Fun Outdoor Sensory Activities to Try This Spring

By raluca.olariu@…, 18 April, 2022
girl playing with water on grass

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects over 400,000 children in the United States alone. Individuals with autism often experience sensory activity overload, anxiety, or stress issues due to their inability to process and respond appropriately to stimuli from the environment. This can lead to a variety of behavioral problems such as aggression, self-injury, tantrums, and other social difficulties.

Such disruptive behavior is considered to be exacerbated by difficulties in modulating and integrating sensory input with a direct focus on contributions from tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems which are believed to contribute to core symptoms of the sensory overload.  

The use of sensory integration therapy is common among therapists who work with individuals on the autism spectrum. Sensory integration therapy uses various forms of physical activity to help an individual cope with their senses by reducing sensory overload. It also helps them develop coping skills that will allow them to better manage their environments and behaviors.

Sensory integration therapy uses play and other outdoor activities to help children with autism develop social and motor skills, improve communication, and reduce anxiety. Outdoor activities allow kids to explore their surroundings without being overwhelmed by too much stimulation.

Outdoor sensory activities can benefit children with ASD. These therapies include sensory integration exercises, sensory awareness training, and sensory integration groups. Children who participate in these programs show improvements in social skills, communication abilities, and anxiety levels.

What does science say?

The National Institutes of Health have funded several studies related to sensory integration therapy. A study conducted at Yale University found that sensory integration therapy could be used as a way to teach children with autism how to control their emotions.

Another study at the University of California Davis showed that sensory integration therapy was effective in helping children learn to communicate more effectively.

According to a 2011 study by the American Occupational Therapy Association, children who followed specific sensory integration programs showed significant progress toward individualized goals and a decrease in autistic symptoms. 

Another research project led by occupational therapists at Philadelphia’s Jefferson School of Health Professions found that sensory integration therapy helped children with autism cope with daily life challenges in a healthier and more effective way. The researchers concluded that sensory integration therapy should be included in all therapeutic interventions for people with autism.

"The rationale is that by changing how sensations are processed by the brain, we help children with autism make better sense of the information they receive and use it to better participate in everyday tasks," says lead researcher Roseann Schaaf.

Sensory processing treatment approaches

There are two main types of sensory integration therapy:

1) Sensory Integration Training (SIT): This type of therapy teaches children to process sensory stimuli through different parts of the body. For example, if you touch your nose, then move your finger to your cheek, then touch your tongue, you would feel the sensation on each part of your face. SIT works by teaching children to focus on one stimulus at a time and to pay attention to what happens when they move from one part of the body to another.

2) Sensory Awareness Training (SAT): SAT focuses on teaching children to recognize and understand their own and others' sensory experiences. In this form of therapy, children are taught to identify their own internal feelings and bodily responses to external stimuli. They are also encouraged to notice changes in their own bodies or those around them.

Sensory integration also uses therapies like deep pressure, weighted vests or swinging, to increase a child's threshold for handling sensory-rich environments, make changes less upsetting, and reinforce positive behaviors. 

Also, outdoor sensory activities can benefit children. These therapies include sensory awareness training, sensory integration groups, and sensory integration exercises.

Outdoor sensory issues

When going outdoors, children with autism may experience anxiety about noise, bright lights, crowds, and other environmental factors.

Sensory issues can cause problems in social situations. Children with autism often struggle with making friends, understanding social cues, and learning appropriate ways to behave in public places. 

Some children with autism will not respond well to being touched or having their hair brushed. Other children have trouble tolerating loud noises or strong smells. Others may have intense reactions to certain foods or textures.

In addition to these physical sensitivities, some children with autism have difficulty interpreting emotional expressions. They may misinterpret facial gestures, such as smiling, frowning, or eye contact, and fail to recognize emotions in voices or sounds.  

Fun activities for sensory processing 

Outdoor sensory activities provide opportunities for children to engage in fun, interactive games while experiencing new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and temperatures. Outdoor sensory activities can be done alone or with family and friends. Some examples of outdoor sensory activities for kids include:

  • Playing ball.

This can be a team activity that improves social skills and is a great way to build eye-to-hand coordination. Game balls can include volleyball or soccer and are fun spring sensory activities for the whole family to enjoy. 

  • Water therapy. 

Name something better than playing in the water on a warm summer day- you can't. Water therapy is a sensory activity that has many benefits, including calming down kids who get anxious easily. It also helps improve balance, muscle tone, and flexibility. You can play games in a pool or swim, but you can also enjoy watering outside plants or washing the car. Other water sensory activities could be catching rainwater in a bucket or searching for fish in lakes. 

  • Cycling.

Or any activity with wheel-controlled devices are great for autistic children to develop low extremity control. Cycling is a great exercise for improving strength and endurance and helping your kid learn directional skills. To make your child's experience safe, don't forget to use knee and elbow pads, a helmet, and keep a close eye on them.

  • Family hikes. 

Hiking is a great way to spend quality time together as a family, and it’s an excellent outdoor activity that bonds and strengthens relationships. It is also a great time to talk to your kids about different smells and nature sounds, and how they can integrate these new experiences in an efficient way.

  • Outdoor chores.

Children with autism often have trouble understanding what needs to be done at home. This can lead to frustration and anger. By doing household chores outdoors, children will not only gain independence but also learn responsibility. Heavy outdoor work is often very effective for children suffering from sensory processing disorders, but this type of work is age-dependent. Make sure to adjust the tasks to your child's abilities. For example, if your child does not understand the concept of using tools, then they should not be given a hammer.

  • Gardening.

If you live near a park or green space, consider planting some flowers or vegetables. Gardening provides a sense of accomplishment and teaches children about nutrition. If you do decide to plant a garden, remember to check with your local health department before starting.

Related: Top 7 Reasons Why You Should Grow an Organic Garden.  

The importance of outdoor play and sensory processing 

Outdoor play has been shown to provide children with many benefits. It helps them develop social skills, their ability to regulate emotions, and cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, problem-solving, and creativity. Outdoor play also helps kids improve motor skills, coordination, balance, strength, flexibility, and endurance. 

Outdoor play reduces symptoms associated with sensory processing disorders by providing opportunities for children to explore their environment without being overwhelmed by stimuli. It also allows children to interact with other people and animals, promoting empathy, socialization, and diverse sensory experiences.

It is important to note that while all children benefit from outdoor play, those with autism may require more supervision and support. Children with autism tend to overreact to stimuli and may become anxious when exposed to new environments. They may also struggle to process information quickly enough to follow instructions. These challenges can make it difficult for them to participate in outdoor play.

It is essential to ensure that the safety precautions mentioned above are taken into consideration when planning an outdoor adventure. The following tips can help parents create fun and engaging outdoor adventures for children with autism:

  • Keep the group small. Large groups can overwhelm children with autism.
  • Use simple words and gestures. Avoid complex language and use concrete objects instead.
  • Don't force children to talk. Allow them to express themselves through actions.
  • Provide plenty of time for exploration.
  • Deliver structure and predictability.  

Many parents find it beneficial to enroll their children in an outdoor sensory activity program. By giving their kids opportunities to experience nature and engage in different forms of play, they may develop better coping strategies and improve their overall quality of life. Sensory processing disorder symptoms can be reduced through sensory activities and spending time outdoors during this wonderful season.

You might also enjoy: Ways to Introduce Your Baby to Common Allergens.

Photo credit: Unsplash.