How outdoor play benefits children with Autism.

From 26th March to 2nd April this year it’s The National Autistic Society’s World Autism Awareness Week. Figures now show that at least 1 in every

100 people in the UK has autism. Here at Rainbow we are incredibly passionate about raising awareness around the benefits of outdoor play for ALL children.

Autism 1 Children Running Playing

Unfortunately, there is little official research into the benefits of outdoor play for children with autism specifically. However, the findings of studies conducted worldwide conclusively report on the positive benefits of outdoor play for children in general. Not only does it promote their overall health and well-being but it also aids their development and learning in many areas!

Despite the lack of research the opinions of parents, teachers or support workers is the same in the majority of cases. And confirms that improvements are often observed when autistic children engage in outdoor play.

In 2010 a study was done that looked at the benefits of outdoor experiences for children with autism. Teachers, parents and volunteer workers were interviewed on how they believed outdoor play was of benefit to the children. Mostly commonly mentioned was improved levels of physical activity, social interaction, communication and a decrease in child specific sensitivities in some cases.

Autism 2 Child Playing Outdoors

Teachers consistently report that daily time spent outside is changing the way that children learn and behave. Their observations have shown that outdoor learning spaces can play a huge part in encouraging children with autism to engage, to learn and consequently to be happier and healthier as individuals.

The confines of being indoors, whether for learning or therapeutic treatment can often feel formal and pressurised. Thus children can feel that they don’t have the space they need to let off steam or to relax. Outdoor play offers autistic children an alternative environment in which to learn and experience things. Not only does this give them space to do things their way, it also promotes the development of their skills!  

A further study found 7 key areas that were promoted by outdoor play including:

  1. Communication
  2. Behaviour
  3. Emotion
  4. Cognition
  5. Interaction and initiative
  6. Physical activity
  7. Decreased autistic sensitivity

One of the more obvious benefits of outdoor play is the increase in physical activity. Whether they are climbing, running or walking it is good for their health, their fitness and it helps to reduce obesity. Muscle tone, balance and strength are often lower in children with autism so it’s important that they have regular opportunities for physical activity. This allows them to work their muscles and their gross and fine motor skills all at the same time. It’s also a good way of expending energy which can help them to become calmer.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is also common in autistic children. This causes a child to experience problems with their attention span, impulsiveness and hyperactivity. Research on the physical benefits of exposure to nature has highlighted that time spent outdoors can help fight ADHD, and psychologists have linked contact with nature to restored attention, recovery from mental fatigue and enhanced mental focus.

Autism 3 Children Playing Outdoors

There is also evidence to show that children with ADHD are able to focus better immediately after spending time outdoors and also that recovery from periods of stress/anxiety become shorter too. The benefit of having access to more natural settings also has been shown to benefit a child’s cognitive functioning. And whilst not all autistic children suffer with ADHD; it is quite clear that more time spent outdoors playing and learning is of great benefit to autistic children and their behaviour.

The message really is clear: Time spent outdoors helps to manage difficult behaviour so that children are in a much better, happier and calmer place mentally, and so more ready and open to learning.