Playing Outdoors: Building Skills, Exploring and Creating Memories for Autistic Children
When you think of your fondest childhood memories, they are probably about something you did outdoors. Maybe it was camping, going to the beach, playing in a tent or sandbox, having a game of flashlight tag, learning badminton, or swimming in a lake. Playing outdoors builds physical health, provides exposure to vitamin D, supports cognitive and emotional/social development, improves sensory skills, increases attention span, and contributes to a better mood and a sense of well-being.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March, education delivery has moved to an online format. While some children have thrived in a quieter, self-paced environment, others have found online learning to be fatiguing, overwhelming and too intense. As classrooms start opening up again all over the world, some teachers have moved their classes outdoors to lessen the risk of COVID-19 transmission. A backyard can provide lots of opportunities for exploration, sensory play, gross and fine motor skill practice, and a chance to build social skills through unstructured play.
I’ve written a couple of times on the importance of exercise during this period of isolation. Being outside reduces anger, fear and stress, and contributes to physical well-being by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. Outdoor activity can also support a better sleep at night.
There are a number of studies done on the benefits of nature . With so many positives supporting outdoor play and exploration, let’s look at different activities you can do to make the most of being outside.
Before using any outdoor space, make sure it is safe. The area should be enclosed with a fence if the child is prone to running away or having a flight response if there is a trigger like a loud noise. If in an open, natural space, stay clear of bike paths and be extra vigilant with supervision around water. In the backyard, remove all garden tools and store them when not in use. Having a pop up tent or little playhouse can provide a quiet space for calming if a child becomes overstimulated and needs a break while outside.
There are lots of inexpensive ideas for sensory play. Consider some of these suggestions.
Sandbox – Sand play is great for digging, dumping, pouring, building and creating things like roads, towns, castles, and pretend pies. There are many clever, simple ways to create a sandbox. For different ideas on what to do with sand, have a look at this article.
Water Play – Most children love playing with water. It’s a gentle, quiet medium and feels wonderful as it runs through your fingers. Have a look at these 25 water play activities.
Blowing Bubbles – Blowing bubbles works on oral motor skills by strengthening the mouth muscles. Popping bubbles is great for hand-eye coordination and finger isolation. You can also practice social skills like turn taking or requesting. There are so many different kinds of bubbles available and they really appeal to children.
Velcro Ball Toss – This game is great for hand-eye coordination because of the tossing and catching of the ball. It also takes hand strength to pull the ball off the Velcro pad.
Sidewalk Chalk – Most kids find sidewalk chalk so much fun they won’t even know they are practicing skills like handwriting or drawing shapes and lines. You can draw a Tic-Tac Toe game to practice tossing and aim, a hopscotch board for movement on one and two feet and much more!
Zoom Ball – This is a great activity to work on bilateral skills. One person holds one end of the zoom ball, and another person hold the other end. While holding the handles, one in each hand, one partner spreads his arms out to the side and the ball slides down the rope to the other partner. You can do fast and slow movements.
Spray Bottle – Fill a spray bottle with water to improve fine motor strength. Water plants, clean off sidewalk chalk markings, wash windows or shine up the car.
Obstacle Course – You can target all kinds of skills with an obstacle course depending on how you set it up. It can involve running, jumping, climbing, crawling and all sorts of gross motor skills.
Hide and Go Seek – A classic childhood game for both indoors and outdoors or a combination of both.
Marching Band – This one can be a bit noisy for the neighbors, but it’s still great fun. You can combine the outdoor marching band with an instrument making activity.
A Treasure Hunt – Arm kids with a map or simple visual clues to find the hidden treasure throughout the yard. You can incorporate lots of movement depending on where you hide things.
The Natural World
Make a Bird Feeder – Bird feeders are a great way to watch birds come into your yard. Making a bird feeder will also involve sensory skills as well. Check out these great, simple ideas for making your own.
Bird Watching – Once you have the bird feeder up, start watching to see who comes. If your child likes photography, they can take pictures. You can then share those pictures on a FaceTime or Skype chat with a family member to provide some structure on what to talk about.
Gardening – I wrote a blog post about how to get a garden going and its benefits.
Sorting Nature – Children with autism often love to sort and categorize. Collect things from around the yard such as leaves, flowers, twigs, and rocks.
There are lots of sports you can do in the backyard or in the driveway:
- Bean bag toss
During this pandemic, we’ve been encouraged to get outdoor and move around. The ideas here are inexpensive and easy to implement – they also build skills and keep learning happening. Just remember to provide structure for activities so that the expectations of what and how to do the activity are clear. You can put outdoor activities into your visual schedules and make them a part of a child’s day. Outdoor activities are also a great way to practice contingency plans because if the weather changes, you have to be prepared to go to plan B.
This summer will more than likely be one at home for the most part so let’s make the most of our outdoor spaces. Getting outside will support health and well-being as well as create lasting memories.
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