Sam Flatman, an educational consultant at Pentagon Play, lists five good reasons why outdoor play is key to all children’s development, including those with special needs

Children with special needs are just like other children; they need space and stimulation to develop into healthy, well-rounded individuals. However, encouraging SEN children to learn and grow through play isn’t always easy. Depending on the severity of a child’s disability, it can be difficult to find ways to include them in certain activities.

But why should any child miss out on the developmental benefits of play? Building social and cognitive skills should be high on the list of priorities and outdoor play allows SEN children to develop both in a much less stressful environment. Learning outside can encourage children to engage with each other in a way that is near impossible in an enclosed space. For many special needs children, the outdoors could be just the stimulation they need to begin connecting with the world around them.


Parallel play enables children to build social skills

Children with autism will benefit from an outdoor environment, where they can slowly build their way up to more cooperative play.

One thing that special needs children struggle with collectively is interacting and building relationships with others. For example, an autistic child may not understand the importance of cooperation, whilst a child in a wheelchair will find it hard to include themselves with more able peers.

Fortunately, when conducted in the right way, outdoor play can prove to be an extremely effective tool for developing social skills. The variation that outdoor play allows, makes it perfect for dealing with all levels of social interaction. Some SEN children will be incredibly anxious about meeting new people for the first time, especially in an enclosed space, where they feel pressurised. In the outdoors, there is far less emphasis on immediate connection and children can play happily side by side until they are more comfortable with one another.

In particular, children with autism will benefit from an outdoor environment, where they can slowly build their way up to more cooperative play. Since many children with autism suffer from hyposensitivity, the extra sensory stimulation can encourage them to get involved with games and activities. At first your special needs child may be fully reliant on you for support, but once you demonstrate how easy it is for them to relax and enjoy themselves outdoors, they will begin to become more independent.


Active play leads to increased mobility and spatial awareness

Maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle can be difficult when you have a disability. For special needs children, sports are often out of the question. However, there is no reason why the outdoors can’t provide plenty of opportunities for staying fit and even improving basic motor skills.

Children with conditions such as dyspraxia and cerebral palsy, which reduce their mobility, can often feel sidelined from physical activities. But outdoor play can actually be a stepping stone to increased flexibility and improved motor skills. In the case of cerebral palsy, physical stimulation can prevent future deterioration of mobility and strengthen balance, coordination and strength.

Outdoor play equipment such as climbing frames and trim trails are perfectly designed to help children overcome the physical challenges of their disability. The stability provided by outdoor play makes it easier to master simple muscle movements such as gripping and can also improve spatial awareness. Whilst outdoor stimulation is never a miracle cure, it can significantly enhance the wellbeing of those with a physical disability.


Unstructured play encourages independence

Children with special needs depend on their parent or carer for many everyday activities. But, as children get older, they can become more difficult to handle. Throughout the course of their adolescence, SEN learners will begin to face a whole new set of challenges. Introducing opportunities for independence at an early age will make it easier for them to transition into adulthood.

Outdoor play can teach children the importance of making decisions and solving problems for themselves. Simple activities such as building dens or creating sandcastles allow children the freedom to express their individuality. Whilst they may seem like menial tasks to us, for children who struggle to engage creatively, they can be a great way to think and learn independently.

Whilst parent involvement is vital during the initial stages of play, it can also be beneficial to take a step back and allow your child to tackle problems for themselves. However, unstructured play like this won’t come naturally to all special needs learners, especially those with autism. Parents need to be willing to take their children through the idea of free play one step at a time, with flashcards and stop signals proving particularly useful. The time and effort you put into helping your child gain independence will be well worth it once they begin taking control of situations themselves.


Pretend play exercises children’s creative side

By allowing your child to explore the outdoors, you can stimulate them to begin thinking innovatively.

Depending on the severity of your child’s disability, they may struggle to think and act imaginatively. Very young children with Asperger’s Syndrome may not be able to initiate pretend play at all – an incredibly important part of childhood development. But, just because your child doesn’t show obvious signs of creativity, doesn’t mean they can’t be encouraged to do so.

By allowing your child to explore the outdoors, you can stimulate them to begin thinking innovatively. Outdoor play opens up a whole new world of possibilities for children with special needs, because it provides such as a vivid, sensory experience. The smells, sights and sounds of the outdoors can inspire genuine, creative engagement. Through activities such as dress up and messy play, children are provided with the opportunity to think in an entirely different way. The cognitive skills that can be learnt from this are invaluable in later life.

Parents can encourage creative thinking by centring activities around their child’s interests. For example, if your child is obsessed with superheroes, then you could get them dressed up in their favourite costume and take them to the park. As they zoom around the playground, you can encourage them to think like their hero and ask them how they’d overcome certain obstacles. Helping your child express themselves will take a lot of patience at first, but once you hit upon their passion you can use it to your advantage.


Outdoor play provides opportunities for learning

Teaching an SEN learner new subjects is often easier in principle than in practise. Expecting them to engage with learning material in the same way as other children can result in them becoming increasingly frustrated or bored. Taking learning into an outdoor setting can make it easier for children to concentrate on the task at hand and absorb key ideas. The natural environment can be particularly useful for children with conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), who find it hard to focus on one thing for too long.

Rather than expecting children to process information in books for themselves, outdoor play allows them to explore and investigate the use of language, numbers and scientific concepts. For example, water play can help children understand measurements and the ideas of floating and sinking, whilst simple games such as hopscotch and ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ can cement the idea of counting and time. In fact, the options you have when it comes to learning outdoors are limitless. Whether it’s collecting rocks on the beach or flying a kite in the wind, the natural world is full of exciting opportunities for special needs children to understand their surroundings a little better.

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About Contributors

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. @samflatman

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