ACCESSIBLE OUTDOORS: Kids with Social, Emotional and Physical Disabilities Go Outside!

Most of us know someone who is raising a child with a disability, or perhaps who is dealing with a disability themselves.

As the mother of a child with autism and a professional outdoor educator, I’ve worked with thousands of kids with disabilities and have seen, firsthand, the powerful effects that the world outside can offer them.

Source: USFWS/Southeast via Flickr Creative Commons

Source: USFWS/Southeast via Flickr Creative Commons

Accessible nature outings are all around us, there for the taking, for the children who stand to benefit from them the most.

Whether you’re sharing the outdoors with an individual, family, social or school group, it’s exciting to watch these kids develop new coping strategies and shake loose the grip of their symptoms while they enjoy, explore, play and connect in nature.

As parents, breaking out of our old routines, especially given our kids’ challenges, can be difficult. But we know that children with disabilities fall far short of their peers when it comes to life experiences. Without these common experiences, how will they build important social relationships?

In family groups, clubs, summer camps and with visiting students, we’ve explored fields, forests, ponds, streams and ridge tops as part of the NatureAccess® program at the Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, New York. This program is not a one-size-fits-all. It’s tailored to children’s particular challenges: physical and cognitive impairments including ADHD, emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD), autism (ASD), learning disabilities (LD), as well as a wide array of other medical conditions.

Many are also dealing with secondary disorders such as anxiety, depression, sensory seeking or avoidance behaviors, and difficulty initiating or maintaining social relationships. Though most have their own unique talents and strengths, their daily lives are often filled with insecurity, miscommunication, embarrassment, lack of focus, impulsivity, low muscle tone, social isolation, stress, and even poor nutrition due to extremely limited diets and ritualistic eating behaviors.

For these kids, time spent in natural settings can offer relief from their symptoms and an environment that helps them to think differently as they begin to craft new strategies for managing their disabilities.

If you know someone with any of the traits I just described, why not give the outdoors a try? You can do this anytime, anywhere…and you don’t need a referral!

To get started, think of an outing as a kinesthetic experience where the children are on the move in active pursuit of something: reaching the tree at the top of the hill or scavenging for some new discovery along the trail.

Going outside puts our muscles to work, naturally. In Carla Hannaford’s book “Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head,” she shares research showing that our brains actually work better and are more able to focus when our muscles are in use. Movement stimulates concentration and improves cognitive functioning.

Here are six basic steps:

  1. Think about what interest motivates your child and use it. If he or she is interested in trains, take along a few favorite toys and start with a scavenger hunt to find enough cars to build a train (you can plant these discretely as you’re hiking, quickly placing one when your child’s back is turned).
  2. If they’re young and anxious about going outside, bring along a favorite snack and anything familiar and comforting to extend those feelings into the outdoors. For example, I’ve hosted Teddy Bear Hikes where kids brought a favorite stuffed animal for a shared adventure.
  3. For children of all ages, technology can be a supportive tool to help them transition from indoors to outdoors, explore nature, and can also help them indoors. For example, encourage them to use a digital recorder to record bird songs, a babbling stream and other pleasing sounds along the trail. When they’re back indoors, they can then use these recordings to calm themselves and reduce their anxiety.
  4. If your child is older, you can use their fixation for tech gear as the draw. Smartphones, digital cameras and binoculars are a great filter for kids with ADHD and ASDs, helping them focus on a single feature and removing the extraneous visual stimulation around them.
    Animal Homes, by Jim Longbotham

    Animal Homes, by Jim Longbotham

  5. Friends and social groups are another great way to bring kids with disabilities into nature. If their social skills need strengthening, consider starting a hiking club to increase social contact.
  6. Consider different approaches to mobility. If a physical disability limits a child’s mobility, try a jogging stroller with knobby tires for a comfortable ride over sand, roots or rocks along trails. There are some excellent all-terrain wheelchairs on the market, some of which can be found at parks and preserves for loan. Inquire ahead or call your local independent living center for suggestions of where these may be available.

I’ve mentioned just a few ideas to help kids with disabilities develop strategies, take ownership of their experiences, and create their own support networks. More ideas for 4-H, Scouts and other organizations that encourage youth leadership outdoors can be found in the book “Making Outdoor Programs Accessible.”

Once you gain some regularity in getting children out in green environments you’ll start seeing the results in their level of self-esteem, focus and participation in social settings.

Even more noticeable to parents is the reduced frequency of symptoms of anxiety, depression and acting out. For teens, added benefits include a sense of greater independence and autonomy, self-direction and decision-making skills. If getting kids into nature helps with any one of these issues, it’s worth the effort.

And once you’re out exploring nature with children, you’ll realize that you’re feeling better, too!

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