Meet Daniele Fallon, Founder of Boise Outdoor OT and Mud Kitchen Kids

Meet Daniele Fallon, Founder of Boise Outdoor OT and Mud Kitchen Kids

Published by Outdoor School Shop on Dec 18, 2023

1. Why Is There an Increased Need for Nature-Based Occupational Therapy?

Before the rapid explosion of technology, it was expected children would be outside playing – every day.

And while computers are essential learning and communication tools, our children are spending more time than ever on screens – approximately seven hours a day. This unprecedented amount of restricted movement contained in chairs, beds, couches, and car seats is creating an increase in sedentary behavior.

Early childhood is a critical period for developing brains. Your child’s brain and body need to experience challenging sensorimotor activities to organize their nervous system. And that is the gift the outdoors and nature-based occupational therapy (OT) provides.

When screens are substituted for outdoor time, your child misses out on:

  • Climbing trees
  • Playing hide n’ seek
  • Building forts
  • Rolling down hills
  • Digging in the dirt
  • Making mud pies

All vital experiences for strong growth and development.

Many of today’s schools are putting greater emphasis on academic achievement before your child has had the time to develop the foundational skills needed to meet academic standards. This has left less time for outdoor recess and unstructured breaks.

Overprotective rules and policies have removed opportunities for children to engage in risky play. These experiences are important for your child to learn to assess personal safety, build self-confidence, and manage stress.

Your children’s physical and mental health are being shaped by their environment. And as sensory challenges continue to rise it’s important we re-examine the places where they spend most of their time.

Katy Bowman, author of Grow Wild, asks us: How is the movement of our modern environment shaping your child?

And as someone who’s passionate about spending time outdoors, I couldn’t agree more. I'm Daniele Fallon, of Boise Outdoor Occupational Therapy, and in today's blog, I'm writing about the undeniable benefits of nature-based OT programs.

2. What Are the Benefits of Nature-Based Occupational Therapy?

Nature is the perfect partner with outdoor OT. It's filled with endless opportunities to help your child develop and grow the skills needed to thrive in today’s world.

Nature’s ever-changing terrain invites movement and feeds the body’s hunger for the right kind of sensation and physical activity your child needs.

Nature-based OT:

  • Creates fascination and is naturally motivating
  • Provides stillness, is calming, and optimal for learning
  • Offers a variety of rich sensory experiences
  • Uses natural and open-ended materials to stir a child’s imagination
  • Promotes self-discovery, exploration, and reflection

Imagine this:

  • Your child walks through a forest filled with natural light, fresh scents, and muted colors.
  • They spot a fallen tree. Internal motivation quickly invites them to climb on top of its trunk.
  • They recruit the extra strength to hoist up their body, slowly stand, and grade their muscle strength to avoid falling.
  • Your child leans slightly towards the left side-stepping a tree branch.
  • The body’s righting reflex kicks in. They adjust their postural control to maintain stability.
  • As your child walks forward and pushes through the inner rumblings of fear and excitement, their body senses an upward angle in the log and instinctively adjusts their center of balance.
  • A large hole is spotted – perhaps where an owl once made its home. The child’s imagination floods with wonder and curiosity. They assess the hole … access the risk … and decide to take a large step over it.
  • A wind brushes against their face and the child feels the temperature drop – fall is on its way.
  • A flock of geese takes flight from a near-by pond and the child’s auditory system sharpens their ability to locate them flying high in the sky.
  • Reaching the end of the log, the child jumps into a pile of leaves and shouts, “I want to do that again!”

When your child plays outside they recruit and integrate all of their senses.

They experience new challenges, take risks, and shift their thoughts in the face of new information. These motivating experiences summon the need for physical adaption and mental flexibility to help organize their nervous system and lay the foundations for higher learning.

3. Is Nature-Based OT a Good Fit for Your Child?

Although I’m a huge advocate for nature-based occupational therapy, it may not be the best fit for everyone. Or it may not be the best fit “right now.”

Every nature-based facility is unique due to its:

  • Location
  • Weather
  • Accessibility

To know if your child would be a good fit for nature-based OT, the first step would be to contact the therapist you're interested in working with to learn about their specific program.

Some nature-based therapy programs may be next to large rivers, while others have acres of land with an enclosed fence. Some areas may be more physically accessible and offer shelter with a yurt, tent, or overhang. Other outdoor OT programs may be 100% outdoors in all seasons.

A thorough assessment before starting a nature-based OT program will help you and the therapist know if your child is a good fit. It’s important to have clear communication about your child’s strengths and challenges to ensure they feel safe and are successful outdoors.

A few things that signal a need for additional support and/or a possible mismatch for outdoor-based OT are:

  1. If open spaces activate your child’s nervous system to run away causing concern for their safety. Your child may feel safer and maintain better regulation in a more controlled environment with physical boundaries like a fence or an indoor clinic.
  2. If your child has a significant fear of bugs or an overwhelming fear of being outdoors. These intense emotions may place your child in a constant state of fight or flight.
  3. If your child has temperature regulation challenges. In the summer, some children may easily overheat. In the winter, some children with sensory processing challenges may have difficulty tolerating the cold. The feel of layered clothing, gloves, and hats may be too much for their nervous system to tolerate.

Physical discomfort, fear caused by a constant state of inner stress, and the feeling to run away can create behaviors that hinder your child’s ability to participate in a nature-based OT program.

4. Tell Us About Some of the Breakthroughs You’ve Seen Working With Children in Nature?

One of the many strengths of an occupational therapist is their observational skills and ability to analyze how a child’s body interacts with activities in their environment.

An OT understands:

  • How to break tasks apart and see what underlying skills are needed for success
  • Examines how tools/equipment can be adapted
  • Recognizes what parts of an environment can be modified to support meaningful participation

Plus, I’m constantly observing and assessing the subtle nuances leading your child to a much-anticipated breakthrough.

These little strides get me just as excited as a child who meets their goal. It shows me that their bodies and brains are adapting and creating new neural connections for engagement.

One particular child I worked with was fearful of walking over river rocks. He would clench my arm, use me to balance, and stabilize each and every step. Slowly, as he felt more confident with me, the environment, and his abilities, he began to loosen his grip. He went from clenching my arm to holding only my pinkie finger. With more time, he started to navigate uneven terrain alone. This summer he was so motivated to catch water striders, he started independently running over rocks with a net in hand. It was awesome!

My outdoor clinic has a large mud kitchen where I work with children. Some children are hesitant to get dirty because they don’t like their hands messy. I never force a child to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. When I see they’re motivated to play in the mud kitchen but hesitant to get dirty, I offer them adaptations:

  • Gloves
  • Clean tools
  • Dry natural materials (less messy)
  • Hand cleaning station – for a greater sense of control

When I modify the environment to meet their needs, they slowly adapt and make changes on their own.

One particular child loved playing in the mud kitchen. But the smallest amount of dirt on his fingertips would send him running to the water cooler to rinse his hands. Over time, he made less trips to the cleaning station. He grew from only using clean tools, to handling dirty tools, to playing with moist dirt, and to splashing in the mud.

By the end of the summer he and his brother were squatting in a huge pile of mud laughing and playing Jurassic Park with a bunch of dinosaurs using their bare hands. It was a delightful experience to watch!

By meeting a child where they're at, providing the right amount of support, and incorporating their interests, they can increase their capacity to grow and expand.

5. Tell Us About Your Path to Becoming a Nature-Based OT

My road to becoming a nature-based OT felt very organic – each step leading me to my next realization.

During the pandemic, my family and I relocated from Brooklyn to Boise. My two sister-in-laws recruited us and Boise’s epic scenery made it easy to say yes.

As we were moving, I knew remote learning would not be a good fit for my two children (ages 4 & 6 ). So, I started seeking alternative educational environments.

In my search, I stumbled upon a local outdoor program, Everwild Forest School. The thought of my children learning outside lit me up. I longed to give them the childhood I had:

  • Outside until the sun set
  • Running home for dinner
  • Covered in dirt and mud
  • Leaves in my hair
  • Scratches on my legs

I immediately enrolled them and quickly learned they were looking for outdoor educators.

As someone who’s always found solace in nature, I jumped at the chance to fill one of their spots while also working as a remote school-based OT. Before I knew it, I was leading a group of six children into the forest each week for child-led outdoor play, alongside the Boise River.

I'll never forget my first day. I felt everything inside of me bubble up with excitement. I exhaled all the uncertainty of the world during that time and watched the healing properties of nature fill the children around me with wild abandonment, adventure, and laughter.

I saw children expand, grow, and push themselves out of their comfort zones as the opportunities of the environment invited them to engage.

I witnessed children’s captured attention and fascination as they interacted with the natural world around them.

  • Digging for worms
  • Handling bugs
  • Catching frogs
  • Creating fairy houses
  • Observing beavers
  • Discovering deer poop

It was wonderful!

One particular child asked me to hold his hand every time he stepped over branches, tree logs, and rocks. This child lacked the confidence to complete these activities on his own. This continued on throughout the school year until the last day when he launched himself up on a large tree trunk without my help. Smiling, he shot his arms out to the side and walked across the log.

That was the moment I knew I had to take my practice outside. The forest school year was ending, but I felt as though my journey was just beginning.

During this time , I also discovered Angela Hanscom’s book, Balanced and Barefoot. These two new perspectives shifted my outlook on how I wanted to support my children and the families I would work with in the future.

So, in the dead of winter in Idaho, I launched Boise Outdoor Occupational Therapy.

That summer I also launched Mud Kitchen Kids Enrichment –an enrichment group that offers open-ended play with a focus on dirt, water, and a ton of loose parts.

Both programs complement each other providing extended outdoor play in an enhanced sensory-rich environment while being supported by a pediatric occupational therapist.

6. Do Most Insurance Plans Cover Nature-Based OT?

Yes, insurance covers outpatient community-based therapy. And it's important to me that Boise Outdoor OT is accessible to families in my community. I accept both private insurance and Medicaid.

7. How Do People Find You if They Wish to Connect?

The best way to connect with me is through my Instagram site

I also have a Facebook page -

Visit my website to find more information about individual nature-based OT sessions and my Mud Kitchen Kids Enrichment program.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, an occupational therapy consultation, evaluation or therapeutic intervention. Please seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professionals with any questions you have about specific conditions and precautions pertaining to your individual child. All activities presented should be completed under the supervision of an adult.