How Outdoor OT Fosters Courage and Resilience for Your Anxious, Shy, or Fearful Child
Are you concerned that your kid is OVERLY cautious and fearful? Whether it is a leap of faith or a literal leap from a tree, is your child too scared to take the jump?
In the sea of online resources talking about high-energy or impulsive kids, there are fewer resources sharing how to best support shy, anxious, and awkward kids.
At Bearfoot OT, we’re here to listen to parent concerns to find solutions for kids across all personalities and energy levels. And after years of doing this work, some of our favorite success stories in outdoor OT have come from kids who went from anxious and fearful to literally leaping with confidence in only a few short weeks.
Why missing out matters in the big picture
Whether they’re missing out on playground adventures with friends, classroom learning, or fun with the family, you don’t want your child to be sidelined by anxiety or lack of confidence. You also know forcing them isn’t the right answer — you want them to be who they are, just without all the fear.
And at the same time, you want your child to take part in the “doing” that is necessary to build resilience, coordination, and peer relationships.
That’s what makes understanding anxious, “scaredy-cat” kids so important. When you can understand and address what’s behind your child’s fear, you can make changes to open their world without accidentally making things worse.
To be clear - we are not trying to fix your kid! We are not on a mission to turn introverts to extroverts — or cautious kids into the next X-Game competitors. Instead, our goal is to help kids move through the world with less crippling fear and anxiety. To help them become braver so they can choose what to say “yes” to instead of saying “no” to everything.
More than just anxiety
There is no official diagnosis or research-defined category for the collection of traits we commonly see in “scaredy-cat” kids. Instead, you’ll see research talking about kids who are severely shy¹, sensory avoidant, and awkward². No matter what fancy or familiar terms you use, these kids stand out to us by how they move in and react to the world.
Outdoor occupational therapy should be considered when your child’s ability to participate in everyday life is limited by fear and avoidance. Keep reading for some clues that suggest a kid needs some additional support to overcome being shy or avoidant!
The Clues From Conversations
Parents will say things like, “My kid is scared of everything.” Or, “My child is very cautious.”
We’ll see kids who say, “I don’t like that,” or “I don’t want to climb on that.” Or when asked to do something new, they’ll tell us, “I’m scared, I’m scared!” or just a straight-up — “No.”
The Clues in Daily Life
Does your child struggle with any of the following?
They’re scared of everything so won’t try new things.
They’re sitting on the sidelines and watching everyone else do activities.
They’re afraid to speak up and may be labeled as super shy.
In the classroom, your child is the one hiding in the corner.
They’re sitting on the playground alone instead of playing.
They look lost in their body and their movements look awkward or clumsy.
Your child is not as physically strong as the other kids.
Your child is scared of hurting themselves during everyday tasks.
Making friends is hard because your child won’t play or talk.
For many of these anxious and awkward kids, the different pieces overlap. For instance, clumsiness makes them fearful of exploring. So they don't get the skill development that comes with practicing new motor skills, which means they continue to be fearful of new experiences and explorations.
So what’s behind this blend of avoidance and anxiety?
It’s different for every child, but we generally look at it from three angles:
Anxiety — Feelings of fear prevent them from trying. This anxiety is usually a combination of personality, experiences, and environment.
Sensory processing — Kids might avoid activities if sensory input feels uncomfortably intense or if their body struggles to coordinate movements.
Lack of confidence — They don’t feel capable, so they don’t try. Previous struggles might be reinforcing the avoidance.
We know that it doesn’t work to push these kids harder or to tell them, “You’ll be fine – just try it.” Instead, they need the opportunity and feelings of safety to decide (on their own) to do new things.
So how do you even begin to do this? Our answer is outdoor OT sessions that make it easier for anxious kids to discover and build their confidence.
Here are a few of the reasons that nature is the special confidence ingredient for anxious kids.
In Nature, Challenges Don’t Feel Like Challenges
When you think something is hard, it’s natural to avoid doing it. The catch twenty-two is that until you try and practice, it will not get easier.
For these anxiously awkward kiddos, everyday tasks are emotionally or physically harder compared to other kids. And they kind of get frozen by their fear, which limits their willingness to try new things. So getting them to try something new starts by changing their perception of what’s too challenging to try.
Here’s the magic we find at Bearfoot OT: activities in nature feel more automatic, approachable, and compelling. Kids see the fun rather than a challenging activity that kicks up their fear response.
For instance, a hike has physical demands. But your child doesn’t notice that because it doesn’t feel like a challenge. It just feels like a fun walk — especially if you are taking time to notice things along the way. So without naming it as a challenge, every time your child goes for a hike, they’re getting stronger and increasing endurance. The same is true for other skills. Challenges like jumping, swinging, or even meeting new people simply seem less challenging in the woods compared to anywhere else.
Remove the Sensory Overwhelm
Scary things feel less scary with the backdrop of trees, water, rocks, and dirt. You’ve probably noticed what research has supported³ ⁴ - the colors, lighting, feel, and sounds of nature calm the nervous system and soothe the soul.
The environment is often an overlooked factor in fear and anxiety. In fact, the environment can quickly turn up (or turn down) feelings that determine whether a kid decides to try something³.
For instance, think of a kid who already feels insecure with movement. They might see all the swings and equipment of a sensory gym and instantly be afraid of what they’ll be asked to do. Add the color, lights, and loud noise of a sensory gym, and their fear will be dialed up before they even begin.
It’s a totally different experience when you take kids into nature for occupational therapy. A simple walk through the woods at the beginning of a session is often enough to turn down the fear and help kids move into a space of calm.
This in turn, makes it easier for kids to start saying “yes” to new activities which initially might feel scary.
Small Victories to Build Confidence
The flexibility of nature-based activities makes it easy to modify the activities for small victories that build on each other.
For kids who are anxious or lack confidence in their physical skills, a whole activity can feel overwhelming. And so you see avoidance kick in before they even try².
Think of that big scary slide on the playground. To do the activity, your child needs to go all the way up the stairs and then slide all the way down. There are not many ways to make the activity easier.
Compare this to activities in nature. There is no right or wrong way to climb on a rock or roll in the sand. So every activity can be as simple and easy as you need it to be. Which makes it easy to praise effort over outcomes⁵ and practice smaller skills that work towards the big stuff.
Let’s say the activity is climbing a big rock. If your child isn’t ready to climb all the way to the top, they can take just the first step and come down. The next time, they can do a few steps, and then come down. It’s not about doing the whole thing, so it’s easy to offer praise for their bravery and effort.
Before you know it, they’ve built up the courage and strength to climb all the way to the top!
By removing the expectations around doing the “whole scary thing,” your child is more likely to try the small, doable steps that are building blocks towards more confidence and new skills.
And the best part is, once they get stronger and feel more confident, you’ll see them become more willing to try new things on the playground or at home!
At Bearfoot OT, we’re partnering with the magic of nature to help Bay area kids calm their fear and develop confidence in mind and body.
Check out our website to learn more.
Erin E. O'Connor, Elise Cappella, Meghan P. McCormick & Sandee G. McClowry | Shannon Suldo (Associate Editor) (2014) Enhancing the Academic Development of Shy Children: A Test of the Efficacy of INSIGHTS, School Psychology Review, 43:3, 239-259, DOI: 10.1080/02796015.2014.12087426.
Kagan, J., Reznick, J. S., & Snidman, N. (1987). The Physiology and Psychology of Behavioral Inhibition in Children. Child Development, 58(6), 1459–1473. https://doi.org/10.2307/1130685
Anna Roberts, Joe Hinds & Paul M. Camic (2020) Nature activities and wellbeing in children and young people: a systematic literature review, Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 20:4, 298-318, DOI: 10.1080/14729679.2019.1660195
Franco, L. S., Shanahan, D. F., & Fuller, R. A. (2017). A Review of the Benefits of Nature Experiences: More Than Meets the Eye. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(8), 864. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14080864
Dweck, C. (2007). The Perils and Promises of Praise. Educational Leadership, 65, 34-3