Simple Ways to Build Social Skills and an Appreciation for Nature

Earth Day will soon be here! It serves as a reminder to care for the Earth every day and teach our children to do the same. A powerful way to get kids to appreciate and care for Mother Earth is to get them outside and build their love of nature.  Kids enjoy the fun and freedom of being outdoors, and this type of play also offers opportunities for social and emotional skill-building. Particularly for children with autism, the sights, sounds, and feelings of being outdoors can be beneficial. Outdoor activities can be geared toward sparking imagination, increasing social awareness, and building tools for self-regulation.

Simple Ways to Build Social Skills and an Appreciation for Nature

The following are some outdoor activities to help your child connect with the natural world while also practicing important skills. Many of these activities can be adapted for the specific sensory needs of your child.

1. Mindful Nature Walk:

Getting out for a walk or hike helps both kids and adults with emotional regulation. Research shows that spending time in nature reduces stress and supports mindfulness and well-being. It can also lead to better concentration and the ability to handle stressful situations. For part of the walk, practice focusing on various senses. Listen to the wind, a bird, or a sound in the environment. Focus on the feeling of your feet taking each step.

2. I Spy:

Try this in your backyard or while walking. Begin by describing something that you and your child can both see. For example, while looking at a ladybug, you could say, “I spy something red with black spots.” It will be up to the child to come up with questions to determine what you are looking at.

3. Social Spying:

While at the park, help your child build social detective skills by observing others and trying to determine their relationship to one another (e.g., mom and daughter, grandma and grandpa, etc.). Help your child understand the clues that show how people are connected, such as their body language and what they say to one another.

4. Imaginative Play:

Encourage your child to play outside and invent games or activities. Build a fort, have an outdoor tea party, play in the sand or dirt. Children can create their own scenarios and use their imaginations. These actions build problem-solving, flexible thinking, and executive function skills.

5. Scavenger Hunt:

In your backyard or another outdoor location, place clues around and have the child hunt for them to find the final prize. Start out with a verbal hint, such as, “The first clue is under the rocks where the worms live.” If needed, help the child figure out the meaning of a clue. You might include facts about the environment within the clues; for example, “Search under the largest plant in the garden, which provides oxygen to our air.” Being able to search for clues and follow directions supports social competence.

6. Find Your Green Thumb:

Gardening is a great outdoor activity to enjoy as a family. First, decide where to garden and what your child will plant. Discuss the benefits plants bring to the environment and where fruits and vegetables come from. (Many kids don’t understand the connection between items on grocery stores shelves and the vague concept of food growing in fields.) Whether you’re growing flowers, herbs, or vegetables, teach your child what is required to make them grow (water, sunshine, care, etc.). Create a schedule so your child can plan when to water the seeds or plants. Your child will learn that it takes a lot of responsibility and nurturing to keep something alive, and it takes patience to watch it grow.

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7. Get Artsy:

At a park, beach, or in your backyard, create art using natural materials. Sticks, rocks, leaves, acorns, sand, and shells are all terrific art supplies. Your child can practice planning and sequencing by imagining the artwork and then gathering the needed materials. Collaborating with a friend or sibling provides a chance to practice cooperation and perspective-taking. Your child can practice flexibility if a creation falls, blows away, or doesn’t turn out quite as expected.

8. Build a Rock Tower:

Try balancing a few rocks on top of one another. This is a great way to build patience and frustration tolerance, as the rocks will almost certainly tumble down. Focus on enjoying the process of building rather than the result. Talk with your child about having balance in our lives and what that means.

9. Family Outings:

Visit parks, have beach picnics, walk on trails, go camping, and stargaze. Teach your child about nature and how our ecosystem works. Encourage your child’s interest in and desire to be outside. Picnics are a great way to include delicious fresh food—maybe even some produce from your garden or a local farmer’s market. Earth Day (celebrated on or around April 22) offers an opportunity to teach your child about the environment and take part in a family-friendly beach cleanup or another event.

Nature has such a positive impact on children. Being outdoors not only encourages your child to appreciate nature, but exposure to outdoor activities like camping, fishing, or just running around in the woods can lessen attention fatigue and increase patience and impulse control.

Remember, whether you are in your own backyard or deep in the woods, there is a teachable moment waiting to be taken advantage of. Most of the activities described here and many others can be found in the book, Make Social Learning Stick!

This article was featured in Issue 60 – Sensory Tools For The Future

Elizabeth Sautter

Elizabeth Sautter is co-director and co-owner of Communication Works, a private practice in Oakland, CA, offering speech, language, social, and occupational therapy. She is the co-author of the Whole Body Listening Larry ( books. Her most recent book is Make Social Learning Stick! How to Guide and Nurture Social Competence Through Everyday Routines and Activities ( For more information visit