The benefits of being outdoors for special needs children
The sun is shining. Winter coats are hiding. Has spring ever felt sooo good? You know it's warm outside. Do your children know? They should because spending time in nature is great idea for all kids, perhaps even more so for kids with Special Needs.
"Our kids are so scheduled. There's so much going on in their lives and it's really important for kids to just be in nature and have free play and learn to build forts out of sticks. Those things are being lost in our society," said Shay Dawson, director of Bradford Woods in Martinsville.
About 7,000 kids of all abilities come through Dawson's park each year and he sees time and again the benefit nature brings to them. "It's just a really therapeutic and helpful environment to be in," he said, noting that several studies show that ADHD symptoms in particular can improve when kids play in deep green or unstructured outdoor spaces.
Bradford Woods offers about 15 medically specific camps during the summer and hosts about 5,000 elementary children during spring and fall school retreats. After the school retreats, Dawson says teachers are consistently impressed with the gains children make during the trip. "They often say the kids that don't do well in school, who may be shy or have some behavioral issue tend to thrive out there. We see that response over and over," he said.
Danesa Stolz, chief naturalist for Fishers Parks and Recreation, agrees. It has been her experience that spontaneous or unstructured outside play uses kids' imaginations and stimulates learning. This, she says, can lead to greater creativity and foster language and collaboration skills, not to mention positively affect balance, coordination and agility.
"I think it's really important for all kids to get out and enjoy themselves, burn off some energy and experience the beauty that nature has to offer," said Amy Miller, autism resource specialist with Easter Seals Crossroads. She points out that individuals with special needs are in and out of school and therapies all day long. It's important they get the kind of respite that comes from outdoor recreation.
Getting your kid outside
According to the National Wildlife Federation website, children today spend half as much time outdoors as did children 20 years ago. In fact, the organization notes that only six percent of kids ages 9 – 13 play outside on their own. Parents who need to give their kids a little push to get outside are in the majority.
To combat an indoor lifestyle, Stolz recommends parents rediscover what they are passionate about in regards to nature. "If a parent is excited about wildflowers, then study wildflowers with the child. Children are often inspired by and want to impress their parents," she said.
She also says parents have to recognize their own fears about nature and acknowledge those fears. "If you are afraid of snakes, acknowledge this and do not freak out in front of your child."
Dawson's advice is to check out Indiana's state parks. Consider nature-centered day trips to Brown County State Park, McCormick's Creek State Park or Indiana Dunes State Park. Or with summer on the horizon, enroll your children in a day or overnight camp that includes time outdoors. The American Camp Association, www.acacamps.org, is a great resource for day and overnight camps and for camps for kids with special needs.
The goal is to simply get outdoors. Stolz says kids should spend at least an hour outside every day. Help make this a habit for your kids. Schedule it. Set time limits on technology. Get kids outside and the benefits will come back in spades.