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Differently-abled Children and Nature Deficit

Posted on: March 9th, 2012 No Comments

For parents of a differently-abled child, especially with a diagnosis such as autism, allowing our children to play outside can be stressful. In light of the risk of wandering, lack of communication, and hyperactivity or aggressive factors, parents sometimes feel that simply educating and entertaining our differently-abled children indoors is safer and better for everyone. This is simply not the case overall, however. Children need to be allowed to reap the emotional, mental and physical benefits of nature. Sedentary lifestyles for our children can promote obesity, encourage lethargy, discourage creativity and, in some cases, even potentially cause depression.

The benefits of being in nature are substantial. The health benefits from nature play include increased activity, exercise and stimulation.  Nutritionally, the exposure to direct sunlight causes an increase in the body’s Vitamin D production.  Vitamin D prevents depression and obesity.  More importantly for our children, it facilitates the body’s ability to absorb the calcium necessary for their healthy bone growth.  In addition, recent studies have shown that negative ions in the fresh air boost their immunity.

The psychological benefits are substantial as well. Being in nature promotes a child’s healthy outlook on the world; provides opportunities to interact with their peers in a shared interest; and, increases their creativity as they learn how to interact with various natural elements.  Children often imagine a pile of leaves or sticks as a playhouse or see it as a place to romp around.

Being in nature also helps to promote resiliency which is vital for developing and differently- abled children. Learning to adapt to environments beyond their bedroom or living room will help your child employ different forms of communication, play, and creativity. Further, you give your child the tremendous gift of physical and emotional resiliency when you allow them to earn those normal scrapes and bruises that are associated with outdoor play.   Learning to get up, dust off and move forward is crucial to the eventual independence of your differently-abled child.  Their world will not always be padded but rather chock full of the consequences of their movements and choices – good and not so good. Children are naturally resilient to the small bumps and scrapes of life but their emotional and physical resiliency may not be developing fully without the benefits of outdoor play.

So what can be done to help prevent our children from suffering from a lack in outdoor play? Most families cannot afford the expense of adding an autism/special needs outdoor environment to their home. So, a first simple step could be to take them for a walk down the block or spend some time outdoors creating a craft or playing a game.  If you are concerned about wandering, try one of the harnesses that are available for children.  They work!

If you live in a community with a playground, pool area, or tennis court, these are all excellent ways to involve your child with their neighbors and encourage positive relationships and interactions with other children. Fenced in tennis/basketball courts offer a great, safe place to play as well. Other activities which have been shown to stimulate and motivate differently-abled children include gardening, kicking a ball, drawing with sidewalk chalk, blowing bubbles and more.

Richard Louv, author and studier of the “connections between family, nature and community”, has begun a successful campaign called “No Child Left Inside”.  He highly promotes the benefits of outdoor play for regularly functioning and special needs children alike (Read more at: http://richardlouv.com/). There is a plethora of on line information available on play yards, safe spaces, and special needs-friendly playground equipment as well as activities that can stimulate and promote your child’s healthy outdoor play. Taking your child outdoors does not have to be stressful.  In fact, it will probably do you and your child a world of good as well as may lead to a wonderful bonding experience for you both.

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