The outdoor environment is an important place for children with special needs. When children with special needs are given ample time and support to embrace and involve themselves in outdoor play, they build key social, creative and problem-solving skills that are interconnected to how their dispositions develop. The following examples reinforce the importance of outdoor play for children with special needs. When children engage in these types of activities, they develop positive dispositions about their lives and being with others.
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1. Connecting with peers and developing social skills.
Learning how to connect with and play with other children is an essential skill during childhood. Think about how challenging these skills may be for children that are overwhelmed by large numbers of children or the noise in the early learning centres such as children with autistic spectrum disabilities. Also think about high energy children such as those with Attention Deficit Disorder and how challenging it may be for them to connect with other children.
When early learning teachers work with children with special needs to gradually introduce them to the outdoor environment and the children within the environment, it reduces the stress that they experienced indoors (Flatman, 2016). Loose parts and unstructured play spaces where children may play in small groups or independently contributes to children with special needs developing being social with other children.
2. Participating in activities that strengthen gross and fine motor development.
The array of outdoor experiences available to children and the freedom which is extended to them to engage in the experiences is directly related to gross and fine motor development.
To support children with mobility challenges, such as those with cerebral palsy, early learning teachers and families work collaboratively to determine how the outdoor play space and equipment may be designed so that the children experience body movements that contribute to their physical development. When children experience such success, they gain confidence both in their movements and related social play with others.
3. Offering sensory opportunities that enhance connections to the environment.
The outdoor environment provides children with enticing sounds, sights, smells and stimulation. The outdoor play environment heightens children’s senses. This is of particular importance for children with tactile challenges. Having exposure to materials that heighten their appreciation of the world around them influences how children view and interact in their environment. This influences how they develop a positive disposition.
4. Encouraging independence.
All children require outdoor environments that offer them options to execute their independence. Children with special needs benefit from outdoor environments that encourage them to be independent rather than being sheltered because of their special needs.
Exposing children with special needs to outdoor play environments where they need to problem solve and make decisions, such as determining how to make a fort or play the musical instruments, increases their abilities to exercise independence. These experiences increase children’s confidence to make decisions and to act upon them.
5. Facilitating various play opportunities that have purpose and intrigue.
Outdoor play should be a place that supports children in working through different scenarios that they experience in their daily living. Play is a venue for children to work through stressful events and gain skills and concepts that support group experiences.
Children with difficulties in retaining or processing information benefit from outdoor play that has defined goals. For example, when children are creating a den, there are defined steps that are necessary for the den to be stable. Early learning teachers and children discuss the steps. They may record the steps and then execute them in order of presentation. Having children refer back to the plan and reflect upon the plan supports them in developing strategies to retain and process information and “action” that information with success. These skills support later academic success.
As you think about children with special needs, how do adults support them in having access to outdoor play that meets their needs? While outdoors, how do teachers support independence for children with varying special needs?
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