Apple picking is a common tradition in the Saint Louis Metropolitan area. If you have a child with a sensory processing issue or other challenges that interfere with social activities, you might think twice about going to the orchard. I would like to encourage you to STOP thinking twice! Instead, I would like to encourage you to rethink how you engage with the activity, rather than removing it from your favorite activities list. Braving the crowds with a child who has a sensory deficit, processing disorder, behavioral challenges, or emotional regulation difficulties could sound overwhelmingly stressful, or even a little like a nightmare. With a few modifications, you could turn a trip to the orchard from a situation that depletes your emotional resources to one that benefits all family members. How?
The first step to enjoying a trip to the orchard might simply be selecting the right orchard for your family. A large, crowded, commercial orchard may be too much for your child, or even you, to tolerate. Selecting a smaller, family-owned orchard may add a little extra time to your commute, but it might be that little extra time that saves your sanity. Starting an activity on a supportive foundation can go a long way toward ensuring a positive experience for everyone involved. Selecting the right orchard is the foundation for a positive apple picking experience.
Second, I would like for you to consider rethinking your perspective on what an orchard experience can provide for your children and YOU. Video game research suggests there are benefits to playing video games, including violent games. This research surprised me since I see adults and children who struggle to separate fantasy from reality, which often causes interpersonal problems or trouble at school. Most likely the answer to this challenge is not to eliminate video games from our lives. Instead, it is likely that we need to balance our use of video games with other activities, such as “old fashioned” apple picking. An essential ingredient for discerning fantasy from reality is grounding. Visiting an apple orchard, especially a small one, is exactly that type of activity. Literally.
Apple picking gets you and your children out of the house and onto uneven surfaces that put natural pressure on your joints as you walk out into the orchard or walk between the rows within the orchard. Natural pressure on our joints is self-regulating. It helps our bodies know where they are in space, which slows down body movements. When our body struggles to know where it is in space it moves in fidgeting patterns as it tries to figure out its spatial orientation. This is why physical education in schools is so important. Running, jumping, push-ups, pull-ups, human wheel-barrow races, the bear walk, climbing, and orchard walking all put natural pressure on our joints to send signals to our brain about where we are in space. Our bodies can then slow down our movements once the information is received by our brains. Let your child jump off the last step of the wagon, jump up to reach that perfect apple, run down the rows, etc. It’s great for them! Smaller orchards reduce the risks associated with a child running the way a child is meant to run. Free.
Another way you can help a child ground themselves through an orchard visit is by encouraging them to notice all that their senses are picking up. As a therapist who works with a lot of clients who are recovering from traumatic life events, my first step is almost always to complete an activity that brings awareness to what the client is experiencing in the therapy room through their senses. Integrating mind-body connection is the first step in helping my client’s ground themselves and bring regulation to their bodies before processing traumatic events. If we are going to regulate our bodies in beneficial, healthy ways we must first know what is going on with them. Bringing awareness to your surroundings through all five senses is a big step toward this goal.
You can help your child improve their mind-body awareness by asking them questions about what they are experiencing while you are in the orchard. What does the apple smell like? If the child says the apple smells like an apple then you can ask if it smells like a sweet apple or a tart apple.
Other examples of questions you could ask are:
- What color apple do you want? (then look at all the apple colors and talk about differences)
- Do you feel how lumpy the ground is?
- Can you see any fun shapes in the clouds?
- What does the apple-type you are picking taste like? (Let’s be honest. Sampling happens.)
- Can you hear the wind blowing the trees?
You could also use a statement followed by a question to bring awareness to your activities and encourage your child to engage their senses. This is particularly helpful with younger children who often need modeling of a behavior as a precursor to learning the targeted behavior. Here are some examples.
- I feel hot/cold. What about you?
- The sun feels warm on my skin. What about you?
- The leaf on this tree is darker than the leaf on that tree. Do you see it? I wonder why the leaves are different?
- The sky has some pretty clouds. Do you see them? Can you see any fun shapes in the clouds?
The goal of cultivating sensory awareness is to strengthen the positive experiences of the apple orchard and your attachment relationship with your child. By creating a strong positive experience with your child you are strengthening their feeling of security. What we know from the research is that a child who feels securely attached to their primary caregivers is more likely to be resilient in the face of difficulties. Visiting an apple orchard with intention improves your child’s resilience to the challenges that life brings.
Fourth, the attachment and grounding experience of an apple orchard can continue beyond the orchard as well. Your apple loot can be turned into family activities that build stronger attachment, interpersonal skills, and further the sensory experience. For example, you could make an apple pie. Preparing an apple pie from scratch is a good way to bond with your child through a tradition that focuses on your relationship rather than digital or material possessions. And, making an apple pie sounds harder that the reality of making it.
Talk about EVERYTHING you are doing. Notice EVERYTHING you are doing. You accomplish this through explicitly talking about each step, including noticing how sharp the knife you are peeling the apple with is followed by a safety instruction. For example:
Wow! This knife is really sharp. Sharp knives are for adults only, so I will cut the apples. Why don’t you stir the apples and sugar with a spoon.
Then, talk about how it feels to stir the apples. Is it difficult because the apples are an odd shape for stirring?
It is also best to make the dough from scratch for this particular activity. It is easy! You mix butter and flour together until it crumbles. The best way to make a pie crust is to use your hands to rub the butter and flour together, so let your child do this part! Don’t forget a pinch of salt. Next, you add ice cold water to the mixture until you get the texture of dough. You can talk with your child about the feeling of the dough, particularly how stretchy it is as you roll it out and try to place it in the pie plate.
To round out this activity, be sure to talk about how the pie smells while it is baking in the oven. Have a taste test together while sitting around the table sharing your favorite parts of the experience. The activity will be messy, though it can be cleaned up. The memories will last forever.
Orchards in Missouri to Consider:
http://thierbachorchards.com/ (smaller version of a commercial orchard and family owned)
http://centennialfarms.biz/ (small family owned orchard without additional activities for kids)