Children with special needs are still children above all else. That means they savor the breeze blowing in their hair, the vivid colors of nature splashing in their eyes, and the textures of dirt and sand under their fingertips. While outdoor play brings challenges for some children, the necessity for it cannot be overstated. The benefits, including physical, psychological, and intellectual, are remarkable. Here are four reasons why your child with special needs should head outdoors every day — or as frequently as is manageable.
1. Playing outdoors promotes creativity and imaginative play.
The unstructured methods of play that occur outdoors allow children to interact with their environment in natural, meaningful ways. For many children with special needs, days can be incredibly limiting with rules governing every aspect of time. Being outdoors allows them to think more freely and direct their play in ways of their own choosing. Playing pretend can open windows into how children think and feel, even if they have limited verbal skills in ‘real life.’ As an observer, you can watch your child transform sticks into people, swords, houses, and animals, or leaves into fairy houses and food. If you pay close attention, you’re apt to recognize in your child a whole world of thoughts and emotions that you wouldn’t access if you stayed inside.
2. It improves physical fitness.
Children of all abilities often have limited opportunities to enjoy physical activities. Video games and television are the contemporary jump ropes and tree houses of years past. This is particularly true for children with physical or behavioral limitations. To be sure, only one in three children are physically active every day, according to medical professionals specializing in pediatrics. Throughout the nation, 25.6 percent of persons with a disability reported being physically inactive during a usual week, compared to 12.8 percent of those without a disability. Yet people of every age and ability still need to engage in activities that promote body wellness. Being outdoors is a natural way to encourage these behaviors. Children can see improvements in flexibility, muscle strength, and coordination. Active outdoor play can increase body awareness, balance, cardiovascular efficiency, and motor skills. Even 15 minutes of physical activity can lengthen a person’s lifespan.
3. Outside time reduces fatigue and stress.
One in three adolescents suffers from chronic stress, according to a 2013 survey from Stockholm University. Eight percent contend with stress so much that they would qualify for a clinical diagnosis of burnout if they had been adults. So while young people’s lives become more stressful due to heightened expectations, conflicting responsibilities, adult pressures, and unrealistic goals, they have fewer outlets to cope.
According to Attention Restoration Theory, urban environments demand focused attention, thereby leaving people exhausted. Going outdoors can significantly help with these concerns. There, children can practice an effortless form of concentration called soft fascination. This mode of being promotes happiness and health rather than stress. Children with ADHD demonstrate the greatest improvements in concentration and behavior when heading outdoors, and soft fascination is often to blame.
4. Outdoor play increases confidence.
It’s an unfortunate fact, but many children with special needs and those who require pediatric physical therapy struggle with issues of self-esteem. Rather than being differently abled, they are perceived as disabled and that doesn’t make for confidence boosts. However, going outside to play can help. There are infinite ways to interact with the environment that don’t rely on prescribed rules. Children can dictate how they play, which leads to increased success. Naturally, success leads to confidence. Likewise, there are no judgments in nature. The ocean, trees, rocks, and grass don’t tease.
If your child struggles with cognitive, physical, or sensory limitations, pediatric therapy may be the solution. A trained physical therapist can help increase independent living skills while tending to children’s psychological, social, and environmental needs as well.