Six Reasons Outdoor Play Is Crucial For Children With Special Needs


The joy that otherwise immobile children can get from simple physical stimulation should never be underestimated.

If you are the parent or carer of a child with special needs, then you probably already know how difficult it can be to get them out and about. But the outdoors is an incredibly important environment for early childhood development. In fact, outdoor play is such an integral part of growing up that it is recommended by almost every expert in the book.

Not only does outdoor play lead to healthier, more active children, it also helps them build key social, creative and problem-solving skills. Whilst it may be more difficult for children with special needs to involve themselves in outdoor play, they are no less deserving of its many benefits. Here are six reasons why outdoor play is such an important part of the daily routine.

1. Building and Maintaining Social Skills
Being able to bond and cooperate with others is an important part of life. Unfortunately, for children with special needs, it’s not a skill that always comes naturally. In particular, those on the autistic spectrum tend to become overwhelmed by large groups of people or find it tricky to express themselves properly. Behavioural issues such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) can also contribute to poor social skills, since they make it difficult for children to maintain relationships.

Whilst the outdoors may seem like an over-stimulatory environment at first, it can actually do wonders for children’s anxiety levels. Activities which lend themselves to cooperative play can be ideal for parents looking to slowly introduce their child to a social setting. When children are free to run around and explore their surroundings, they become less apprehensive about those they are with. Unstructured activities, where children are allowed to play independently, can be particularly beneficial when carefully monitored by an adult.

2. Developing Fine and Gross Motor Skills
It goes without saying that outdoor play can be a great way for children to let off steam. But the possibilities for physical development go far beyond a healthy lifestyle. Done right, outdoor play can also help children strengthen their fine and gross motor skills. Fine motor skills involve intricate movements, such as the kind used to hold a pen or thread a needle. Gross motor skills help with larger movements, such as jumping, running and swinging.

Conditions such as dyspraxia and cerebral palsy, which limit a child’s mobility, can make it near impossible to master these skills. In many cases, these children are excluded from active games and have to watch on from the sidelines. However, with the right guidance, children with physical disabilities can markedly improve their mobility through outdoor play.

Outdoor equipment such as trim trails and climbing frames can be specifically designed to provide stability for those with reduced control over their movements. Whilst outdoor play may not be able to give children with dyspraxia exactly the same freedom as others, it can go a long way towards improving their well-being. The joy that otherwise immobile children can get from simple physical stimulation should never be underestimated.

3. Providing Sensory Opportunities For Increased Stimulation
The natural world is full of exciting and engaging sights, smells and sounds. For children who are hyposensitive, sensory stimulation can help them experience life in a whole new way. Often it can be difficult to encourage children to try new things without capturing their imagination first. Outdoor play helps heighten the senses and encourages engagement.

In extreme conditions such as Tactile Defensiveness (TD), children can have painful reactions to the everyday textures that most of us disregard. The flexibility of outdoor play means that these children can engage in activities such as water and sand play, which don’t trigger the same hypersensitive response. Giving them the opportunity to play with others, without becoming distressed or disorientated, can have an incredibly positive impact on their development.

4. Encouraging Positive And Healthy Independence
Most children with special needs have selfless parents or caregivers who make their lives a lot more fulfilling. But, as they mature, children can become more difficult to manage single handedly. As they approach adolescence, the children’s needs and desires change. By encouraging independence at an early age, parents can ensure this transition is a lot smoother.

Outdoor play can help children develop vital problem-solving and decision-making skills. Through activities such as den-making and block-building, they are presented with a challenge that takes some ingenuity to overcome. The outdoors allows these challenges to take place on a larger scale, with limitless possibilities. For example, you could head to the beach and encourage your child to collect rocks and shells to decorate a sand castle. At a young age, it is simple tasks like this that get the brain working. By getting special needs children involved in these activities early on, you begin to introduce the idea of independence and thinking for themselves.

5. Exploring And Investigating Through Creative Play
Playtime gives children the opportunity to rehearse for real life. In much the same way adults spend their time daydreaming, outdoor play allows children to work through different scenarios in their heads and consider the emotional impact of each. For children who struggle with the concept of empathy and imagination, this can be the perfect opportunity to teach them the importance of seeing things from others perspectives.

Pretend play can prove particularly beneficial for children with conditions such as Asperger’s Syndrome. Being allowed the freedom to express themselves through dress up and imaginative performances gives children the chance to embody another character and learn how they feel and react to certain situations. Whilst it might seem like mindless fun from the outside, pretend play is an integral form of learning. Without it, children don’t have the opportunity to understand those around them and will struggle when confronted with new experiences.

6. Making Learning Interesting And Engaging
Learning can often seem dull or difficult to children with special needs. Some schools struggle to cater to their specific academic needs and fail to provide opportunities for active learning. As a parent or carer, you can make life easier at home by introducing new ideas and subjects through outdoor play.

Children with special needs might have a number of disorders that affect their ability to learn. Whether this is a difficulty retaining or processing information (a common problem with children who suffer from dysnomia) or an issue with poor attention (such as ADD), they can have an extremely negative effect on their academic progress. Outdoor play helps children overcome these problems by providing them with an exciting objective. Writing words in vivid chalk or learning about measurements through water play can be far more stimulating than traditional teaching methods and keep children fully engaged.•

Sam Flatman is an outdoor learning specialist and an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Play. Sam has been designing school playground equipment for the past 10 years and has a passion for outdoor education. He believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, which should be integrated into the school curriculum at every opportunity.

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