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The World of Natural Wonder Waiting to be Explored in San Francisco Parks

As an outdoor occupational therapy practice, we don’t have a building or an office. Instead, we hold all our sessions, groups, and camps outdoors. Which makes for some pretty incredible memories to go along with the real progress.


When it came to finding locations for the outdoor sessions of Bearfoot OT, we wanted to find spaces that were conveniently located for Bay Area families but offered a complete immersion into the world of nature.


We didn’t need to look far.


China Camp State park in San Rafael, California

The Bay Area has so many amazing natural spaces that offer a sense of escape and wonder. The perfect setting for outdoor OT sessions where kids get to move, play, and explore their way to meeting their goals.


There’s a real reason behind finding natural spaces away from built structures. It changes how your brain processes the experience. Research has shown that natural spaces offer unique learning and mood-lifting properties that can’t be provided by typical playgrounds built with metal, plastic, and asphalt¹ ².

There is a special sense of restoration that comes from “getting away” from the busy world through complete immersion in nature³.



San Francisco offers some amazing spaces that offer a sense of escape and exploration without needing to travel very far.


We’ve done the work for you. Our sessions take place in three amazing parks which offer immersive nature experiences – Presidio, China Camp, and Glen Canyon Park. Every Bay Area kid would benefit from the glory of learning and exploring in these magical spaces.


So hang on as we brag about the beautiful settings for our outdoor occupational therapy sessions. You’re going to be inspired to explore the worlds of wonder beyond the familiar built playgrounds.


Every child should experience the “Octopus Tree” in Presidio


If you live in the Bay area, you’re already familiar with the iconic Presidio views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz


While these are stunning, they aren’t what makes this location so magical for the kids attending therapy sessions at Bearfoot OT.


Hands down, the favorite physical feature of Presidio Park is the sand hill with its centerpiece — a magnificent eucalyptus tree. The ancient roots of the eucalyptus tree pop up through the sand to create a play structure perfect for climbing and crawling.


Due to its unique shape and general awesomeness, we affectionately named this ancient beauty “The Octopus Tree.”


presidio of san francisco octopus eucalyptus tree

No playground or therapy gym could ever begin to recreate the amazing climbing experiences this tree provides. We’re talking climbing, jumping, swinging, and every type of sensory and imaginative play.


There are so many sensory and physical benefits from the sand, logs, and branches of this place.

  • Endurance to run through sand

  • Arm strength to hang from branches

  • Safe sand landing zone for jumping

  • Natural obstacle course to practice motor planning



From a therapy standpoint, this beautiful space offers so much more than what we could even dream up. It’s an open invitation to dream, to play, to work together towards goals.


So here’s the trick if you’re visiting Presidio

You’re going to pull up to the Presidio Wall Playground, see the playground and athletic field, and think you’ve arrived. Resist the urge to stop there… Instead, walk right on past and head for the trail and the sandhill.


Truly, it’s a magical moment when you walk around the corner and “Bam!” — you’re in the immersive natural world, completely removed from the San Francisco bustle.


Be prepared to spend quite some time at the sand hill and with the octopus tree. And of course, expect to enjoy the magnificent views of the Bay.


Limitless Exploration in the Diverse Terrain at China Camp


Easily accessible from San Rafael, at Bearfoot OT, we’re obsessed with providing occupational therapy in China Camp.


What makes this park so amazing is just how many distinct natural features are close to each other in this park. The park is filled with hiking trails that feel like secret, secluded paths that lead to restorative adventures away from regular life.


China Camp state park sunset picture San Rafael, California

At China Camp, there is so much to do and see, it’s easy to find the exact right experience for each child’s individual needs.


Sometimes we head down to the tree grove which provides its own sensory environment with shade and protection from the wind. The kids get a chance to climb and swing within the trees.


We also frequently head down for incredible adventures on the beach. At low tide, our therapy sessions are filled with the thrill of mud and exploring exposed rocks. In high tide, we play in the water, run along the beach, and enjoy the small waves.



Honestly, every day we show up for work at China Camp is incredible. With such diverse options for every session, we never run out of ideas, and kids are excited for what the day will bring!


Planning Your Nature-Filled Visit to China Camp

China Camp Village, San Rafael California picnic table area

First off, everyone who visits needs to pause and acknowledge the feeling of being in the woods and on the water at the same time. This blend of beach and woodsy feel can’t be appreciated in many places.


If you’re visiting China Camp and in search of some restorative outdoor time, we recommend you park in the upper parking lot of China Camp village (not the lower parking lot where you’ll see tons of cars). Instead, explore the beach that is on the opposite side of the hill from the beach at China Camp Village - it’s almost always empty!


You’ll get that secluded feel and have access to so many terrains. Check out the trees and then head out to the beach.


Celebrating the Stream, Rocks, and Beauty of Glen Canyon


At Glen Canyon Park, we trade the Bay views of the other two locations for the incredible experience of walking through the canyon with huge steep rock walls on either side.


The rocks, hills, and trails at this park mean there is always something new to do and see. The variety of activities makes it easy to achieve the balance between the intentional goal for the therapy session and finding activities each child really wants to do.

logs at Glen Canyon Park San Francisco, California

We’ll frequently head towards the Glenridge Cooperative Preschool & Nursery. Right next to the school, there is an amazing site perfect for a therapeutic setting using natural materials. This includes tons of rocks to climb, plus stumps and logs for working on balance.


The rainy season months of December, January, and February provide an extra treat for our therapy sessions. During this time, a seasonal stream at the bottom of the canyon is filled with water. Kids love to dig in the mud which is the perfect sensory and strengthening activity. We even work on thinking skills through building and playing with boats on this fun stream. Since water play isn’t always available in the Bay Area, this tends to be a highlight every year.


Planning For Hours of Family Outdoor Time at Glen canyon Park


If your family is visiting Glen Canyon Park, just like the other parks, we recommend you continue past the playground and immediately head for a hike in the canyon.


If you are lucky enough to visit during the season of winter, come prepared with some clothes that can get muddy and wet in the seasonal creek. We promise these memories will be worth the dirty clothes.


Another great option is to head toward the grounds surrounding the Glenridge Cooperative Preschool. You kids will love playing on the rocks and stumps and burn off tons of energy at the same time.


logs and rocks at Glen Canyon Park San Francisco, California

Honor What Nature Provides


As you can tell, we absolutely adore these three parks. We couldn’t do our work and help kids in such a profound way without the immersion in nature and unique activities each park provides.


Part of our time working in nature includes sharing an appreciation for these natural spaces. We want kids who come through Bearfoot OT to gain a life-long appreciation and care for nature as a space for wellness. For them to feel connected to nature and nurture a sense of earth stewardship that they will carry with them into their life beyond Bearfoot.


Every family deserves a healthy dose of nature to promote connection, health, and wellbeing. Even if your family isn’t in the Bay area, look beyond the playgrounds for the natural spaces that sometimes get forgotten. In those visits, cultivate a sense of nature appreciation and talk about what it means to care and give back to nature through trash removal or honoring the history of these places.


Stay in touch! We’d love to share about nature play, development, and outdoor occupational therapy. Get more ideas and information about our outdoor occupational therapy services by joining our email list.


References


  1. Cooper, A. (2015). Nature and the outdoor learning environment: The forgotten resource in early childhood education. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 3(1), 85-97.https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1108430.pdf

  2. Bailey, Andrew & Allen, Garrett & Herndon, Josh & Demastus, Christian. (2018). Cognitive benefits of walking in natural versus built environments. World Leisure Journal. 1-13. 10.1080/16078055.2018.1445025. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323536395_Cognitive_benefits_of_walking_in_natural_versus_built_environments

  3. Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature - toward an integrative framework. J. Environ. Psychol. 15, 169–182https://www.wienerzeitung.at/_em_daten/_wzo/2015/08/07/150807_1710_kaplan_s._19951.pdf

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