Humans of the Outdoors: Sandy

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A note from Maman on the Trail:

Meet Sandy, a human of the outdoors. Sandy lives in Oklahoma and gets outdoors with her husband and their two boys, ages 3.5 and 8. Here is her story…

Humans of the Outdoors_ Sandy - woman standing waist deep in Florida swamp -

On her time outdoors…

I grew up in Indiana with a one-acre backyard that transitioned into a ravine with a creek at the bottom. That creek fed into the White River several miles away. My mom, while not an outdoors person herself, always encouraged me to go outside. She probably doesn’t realize how far I went sometimes!

I am a former Supervisory Park Ranger with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. We get outside as often as we can, but do a lot of inside nature activities, too.

On getting outside despite special needs…

My youngest son, Jack, was diagnosed as a baby with a rare spinal disorder called Progressive Infantile Scoliosis. He wears a permanent plaster “Mehta” cast around his torso to keep his spine from twisting and curving. The cast cannot get wet or dirty, and it’s easy for him to overheat. As a nature-loving family (my husband is a federal wildland firefighter), it was a hard adjustment to not spend time outside all day. But as Jack got used to the cast and we adjusted our routines, we realized we could still explore, just in smaller doses. I believe most families spend time outside like this – on boardwalks, small local parks, neighborhood trails, etc. rather than hiking mountains, white-water rafting or camping in the wilderness. We aim to live life as best as we can without sacrificing the outside time we crave and to inspire more special needs families to explore the benefits and wonder that nature can bring.

Humans of the Outdoors_ Sandy - toddler boy Jack in cast -

To read more about Jack and his condition, check out “Our Normal: Plaster in Nature“.

On the gear required to get outside with special needs…

Jack’s ice vest was made specifically for him by an organization that helps kids with his condition, though it could probably be re-created. It’s made of denim with pockets on the front and back that ice packs slide into. It keeps him cool for 45 minutes-2 hours depending on the temperature outside and what we’re doing. Jack’s cooling cloth* is made by Mission. We got it at a hardware store. They’re the kind that you get wet and then snap really hard. They are common with construction workers and landscapers. We hang it around Jack’s neck for extra cooling and love it. We also bought one of those cooling fans you find at drugstores and always have tons of cold water on-hand (with extras in the car). We’ve used all of these methods when Jack has been sick with a fever, and they help with that too! For wetter adventures, Jack wears his Tuffo Muddy Buddy rain suit* with rainboots. He can splash, jump in puddles and play in the rain. I don’t know what we’d do without it. For less wet activities, we’ll put an art smock on him (made of plastic) to protect his cast. He can do just about anything with one of those on, including water tables and painting.

Humans of the Outdoors_ Sandy - toddler boy Jack in Tuffo Muddy Buddy playing in puddle -

On advice for other parents of kids with special needs…

Take it slow. You don’t have to go camping or on wild adventures to get the benefits of outdoor play. Most of our activities are in our own yard so that we’re close to the house. Most other times it’s at the paved trail down the road or the nature-inspired playground. We never get too far from the car. We also have a fabulous museum in town that has outdoor and indoor spaces, so we can go back and forth as we need to. Most of our outdoor activities are short and simple, but just as meaningful. For us, it’s about building those experiences over time.


On meeting the needs of two very different outdoor explorers…

If Jack really can’t be outside, Preston is usually pretty good about adapting things for indoor play. Every once in awhile, though, we like for Preston to still experience “normal” outdoor experiences that his brother can’t participate in. It’s not easy. It takes planning, both me and my husband present, and something fun for Jack to do, too. My husband took Preston camping one-night last fall while Jack and I held an inside dinner picnic and then played in the backyard the next morning while it was still cool. Since Jack can’t get wet due to his cast, we have made arrangements for Preston to go swimming with other people we trust. This summer, he stayed three weeks with one grandparent and two weeks with the other set, and they treated him to swimming, splash parks, sports, etc. It was a great summer for him! Most of the time, though, we’re able to adapt our outside activities so that we can all participate. Jack’s Tuffo rain suit* and his ice vest are a big part of this.

Humans of the Outdoors_ Sandy - young boys Jack and Preston on the trail - Jack wearing ice vest -

On bringing nature inside…

In some cases, we’ve gotten creative with inside nature activities. Other times, it’s just going back to my roots and what I did as a kid, or what my Mom did when she was young. Simple over Pinterest any day! We love to build forts with blankets and chairs. They’ll become caves for the boys to play in as bears, or they’ll link together different sizes or heights to create burrows and be prairie dogs or gopher tortoises. They also love to dress up, so we hit stores the day after Halloween and stock up on costumes for $4-6 each. Costumes are awesome! Because Jack can’t get wet, we often let him play in the kitchen sink. This is where he learns how water works. He’ll build different systems to see how water flows and loves all his nature-themed bath toys. Our older son likes to play “What’s made of wood?” where he’ll walk through the house and we challenge him to find everything in a room that’s made of wood. We’ll tie in sustainability and forest management. He loves exploring the textures of walls, window sills, the fireplace mantle, etc. and guess what tree it’s from. We have floor registers for our AC/Heating system, and when it’s on and blowing up air, they love to balance balloons on the current and try to knock the balloons out by throwing soft balls at them. We play animal Olympics, do wildlife watching from our windows, start our seeds for our garden, have floor picnics, and create art from things we’ve collected from outside. When Jack was younger we had a train table and he would use it to play out situations with little plastic animals and stuffed animals. We’re also big fans of PBS Kids and often watch Nature Cat, Wild Kratts, Dinosaur Train, and Curious George. Jack gets time with our tablet each week to use the PBS Kids app, which we love.

Humans of the Outdoors_ Sandy - toddler boy Jack in Playing with water -

To read more about nature-based activities you can do inside, read “30 Summer Activities When You Can’t Go Outside“.

A little Q & A…

Q: What is your go-to adventure snack?

A: Clif Bars and Clif Kids. But we also love fried Cheerios.

Q: What piece of gear do you never leave the house without?

A: Jack’s ice vest, cooling cloth*, mist fan, water, and Tuffo suit*. All to keep Jack cool and the cast protected while we explore!

Q: What is your favourite nature quote, and who said it first?

A: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” ~ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Q: What one piece of advice would you share with someone who is wary of or new to the outdoors?

A: Take small steps and only do what is comfortable for you, not what that Instagram account you follow does. The Children and Nature Network has Family Nature Clubs, or check out Hike it Baby.


For more of Sandy’s stories and adventures, you can check out her blog, Nature Girl in a Technical World, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.


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