Outdoor Activities for Autistics

Today really reiterated to me that I need to get back to the outdoors and get my kids outside. I had my son at the eye doctor and she is an expert in her field (at a local children’s hospital).

She said that they are seeing an increase of young kids who are developing crossed eyes or a wandering eye from playing on a screen for too long with it held too close to their faces. Getting kids outside is a priority for our health.

3 kids who love playing outside

Think about that! Parents are actually allowing kids to do permanent damage to their eyes by playing too many video games.

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We are strict in my house about screen times and I am going to revisit these ways to get your kids excited about being outdoors. Being stuck inside has led to a huge increase in screen time for many families.

Autistic Outdoors Activities

The outdoors is not always accessible to children with disabilities. And adults! I’m not just talking about maneuvering over terrain, but sensory issues and other things can make it more challenging.

Many kids with autism and other disabilities struggle with executive functioning skills. Included in that would be thinking up a new activity to do, planning it, and initiating it. We might take for granted that our non-disabled kids can think up a game in a playset or outside.

Love Being Outdoors

I have promoted the movie Play Again many times. If you haven’t seen it and you are a parent, it’s a must watch. It’s about the epidemic of our kids spending too much time indoors and never playing outside. Part of the phenomena is due to the culture of fear that we live in.

I highly suggest that you read Lenore Skenazy’s book, Free Range Kids. Contrary to popular belief, our kids are safe and it’s OK for them to be in their own backyard or playground.

YouTube video

Sometimes I cannot believe where we are, as parents. I’m a Gen X’er, so it is my generation who did this to kids. And we were not raised like this!

Our kids will be the decision makers in 30 years and they won’t protect a planet that they haven’t grown to love and appreciate.

With that in mind, here are some ways you can encourage your kids to love the outdoors and be a part of nature and appreciate their environment.

10 Ways to Get Autistic Kids or Adults Outdoors

Sensory Playground: Many more playgrounds are becoming accessible. An autistic child may be sensory averse and avoid things like grass, sand, snow and wind. But, there are many outdoors activities that sensory seekers love. Think trampoline, swing, rolling down a hill, chalk, water play or splashing in a stream. They even make adaptive bikes for disabled teens and adults.

And, here’s a tip–we got our trampoline from Make A Wish. So if cost is an issue, there are options out there. Outdoor sensory fun doesn’t have to be expensive. You just need a plastic tub and some paper cups to have some water play.

I really don’t care what people think about ages. If you enjoy something and you’re not hurting anyone, if someone is bothered by that that’s their problem. My teenager loves to play in water, why would I deprive him of fresh air, sunshine and water?

young girl on tire swing

National Park Junior Ranger program: This is a great program available at most National Parks, National Monuments, National Historic Sites and so on. Kids complete a series of activities in a booklet and then show their work to a park ranger. That ranger will then give them a badge if they have completed the work.

There are over 200 badges that you can earn, and in some cases you can do the work at home (print the booklet from online) and then send it in to receive your badge. Being at the park would be ideal, but sometimes budget doesn’t allow for traveling. We have done three so far and many of the activities are about conserving the environment.

adult woman on swing at sunset

I have been informed by park rangers that even though this program was designed for kids, they are aware that many adults do them too. If that is too babyish, they have a National Park Passport program.

Kevin working on his Junior Ranger activities at Glen Canyon NRA.
Kevin working on his Junior Ranger activities at Glen Canyon NRA.

Create a certified Outdoor Habitat at your home: This task is easier than you think. If you can create shelter, a place for water, place for food and do a few other tasks, you may be able to get certification from the National Wildlife Federation. Once your area is certified you can order a nice sign to post in your yard on our your apartment patio and that will be a daily reminder that you are helping the environment!

Grow your own food or tend a garden: With today’s big box stores, it’s easy to forget that our food (should) come from the land. Everything we buy is sterile and in bright packages. Grow some food even if it’s just one or two container plants. You can start with something easy that will almost guarantee success. This will remind your kids that food comes from the Earth, which is just one more reason we should take care of it. You can even grow microgreens indoors, if you need a stepping stone to enjoying an outdoor garden.

Learn: If a child has homework, or you’re working on practicing skills at home, why not move them outside? There are many things you can do outside to piggyback on what they are learning at school. And, chances are, I bet if you give a child a choice of doing homework indoors or out, they’ll choose out!

Look at this Javelin STEM Challenge If your kids love a challenge and some competition, this is a fun one. They get to build a javelin and see which design goes the furthest. (Measurement is involved)

Join a 4-H or Scouting group: 4-H groups are not just for farmers. Many of them do other outdoors related activities in addition to farming. 4-H has even branched out to encourage kids in STEM education concepts. Baden-Powell scouting is a relatively new scouting group.

But what I love about it is that it is secular and all inclusive. Plus, it’s gets back to the true roots of scouting and fosters a love for the outdoors.

Let them pursue their passion. Introduce them to many different outdoors pursuits and so that they will find one that they are passionate about. Bird watching, hiking, kayaking, fishing, walking, bicycling; there are just so many different things to do.

nature journal

Normalize It: I don’t want this to sound like I am encouraging you to have your kids watch TV when I’m talking about being outdoors. But as a society that watches waaaayyyy too much TV, TV normalizes things for us. When we see something over and over, even if it’s something very rare or unusual (like random kidnapping, which is really rare!) it seems like it’s normal.

Make being outdoors normal. We are watching Sesame Street videos on the Grand Canyon, since we just went there. If you’re going to watch a movie, try to find one with an outdoor theme. Read about it, talk about it, make it a part of every day life instead of TV and video games.

If you’re not already active, start small, with just doing more reading and eating on your patio. Move up to walks, then hikes, bike rides and other fun stuff. Look online for your local, state and national parks. You just might find some hidden gems that become family traditions!

Make a plan: Plan it. Have screen free days or screen free weekends. But turn it around to the positive. Instead of thinking of it as giving up something (screens) make it “family outdoors play day” or something else. Create a schedule such as “30 mins of screen time for every hour spent outside playing.”

And here’s a bonus tip, and the first finger is pointed at myself. I am terrible about this!

get outside

See you out there!

{this was originally published in 2015 but updated to fix links}

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