KPE Alum Angela Hanscom: Summer Camp Founder

1237126_601617089884829_902395958_nIn the woods of New Hampshire, there’s a place children can escape the real world. It’s a place where they can let go of their fears, develop skills and feel free; a place where they can learn to interact with peers while connecting to nature and getting their hands dirty.

The place is TimberNook, a summer camp with a name meant to convey a hidden spot in the woods.

TimberNook campers take part in a variety of new experiences — from acting out a classic story in the woods, such as “Three Little Pigs,” complete with building houses out of hay, sticks and bricks, to designing an art gallery walk through the forest.

“There is no typical day at TimberNook,” says founder Angela Hanscom. “Every camp experience is different, but all focus on fostering healthy sensory and motor development while challenging the mind at the same time to think in new ways.”

The campers come for many reasons. Some children come to overcome fears of going barefoot or walking into the woods, others to learn how to take risks and play with friends appropriately, Hanscom says. Some come to simply learn how to use their imagination for the first time.

Since 2010, about 1,180 children have attended TimberNook camps at three New Hampshire locations in Barrington, Brentwood and Madbury, as well as in Florida and Ohio, and around the world in New Zealand and soon to be in Australia.

Hanscom, a University of Maine alumna, founded the camp after determining many children aren’t spending enough time playing outdoors, which affects their sensory systems and quality of life.

“I’m on a mission to get children back outdoors to once again foster healthy sensory and motor development,” she says. “My focus is on prevention and a new approach to play.”

Hanscom, who graduated from UMaine in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and physical education, earned a master’s degree in occupational therapy from the University of Southern Maine in 2003.

After graduate school, Hanscom worked as an occupational therapist in hospitals, schools and clinics. When her second daughter was born, Hanscom chose to stay home to raise her children.

Among her children’s classmates, Hanscom noticed many seemed to have poor balance and coordination, were weaker than they should be at their age, and had trouble thinking creatively. Many of the children needed occupational therapy and only a few of them played outdoors on a regular basis.

Through research and observation at local schools, Hanscom found children were noticeably weaker and their balance systems were significantly underdeveloped as compared to children of previous generations. She also found teachers reported children becoming more aggressive on the playground and having trouble staying in their seats.

In 2010, Hanscom created a summer camp in New Hampshire to get children outdoors while enhancing and fostering development. After one week, those who attended the camp showed signs of improvement, she says. Some became more social while others showed less anxiety when trying new activities or playing outdoors.

As the camp’s popularity grew, Hanscom decided to license the program to allow parents and therapists to replicate the curriculum. TimberNook was officially trademarked in 2014 and began expanding to other locations.

The camp is geared toward children who are 4–11 years old.

“This is the age of imagination and the start of independence; both we like to foster in young children,” Hanscom says.

Hanscom credits her kinesiology and therapy background with allowing her to fully understand the importance of movement in the development of young children.

Wanting to become a physical therapist, Hanscom majored in kinesiology and physical education at UMaine, which she attended because her father, an alumnus, spoke highly of his time at the university. While in college, Hanscom decided to make the switch to occupational therapy, earning her master’s in the discipline.

“I became interested in treating the whole child — not just the physical aspects of development. I wanted to help foster healthy development of both the mind and the body,” she says.

As a hands-on learner, Hanscom thrived in the interactive kinesiology and physical education program at UMaine that provided her first glimpse into the professional world. She enjoyed the practical courses, especially those taught by Stephen Butterfield, professor and chair of UMaine’s Department of Exercise Science and STEM Education.

“He really made quite the impact on me,” Hanscom says of Butterfield. “He had such an innovative way of engaging his class. He challenged us and expected great things from our work. I’ll never forget the quality of his teaching.”

Always a fan of nature, Hanscom spent a lot of her free time at UMaine mountain biking on university trails.

When she’s not in meetings or strategically planning for TimberNook, Hanscom promotes her program and philosophies through writing and speaking engagements.

She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post. Her first article, “Why kids fidget and what we can do about it” went viral around the world. She has given a TED Talk for more than 100,000 Johnson & Johnson employees  on the importance of movement and play outdoors on the overall well-being of children.

Hanscom recently wrote “Balanced & Barefoot,” a nonfiction book that examines the importance of free play outdoors on the sensory and motor development of children.

“It is designed for parents and educators as a guide on how to foster healthy development and creativity through play experiences outside,” Hanscom says of the book that is expected to be published by New Harbinger in spring 2016.

In the future, Hanscom hopes to see more TimberNook camps around the world to reach as many children as possible.

“My goal is to create change for the youngest of our society — to educate adults on the therapeutic importance of having enough time to play outdoors on a regular basis,” she says.