Stevie Gleason '16
Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Major: Exercise Science
Senior Study Title: “The Effects of a Nature-Based Physical Activity Setting for Children with Disabilities”
Advisor: Dr. Traci Haydu
Physical activity, a renowned technique to maintain personal health can be combined with the restorative and vitalizing abilities of nature to capitalize on the individual advantages provided through each separate entity. Currently, the decreased engagement in physical activity in the adult population is coalescing with the decreased time spent in nature, and therefore an epidemic of a characteristically unhealthy population is formed. Cascading from the negative trends within the adult population is the feeble use of both physical activity and nature for health related benefits in children. Increasing quantities of children’s time are being spent indoors; thus, natural physical and mental benefits provided through outdoor activity are eradicated. Particularly concerning are the consequences being induced on a particular subset of children – children with disabilities. In an outdoor environment, these children require specific provisions and accommodations which further bar their participation in nature based physical activity. However, despite this decrease, potentially combining the benefits of physical activity with the restorative power of nature could heighten health benefits in this population. Due to the relationship between decreased physical activity, decreased time spent in nature, and the gains individually provided by both mediums, this study aims to investigate a nature based physical activity setting to maximize the potential social, physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits in children with disabilities.
Through hands-on work with children at the Center for Courageous Kids in Scottsville, Ky., during the summer of 2014, Stevie Gleason ’16 became curious about how outdoor physical activities could help children with disabilities.
A year later, when the time came for her to begin work on a Senior Study, Gleason, an exercise science major and psychology minor from Knoxville, Tenn., decided to become more than curious. She wanted to become knowledgeable.
She decided to make the benefits of outdoor physical activity to disabled children the focus of her study.
“I looked at the different possible benefits of having a physical activity program or any sort of physical activity in nature, like recess being held outside or nature trail walks, and how kids with disabilities could benefit,” said Gleason.
Though she wanted to conduct a study herself to weigh the merits of outdoor recreation on the development of children with disabilities, Gleason completed a literary review of other research in the field due to restrictions on studies involving children.
“At the beginning, I wanted to complete a study myself, but children are protected, and it would have been challenging to get approval for a study with the time we have at school,” she stated.
Still, her project allowed her to review cases from all over the country and compare statistics and demographic information about how outdoor exercise helps with mental and physical development. While she was not able to conduct her own study, Gleason was able to use her own past experience with children to inform her hypothesis that outdoor recreation would have significant impacts on childhood development.
Her findings in the review aligned with the expectations she had formed from her own experience working with children.
“I found that exercising outdoors can have potential benefits in cognitive development; physical development like running and walking or in picking things up; and in emotional development and social learning to cooperate with other children,” she said.
Gleason’s interest in aiding children with disabilities grew throughout the research process, and she believes God used it to prepare her for a life-changing post-graduation opportunity.
“I am leaving in October  for Liberia, where I will work with a growing nonprofit that places kids with disabilities with foster parents and offers empowerment for and education about kids with disabilities,” she said. “This work will let me oversee the foster program and check standards of care based for disabled children.
“I've really taken this opportunity to volunteer as an open-ended call to serve,” she added. “My original plan during the first years of my undergrad studies was to pursue graduate school, and I have not ruled that option out, but I want to use my gifts and talents where I can best serve others. My motive for volunteering Liberia is simply that it is God's plan for my life right now.”
In her research and experience, Gleason found that people are often afraid to work with disabled children, making this sort of education and outreach imperative.
Dr. Traci Haydu, associate professor of exercise science and Gleason’s Senior Study advisor, agreed.
“Research into the positive benefits of physical activity is vital to the development of programs that provide children with disabilities with experiences that will help them learn what a healthy lifestyle is for them.
“The focus of physical activity and rehabilitation activities in the outdoors, as Stevie has done, takes it one step further,” Haydu continued. “It has long been acknowledged that natural environments positively influence our health and overall well-being, such as reducing blood pressure, decreasing the levels of cortisol, improving psychological well being and improving attentiveness. It has been suggested that being active in natural or green environments may provide health benefits beyond similar types of exercise indoors.”
Haydu was so impressed with Gleason’s research and completed Senior Study that she recommended it for the College library’s permanent collection.
“It exemplifies all the qualities we expect in work from our students,” the professor said. “She worked on a topic she feels passionately about, learned a great deal about the issue and, in the process, determined what she can do in the future to make an impact in this area. As such, the thesis was very thoroughly researched, well written, and an overall joy to read.”