Guest Blog Post: How Children on the Autism Spectrum Benefit from the Outdoors


When the weather is nice, the outdoors can provide a better learning environment than any classroom ever could. Kids of all ages know this and revel in the opportunity on warm days to get a reward for good behavior that includes outside learning. After all, nature actually encourages critical thinking and learning. Abstract ideas become real, and a child’s ego disappears once they encounter places in a natural environment that are bigger than themselves. The same learning bonuses apply to children with autism.

Autism and Learning Styles

Any parent of a child on the autism spectrum will note that the spectrum is wide and all sorts of learning abilities and styles are present. Some children learn from listening, some from reading, while others understand concepts best when through direct interaction. Kinesthetic or “hands-on” learners may struggle with a topic in a textbook, only to master it once they work with a model or see the concept in real life. For these types of learners and the many who simply benefit from hands-on illustration, a natural setting can help them understand science.

Outdoor Learning

Outdoor learners thrive in many subjects, but some of the difficult concepts of science and math are easier to understand in the natural world. Biology is a perfect topic to illustrate in a backyard. Children can collect leaves, flowers, and bark. Insects and other backyard wildlife can be observed, including the different butterfly stages and group behavior of ants and bees.

For a more in-depth and practical understanding of science, children can be introduced to gardening. This hobby has been shown to provide an ideal learning experience for children on the autism spectrum. Gardening is well-known for having a calming, zen-like effect on adults, and the same applies to children who toil in the dirt and tend to plants. Horticulture therapy, as it is referred, is especially beneficial for children with autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because gardening work involves clearly defined steps. Before planning gardening work, make sure you have a supply of good gardening gloves.

Other outdoor activities that provide work as effective learning tools include bird watching and structured outdoor play.

Outdoor Safety

Safety is often a concern with children learning outdoors since there is less control over the environment. The concern is heightened with children with autism because of variances in behavior and abilities. Since safety is a major concern, it is helpful to develop a safety plan before bringing children outside for learning - even if the plan is a simple one-sheet checklist. Understanding the many characteristics of autism is key to creating a safe environment.

Although not all children exhibit the same behaviors, some of the potential problems with protecting children include:

  • Lacking fear of danger. A child with autism may not realize the danger of a moving car or a sharp object.

  • Difficulty interacting with others. This may result in the child wandering away in an attempt to be alone.

  • Difficulty in expressing needs. Autistic children might not clearly communicate, which may cause frustration for them in a new situation, such as in the outdoors.

These issues can be handled with appropriate controls, barriers, and supports.

Outdoor safety concerns, of course, are not limited to those regarding children with autism. Nature presents several hazards, from poisonous plants, insects, uneven terrain, and pools. Pool safety can be improved with the use of a pool alarm system and by ensuring the pool has a gate that is locked when the pool is not in use.

Nature provides the perfect backdrop for learning and thriving for all children, including those with autism. Just ensure they stay safe so everyone can benefit from the outdoors.

Photo Credit: Pexels

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