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Autism and Nature: Structured Outdoor Learning

May 3, 2024

Our modern age provides extraordinary technological advances that help humankind, but we’re paying the price in some areas, including less time spent outside in nature. Outdoors can be a stimulating environment for learning – this article looks at the benefits of combining autism and nature.

Children today spend more time indoors, detached from the natural world, than any other generation. Research indicates children spend less than half the time playing outside compared to their parents.

But humans are wired for being outdoors. Experiencing the great outdoors enhances and develops creativity, imagination, concentration, observation skills, and a sense of wonderment. Nature is beneficial for us all, including autistic children.

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Outdoor learning in the Forest School tradition

Outdoor learning is not a new concept. Understanding the benefits of structured exploration and supported risk-taking, the founders of Forest School started an outdoor school movement in Sweden in the 1950s.

Forest School blends planning, observation, adaptation, and review into learning sessions held in natural settings, regardless of the weather.

Educators and parents alike appreciate the possibilities of holistic growth through outdoor play and learning. Because of that, the Forest School concept has steadily gained popularity since its inception.

Today, we continue to recognize the positive influence its principles have on all children for individual growth, self-confidence, and well-being.

Benefits of nature for autistic children

You may be wondering – how can all that natural sensory input benefit children with autism, especially those with sensory hypersensitivities?

The Forest School approach, which offers a balance of freedom and structure, provides another way to conceptualize, understand, organize, and feel sensory data from the environment and body.

Research supports the benefits of outdoor learning and play for children with ASD, including a 2019 report published in an Elsevier Health & Place Journal.

First of all, children experience increased sensory engagement in nature. It provides an opportunity to make discoveries and learn new things while being active and using fine and gross motor skills, helping improve sensory integration.

Children exploring in the nature https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/nurture-structured-outdoor-learning/

On top of that, nature is a natural stress reducer that helps instill positive feelings. Being outside also removes autistic children from some of their typical life stressors.

Research reports that autistic children laughed and smiled more when they were in nature, finding opportunities to relax and be happy.

And, lastly, being outdoors in nature is a great way to stay active. Walking, reaching, and moving about in nature over varying surfaces offers new ways to improve general fitness, coordination, and health. 

Each child is unique

Outdoor learning lets children play together and also gives them the chance to do things on their own without feeling like they have to follow social rules all the time. 

Some children with ASD benefit from activities that are clearly defined and well-constructed. For others, activities must complement their inner sense of time and order.

Experiences in nature in a Forest School or similar program can meet both needs. Nature is ever-changing, yet there are recognizable patterns in weather, seasons, plants, and animals. 

Logs and leaves, roots and bark, flowers, birds, and animals engage all the senses and encourage practical activities that involve coordination, observation, and spatial awareness. 

At the same time, it is essential to be aware of the effects on each child and ensure there are opportunities to retreat and be quiet for those who need the space.

Learning in nature is inspiring and motivating

Spending time outdoors offers unique and beneficial experiences that cannot be replicated in the classroom. Parents appreciate the near-term benefits outdoor learning provides their children, but there’s evidence that it enhances and inspires overall learning, too.

Researcher Ramóna Nádasdy, during her interviews with teachers in Sweden, found that spending time outdoors better prepared the children for learning in the classroom. 

Observing trees on a walk, for example, can encourage the use of language and numeracy. The names of the trees can inspire songs and stories, as well as the alphabet and counting games.

However, providing a child-centered inspirational learning process is at the heart of a Forest School approach. Curiosity and exploration are encouraged, and the focus of activities is on the social and emotional aspects of learning rather than academic knowledge acquisition.

Autism and nature

Not everyone has access to nearby forests. However, green spaces, such as a park and a garden, can be used in programs that embrace the Forest School approach.

In fact, therapeutic gardens and gardening have become an essential component of outdoor education and activity for children with autism and other disorders, with tangible results. 


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Photography, too, is a skill that many children love to develop through their observations of the natural world. It is an activity that offers children who are less mobile than others, especially those who use wheelchairs, the chance to be creative.

FAQs

Q: Is it good for autistic children to spend time outdoors?

A: Spending time outdoors can be beneficial for autistic children as it offers sensory stimulation, opportunities for physical activity, and a change of environment that can promote relaxation and reduce stress. Outdoor settings often provide opportunities for unstructured play and social interaction.

Q: What are the best outdoor activities for autistic children?

A: The best outdoor activities for autistic children are ones that cater to their interests and sensory needs, such as nature walks, gardening, or sensory-friendly playgrounds. Engaging in activities that promote movement, exploration, and sensory experiences can help them thrive and enjoy their time outdoors.

Q: How does nature affect autism?

A: Nature can positively impact autism by providing sensory stimulation, reducing stress, and offering opportunities for relaxation and exploration. It can also support social interaction and communication skills development in a natural and calming environment.

Q: Why do autistic people like nature?

A: Autistic people often enjoy nature because it offers sensory experiences that are soothing and stimulating without being overwhelming. Nature also provides a calm and predictable environment where they can explore freely and engage in activities that align with their interests and preferences.

References:

Dongying Li, Linda Larsen, Yan Yang, Lan Wang, Yujia Zhai, William C. Sullivan,

Exposure to nature for children with autism spectrum disorder: Benefits, caveats, and barriers, Health & Place, Volume 55, 2019, Pages 71-79, ISSN 1353-8292, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2018.11.005 

Working with Students with Special Needs in Forest Pedagogy: Pedagogues’ Practices in i Ur och Skur preschools in Sweden; Nádasdy, Ramóna; 2018; https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A1219390&dswid=-2112 

Garden, Ange. (2021). Forest school as a space for risk for children with social, emotional and mental health needs. 10.4324/9781003155034-12.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/356545368_Forest_school_as_a_space_for_risk_for_children_with_social_emotional_and_mental_health_needs 

Fahy, S., Delicâte, N., & Lynch, H. (2021). Now, being, occupational: Outdoor play and children with autism. Journal of Occupational Science, 28(1), 114–132. https://doi.org/10.1080/14427591.2020.1816207 

Ziegler, S. M. T., & Morrier, M. J. (2022). Increasing Social Interactions of Preschool Children With Autism Through Cooperative Outdoor Play. The Journal of Special Education, 56(1), 49-60. https://doi.org/10.1177/00224669211032556 

Morsanuto S, Peluso Cassese F, Tafuri F, Tafuri D. Outdoor Education, Integrated Soccer Activities, and Learning in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Project Aimed at Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda. Sustainability. 2023; 15(18):13456. https://doi.org/10.3390/su151813456 

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