Out of the Institution, Into the Outdoors

Time spent in nature may play a vital role in helping children from orphanages heal.

DAVID ASKVIG CAREFULLY placed his new son in a front pack. With a fresh diaper and onesie on, Miles was ready for his first outing to the playground.

photo of drinking water
Boris Johnson lived in a Ukrainian institution and spent very little time outdoors before coming under the legal guardianship of Kim and Jed Johnson. Now, the Johnsons say, he “could probably spend forever at the ocean.” Photo courtesy of Kim Johnson.

Though David had performed this rite of passage with four of his other children, this expedition was a completely new experience for both father and son. Despite his diapers, baby clothes and appearance — a wee 15 pounds, to be exact — Miles was no infant.

He was 16 years old, and newly adopted.

Miles “was grossly malnourished,” recalls his mother Jackie of Miles’ first trip outside his orphanage in Ukraine back in 2018. Born prematurely with cerebral palsy, microcephaly, and fetal alcohol syndrome, Miles is the product of an orphanage and system that believes children with disabilities should not be held, interacted with, or fed “too much” or too richly — and should never go outside.

“Miles and roughly 60 children like him spent their days in cribs with virtually no human touch, inadequate nutrition and calories, and minimal interaction,” says Jackie, a midwifery center marketer and doula in Murray, Utah. “The [orphanage] nannies see it best to leave them be so as to not make them ‘sicker.’ They believe this low-stimulation environment is ideal for the children.”

Before flying home to Utah and despite the orphanage workers’ protests, David took Miles to a nearby playground. And there, for the first time anyone could recall, Miles began giggling, then full-on belly laughing. The sight of the sky was simply enchanting to every ounce of his emaciated frame.

“This boy needed more food, sure,” Jackie says, “but he also needed the stimulation of human touch, the nourishment of sunshine and fresh air, and the medicine of laughter.”

Miles’ heartbreaking past is not unique among the world’s eight million orphanage residents.

Housing kids because of special needs, natural disasters, negligent or abusive parents, caregiver deaths, or family separation, orphanages are almost always in developing nations. Resources are often scarce, and employees are hard to find and retain. Trauma training, therapy, or specialized medical equipment, are virtually non-existent.

So the workers do the best they can, keeping the children sheltered and fed (though death by starvation or medical neglect is not uncommon). Certain institutions have playgrounds or outdoor spaces, but using them requires more workers to watch over everyone. It’s simply easier and “safer” to keep kids within four walls.

Registered nurse and trauma educator Stacey Gagnon frequently sees this reality play out at institutions throughout Eastern Europe. The founder of an Indiana-based nonprofit called Lost Sparrows that works to improve the lives of orphanage residents, especially those with special needs, Gagnon has also adopted two children from Bulgaria.

Photo of boy in outdoors Miles Askvig, who spent his days almost entirely indoors in a crib before being adopted, has since put on weight and gained 10 inches in a year. Photo courtesy of Jackie Askvig.

She knows that time spent in nature simply doesn’t exist for most kids in orphanages. When it does, it’s often a quick trip to a swing set and nothing more. Artificial surfaces and fences abound, meaning institutionalized little ones might go their entire childhoods without touching grass or sand, hearing a creek, smelling the ocean, or watching a bird take flight.

“A typical institution struggles with low caregiver to high child ratios. The staff rotates and it is typically in buildings that have a bleak environment,” says Gagnon. “Care can best be described as regimented, non-individualized, and lacking in emotional investment.”

Decades of research has shown that orphanage life is inherently harmful to children. Researchers estimate that every three months a child spends in an orphanage or unstable family erases one month of development.

Though reasons for this awful equation are varied, it’s not hard to see why families are the ideal environment for children. Families of all shapes and sizes tend to participate in healthy activities together: loving touch, individualized nutrition, access to education, strong social bonds, medical care — and time in nature. Even if the average family doesn’t live in the woods, they usually still venture outside every day, even for just a few minutes.

Each year, it seems, brings a new study or ten showing the benefits of nature. We’ve long known that sunshine gives us Vitamin D, necessary for healthy development and immunity. The growing scientific arena of ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in the environment and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. Doctors in Japan prescribe “forest bathing” for mental health improvement, where chemicals from trees called phytoncides can lower blood pressure.

What’s more, time spent outside makes us more generous and trusting. Shockingly, scientists in Illinois discovered that access to nature can even lower the murder rate.

But orphans who spend entire lives inside one room or set of rooms — sometimes without leaving for months and even years at a time — get none of those benefits. And in some extreme cases, when a nature deficit is compounded by other health conditions, you get teenagers the size of an average American four-month-old, like Miles.

THANKFULLY, TODAY’s adoptive families are showing that nature deprivation can be somewhat reversed in the formerly institutionalized. Nature can restore.

Kim and Jed Johnson moved their family of six from Oregon to Zhytomyr, Ukraine, in 2013 with the hope of getting boys and men with disabilities out of orphanages and into families through an organization they founded called Wide Awake International. What they saw at a nearby orphanage — especially as nature lovers — shook them.

“Life for [the boys at the orphanage] was one hallway…. No toys, no books, no education, no stimulation,” says Kim. “They did nothing, all day every day. Their lives were full of abuse and neglect and nothingness.”

Eventually, the Johnsons adopted a teenaged boy and became legal guardians for three men from the institution, all with extreme special needs. Nature, they say, has played a significant role in their boys’ journey of healing.

“Right away, we made the outdoors readily accessible to them,” says Kim, a registered nurse. “We spent a lot of time at parks in those early days, swinging and going on walks. We gathered apples, swept the drive, sat in the sun.”

Anton, one of the men, begins each day with a supervised walk in the local park. Vladik and Boris, meanwhile, “could probably stay forever” at the ocean. The Johnsons have started a large garden at their homestead near Zhytomyr and aim to incorporate chickens and goats into the men’s daily regimen. They go camping multiple times a year, letting the boys touch trees, listen to birdsong, sled down hillsides, and sing around a bonfire.

“They all love to be outdoors. It seems to have a calming effect when we are outside just enjoying time together,” Kim says. “The rainy days are hard. They all do much better when they are able to be outdoors at least once a day.”

Again, the research backs her up. One study showed that nature deprivation increases activity in the amygdala, the portion of the brain involved in fear and other stress-related hormones. Yet the inverse is also true: When we spend time outside, our prefrontal cortex (the brain’s “command center”) relaxes and rejuvenates, like a sore muscle given the chance to rest.

The Johnsons have noticed other benefits from hanging out in the beautiful Ukrainian countryside: Vladik, who has Apert syndrome, has developed more coordination. Anton, who once lived a “totally sedentary life,” has gained leaner muscle tone from his long walks. For the first time ever, each one now gets a summer tan.

Miles Askvig, meanwhile, is practically unrecognizable from the pasty skeleton of his past. He now weighs 45 pounds, has gained almost ten inches in one year, and is outside several times a week with his five siblings. He loves feeling the grass and going for rides in a bike trailer and doesn’t mind the snow.

Jackie remembers worrying about how Miles would react to swimming because he had a history of hating baths. But with sun-kissed cheeks and a smile the orphanage had never seen, her boy proved everyone wrong in open water.

Without a ceiling and walls to block his view, Miles’s laughter bubbles up from someplace deep within. He floats for hours and hours, delighted by his turn of fortunes: from untouched to embraced, from imprisoned to freed, from motherless to Mother Nature’s son.

“He is a new person — healthy and glowing,” Jackie says. “We’d almost too easily forgotten the almost-translucent skin of just months before.”

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