As I sat staring at my one-year-old boy, I felt slightly panicked. He was smiling, with long strands of sandy-blonde bangs scattered across his forehead. His smile turned into a chuckle and his eyes sparkled. Thank goodness for that.
We were in the family room playing with some toys. This wasn’t normal play for a Saturday afternoon, but our go-to outside activities were off-limits. At least that’s what I had been told.
Jack had been diagnosed several months before with a rare spinal disorder. He wears a permanent plaster cast around his body to keep his spine from twisting into his heart and lungs. We were on cast #1. It was February 2015.
Our normal weekend play would have involved being outside. We lived in Florida at the time, so we were often at the beach, a park, on our neighborhood trail, or swimming.
Jack’s diagnosis changed all of that. In that first month, all I heard was,
“The cast cannot get wet.”
“No baths or showers!”
“They get so hot, so be extra careful and watch him closely.”
“No swimming, sprinklers, or pools!”
“You can’t get sand down the cast, so stay away from sand boxes, the beach, or dirt.”
“Do not jump in puddles!”
“Stay away from water. Don’t go near it.”
“It’s best to stay inside.”
Adapting for Outside Play
I had been a Park Ranger for 15 years, and my husband is a wildland firefighter. We lived for being outside. Now don’t get me wrong – we don’t go camping in the wilderness or rock climbing. We’re more of an urban naturalist kind of family. But we were always out in nature in some way. And we had a 4-year old son who was used to that lifestyle.
The first few months of “cast life” we kept to the status quo. But as we got more comfortable with caring for Jack’s cast and what it could and couldn’t handle, we began to get more creative. We wanted to be outside, and we didn’t want Jack’s condition to limit him more than it had to. Can he take baths or go into a pool? No. But other than that, we’ve learned we can do pretty much anything else.
How we Play Outside
Muddy Buddy Tuffo Rainsuit
This has been a life-saver for our family. This zip-up rainsuit with cinched cuffs around the wrists and ankles allows Jack to play in water and in the rain. This has been one of our best investments. Coupled with a pair of rainboots, Jack can do almost anything outside.
A non-profit made this for Jack, and it’s been just as important for heat exposure as the Tuffo has been for water play. When it’s above 75 degrees outside, we strap on this denim vest with ice packs tucked inside and Jack can play for up to an hour. Switch out the ice packs with new ones and we’ve got another hour. His ice vest has allowed him to go to his brother’s ball games, hike in the summer, play outside in the backyard, and go to outdoor festivals. For extra hot days, we also use a cool wrap around his neck.
Playing in sand
Getting sand inside Jack’s cast can generate skin lesions and infections, and ultimately require the cast to come off (it’s permanent – if it comes off, it requires surgery to put another one on). As Jack has gotten older, he understands he cannot throw sand or roll around in it. But that doesn’t stop us from hiking, light sand box play, or digging in the dirt. We do make sure he wears skin-tight clothes with a high neck line (PJs work well!) and keep a closer eye on him than we would otherwise.
Jack loves to paint, play in the sink with toys (since he can’t take showers or baths), and generally get messy. This art bib is easy to put on, protects his cast, and gives him plenty of movement. We love that we can take it to nature centers and museums and don’t have to worry about denying Jack an activity he wants to participate in.
The Right Timing
With a small adjustment to our schedules, we’ve been able to include most of our normal outside activities into our lives including hiking, playing in the yard, bike riding, and playgrounds. If it’s hot outside, we play first thing in the morning or in the evenings. As you can expect, we love fall and spring because we can be outside all day!
A little bit of prep-work
If you’ve been to the playground, you know that slides, swings, and other equipment usually have a puddle of water in them. We always have a snack bag with us (because kids) and we include a hand towel or shammy so we can wipe things down. This is also handy for outdoor sporting events when you have to sit on bleachers.
Knowing the weather
Almost everyone has a weather app on their phone and we are no different. It is so much easier to plan when you know the weather a few days in advance (90 degrees on Sunday? Head to the science museum instead of the zoo!) and it reduces a lot of stress for everyone.
Having our own little garden has been a great way for the boys to learn where their food comes from. And we can quickly go outside to check on the plants, water them, and even pick ripe veggies. It gives them exposure to nature in a quick burst, and then we can have conversations about plant growth or how the food web works while we cook something in the kitchen.
We’ve gotten creative so we can all benefit and enjoy nature-based play. For us this can mean more indoor than outdoor time during certain times of the year. We use items we’ve collected from outside to do arts and crafts, watch nature-based television shows (we love Nature Cat and Wild Kratts on PBS Kids), cook using vegetables from our garden, splash around in the sink with toys, and do all sorts of imaginative play.
From the car
What’s better than nature exposure from the car?! We love to grab some binoculars (the kids use inexpensive ones) and go birdwatching! Sometimes we’ll spot elephants, zebras, dinosaurs, and other surprising animals, too!
An Open Mind
While there are certainly barriers to getting outside or enjoying nature, I believe much of our success has come from our adaptations and willingness to experiment. We have been open-minded and have accepted we can’t play outside like we used to. Much of Jack’s exposure to nature happens inside or in small chunks. While we can’t do everything other outdoor families do, it doesn’t bother us most of the time. We have fun anyway!
Do you have barriers for getting outside or having fun in nature? Please share your tips and experiences!