Outside time is an important part of childhood development. Playing outside provides many opportunities to work on skills that might not happen inside. Outdoor spaces are places to practice following directions in new environments. They are places to learn lots of new words and connect those words to their real-life counterpart. They are places to practice interacting with other people in safe and respectful ways.
But getting outside is a project. And if you have a child with autism, the outdoors present many uncertainties. There are things to plan for. Is there a bathroom available? What about water? Even if you’re playing in your own backyard, it can be hard to plan fun and educational outdoor activities.
And what about materials for any activity you might plan? Preparing for a thirty minute outing to the local park can start to feel like you are packing for a three day camping trip. The following 5 activities don’t require any materials. So next time you want to plan a quick trip to the park with your autistic child, you can be “stuff free.” And you’ll also know you’re working on meaningful play and community skills.
1. Hide and seek. This is a great activity to play at a park with large rocks, trees, or even a play structure. If your child is not ready to hide independently, be their “partner” and play with a sibling or other adult. Practice hiding behind large and small items. Show your child the difference between large items that hide their whole body and small items that cannot completely hide them.
2. The alphabet game. This is a great activity to play when you are on a walk. Find an item that corresponds with each letter of the alphabet, in order. For example, “apple tree” represents the letter “a.” “Bug” represents the letter “b” and so forth. If you live in an urban area, try finding each letter of the alphabet on license plates and street signs as you walk.
3. Rock collecting. This is a great activity to play on a hike or at the beach. Try collecting a specific number of rocks to help your child practice counting. This is also a great opportunity to practice leaving things behind. If the beach has a sign instructing visitors not to take any items away, you can practice following this direction with your child.
4. Cloud gazing. This is a great activity to do in your own backyard, or after a tiring game of tag. Try finding geometric shapes (oval, circle, triangle) with your child. You can also practice more abstract concepts like animals, vehicles, and types of buildings.
5. Shadow puppets. This is a great game to play when you are walking on a sidewalk or another large flat space. First, point out your shadows to your child. Then, show them how to make a shadow puppet with their hand. If your child finds this activity really interesting, you can do a follow up activity at home. Get a flashlight and show them different ways to make shadows. Practice making shadows in different rooms and observe how they are different.
Going outside doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. You may go outside with the plan to do one of these activities. You may find that you don’t have time for a specific activity, and that’s OK! Sometimes, walking to the park and walking home is more than enough of an undertaking. I hope this article will help you build your toolbox of activities you have in your toolbox “just in case.” Then, even if you don’t use them, you’ll feel more confident about planning outside time!
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.