Being in the great outdoors is one of my favorite things to do with my little guy. However, there are great limitations for us because he’s not yet walking or standing on his own.
When scouring Pinterest boards, it’s hard to escape the many exciting activities pinned for outdoor play. But, for a child who cannot run, climb or jump like most children can, it requires a lot of creativity (and physical labor) on the part of the parent. This post takes you through some suggestions to enjoying the outdoors as best you can with your child who so needs to be nurtured by Mama Nature’s goodness.
Why outdoor play may be a challenge for neurodivergent or disabled children
- Children with physical disabilities may not have the freedom to move around in play areas that are not adapted.
- Children with sensory aversions may find many of the outdoor textures and temperatures difficult to deal with.
- Children with sound sensitivities may find themselves with an overload of sounds to cope with.
- The outdoors offers an array of scents – which may not be easy for some children to handle.
Suggestions for adaptations/ modifications for outdoor play
- Plan ahead. I know that you are already so good at this, because you do this kind of thing daily. But, I feel it important to have this as a first step. Being outside brings on a slew of new issues for a parent to deal with – so be prepared for everything. From appropriate clothing to adapted equipment to playthings to planning the play space you will be in – it’s so crucial to have it all thought-out and ready. Your child probably needs to be supervised like a hawk, so you don’t want to be rushing back into the house for something you’ve forgotten. When my son was very young (and I was new to mothering), I had a list of things to take with me when heading out for a walk, as well as a list of things to take when going to therapy, and a list of things to take when visiting grandma (or a friend). It might sound crazy now, but heading out the door with a child who needs so many things (like diapers, food and food thickener, water, bibs, wash cloths, change of clothes, medication, orthotics, shoes to fit over those orthotics, adapted seat, adapted stroller, etc.) even going for a walk around the block was overwhelming. The last thing I needed was to be missing wash cloths when he spit-up halfway around the block (and he still does that today). I strongly recommend writing a list (or two, or three) and keeping it handy for those times you head outdoors for play. And, then, have everything ready by the door. Yes. Even if you’re just heading into the backyard.
- Start in the backyard or a familiar outdoor space. While it’s really great to explore the wild, wide world, when playing outdoors, begin in a familiar space. Your child has a lot to take in just by being outside. The safety of a backyard – even if it’s grandma’s – allows your child to discover in small increments. Eventually venture out into the neighborhood park.
- Play in quieter places. If you live in a busy city neighborhood, find a nature park closest you and hang out there for a few hours. The trees muffle the sounds for children with hearing sensitivities. It’s a great break away from the noisy buses and trucks. See how your child reacts in this new environment.
- Use outdoor equipment, if possible. If your child has a physical disability, a swing is so wonderful to experience. Not only does it help the vestibular system, it is also very calming for a child. We own a backyard swing set that we modified so that my little guy could sit safely. At the park he still sits in the baby swing (with much supervision), or he sits on my husband’s lap on a regular swing. If you can get an adapted swing seat (it’s on our wish list for next year), then go ahead and invest in one. It allows the parents to be hands-free for a bit while enjoying the outdoors together.
- Take your child as close as he’ll allow to natural elements in the environment like a garden, a river, the trees, etc. If it means pushing the wheelchair right up to the river bank, do it. Label it. Toss stones in it. Laugh about it.
- Pick up the wonders of nature and allow your child to examine them. On our walks, I like to pick up long sticks and large stones and leaves and whatever I find and bring them to my son. It took a long time before he would reach out to touch them – but now he holds the lavender stem with his fingers for a few seconds before he decides he doesn’t want to hold it and tosses it on the ground. He does that with most of the items I bring him. But, it doesn’t matter. He might not be playing in a nature sensory bin like those Pinterest kids are, but he’s finally touching and breathing in nature up-close – in his own way.
- Talk about the sounds. My son has a hearing loss, and still, sounds are significant to him. While some sounds frighten him (like that high pitched bark of our neighbour’s dog), some sounds just delight him (like the cooing of the turtle doves). You can find a ton of new sound words just by being outside. Sign or use PECS. Connect the language to the sounds.
- Have a structure for play. If your child can run or walk around easily, you might find that having structure actually helps eliminate some behavioral problems that may arise. If your child knows what to do – as opposed to being left to run around aimlessly in a wide open space, you will find that he’ll be better able to self-regulate. Have a ball out to play with, or a mini-obstacle course, or a water table.
- Be ready to head back in. If you know your child will have a meltdown after 3 minutes of that barking dog frightening him – take him in, or move away from that location. Don’t insist on having your child deal with the situation as some sensory issues are actually painful for children to bear. Be ready with a plan B. Cut your session short and be ok with it. Even if it means leaving friends at the park.
What does outdoor play look like for you?
Is it difficult to get outdoors with a neurodivergent or disabled child? I’d love to help you find ways through a personalized consultation for parents or educators.