Sensory Exploration: Creating a Safe, Accessible Backyard for an Autistic Child


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Research has shown that if children have their way, they prefer outdoor play spaces that are quite different from the standard play spaces one usually identifies with kids, featuring objects like swing sets, slides, and seesaws. Turns out kids love a play area with flowers, mud, sand, water, and lots of greenery, an environment that stimulates the imagination and encourages play creativity. That also describes a functional and interactive backyard for children on the autism spectrum. Kids with autism are uncomfortable in an environment with lots of stimuli, so a relaxing and attractive play area in which they can make full use of their tactile, auditory, and visual senses in a nonthreatening and encouraging manner is ideal. 

Playing in the mud

Autistic children love to explore with their senses. That’s why they’re likely to feel and examine toys rather than actually play with them. Autistic kids thrive playing in sand or with mud because it’s such a tactile experience. Encourage your child to splash water or let sand run through their fingers. A plastic rather than a wooden sandbox makes for a safe and fully functional play area for an autistic child, as does a small plastic or rubber swimming pool with just enough water for a child to play in. Remember that autistic children learn differently from others, so emphasize safe natural elements over things like motorized toys or sports objects. Be aware that it’s not unusual for a child on the autism spectrum to play with only a few objects for long periods of time. 

Learning in Nature

Kids learn a great deal from watching how their parents react to the environment around them. As a parent, you can provide a memorable learning experience for your autistic child by giving them a hands-on, outdoor learning environment. Your child may enjoy playing alone for hours in dirt, water, or sand and can learn a great deal through outdoor activities. 

Family activities

Kids also learn a lot from family activities. Try making a simple bird attraction by smearing peanut butter on a pine cone and covering it with bird seed, hanging it from a tree branch, and watching as different bird species swoop down to help themselves.  Children often enjoy bird watching, and each family member can identify as many different species as possible and write down each one. If you have a set of binoculars, let your child watch how the birds interact with the feeder you created together. A night camping trip in the backyard is a popular activity  with most kids, even in these days of video games and handheld devices. After dark, make sure you have a clear view of the sky. There are few experiences as memorable as looking up and seeing an infinite blanket of stars twinkling overhead. Talk to your child about constellations and how people once used the position of the stars to figure out where they were and where they were going. 

Bring along some familiar objects in case your child starts to feel anxious. If he likes playing on an iPad, for example, keep it nearby.  Sometimes, playing a favorite game or watching an episode of Spongebob Squarepants can make a difference for an autistic child who’s feeling out of place. 

Safe physical interaction is key for kids on the autism spectrum. They enjoy learning using their senses. You can easily facilitate this tendency with a play space that encourages safe and stimulating personal exploration.

Courtesy of Pixabay