory bits – its movement bits, sights, sounds, feelings, smells after we are born. We don’t come with these bits fully formed. Nature helps us build them, interactively.

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A sensory system undernourished by nature, will find other input, but that input will likely lack a connective quality. This input, random car sounds, TV shows, white noise, etc, doesn’t  build true balance; rather, it fights for attention. It doesn’t provide the neurological nourishment that supports fluid, brain-building experiences. In other words, without the nature sense umbilicus orchestrating these bits for a cohesive sensory system, we become an out-of-tune orchestra.

Nature’s “call and response” can be found everywhere, from birdsong to the rhythmic waves of the ocean. Nature calls our little ones and they answer back, until we stop them. True, a child’s desire to sense these calls and then respond can frustrate a parent. Even getting from the front door to the car can seem as slow and difficult as climbing Mount Everest. But to our little ones, every stone, leaf, bird, and blade of grass makes that short walk every bit as adventurous as Everest would be to us. 

When we unintentionally halt the interactive experience (the natural call and response) between our child and nature, we sever the nature sense umbilicus – a developmental program that has been tweaked and fine-tuned for millions of years. And our children pay the price.

In my practice, I meet many children who cannot determine what direction the wind is coming from, where the sun rises and sets, what an ordinary dandelion looks like. Very likely, they have not experienced their senses wholly, leaving them disconnected from neurological synchrony. Two of the fastest growing challenges of childhood today are emotional regulation and the ability to pay attention. Both of these are directly connected to the development of an organized sensory system.

Is it any wonder so many of our children struggle? The original operating manual has been replaced by a human-imposed “idea” of childhood. In the blink of an evolutionary eye, everything about the human experience has changed. Today, children spend on average only seven percent of their time outside. Our nature sense seems slated for extinction.

But nature, our nature, is still within reach. We can still allow its umbilicus to feed our children and ourselves that healthful diet of natural balance. To reconnect, a parent can begin with one simple step.

Go outside. See, listen, smell, feel and respond to your child’s engagement with her own nature sense. Breathe it in.

Photo credits: Stocksy, Shutterstock, Melissa Askew

Additional Reading & Resources

What is Nature-Deficit Disorder?

LESSONS FROM SWEDEN: It Takes a Village to Raise an Outdoor-Loving Child

NATURE IS THE ULTIMATE SENSORY EXPERIENCE: A Pediatric Occupational Therapist Makes the Case for Nature Therapy

The Great Fear of the Great Outdoors

COMING TO OUR 30 SENSES: In an era of sensory dysfunction, are we creating environments in which our children are less alive? And in greater danger?

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  1. Great work, Kathleen.
    This looks beautiful and is medicine indeed.
    Best of luck on your project.

  2. Precious info here for our children and for parents. Thank you ! My daughter home schools her 6 year old and her schoolroom is Mother Nature. They live in Taiwan and explore the wondrous out doors up in the mountains…. rivers, waterfalls, natural hot springs, ocean, fish, insects, reptiles, the plant kingdom and the stones and minerals and crystals for many hours each and every day. It’s a very rich life! And what respect and love Reilly has for it all. A charmed life I would say !

  3. Wow, and at 5 months old. Amazing. Didn’t did happen to me until I think I was 25 or so, maybe even 30. A great awareness and sensation of appreciation and freedom to behold for sure though. Among others that resonate with life and connect with our source of being with the universe.


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