Posted on by Beckworth & Co

How People With Special Needs Benefit From Nature

The biophilia hypothesis is based on the understanding that people need contact with the natural environment in the same way they need contact with other people as a necessity for their development. And since this need applies to everyone, including children with special educational needs, offering experiences with nature is one way to address it. In addition to helping students learn about the natural world, nature can also provide a stimulating learning environment that brings a lot of benefits to people with special needs.

special needs kid looking at flowers

Spending time in green space or bringing nature into your child’s everyday life can benefit both mental and physical wellbeing. For example, doing things like growing food or flowers, exercising outdoors, or being around animals can have lots of positive effects. Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes them feel better emotionally, but it also contributes to their physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.

One of the most amazing things nature brings is the impact on general wellbeing. When a child is struggling with ongoing anxiety, nature can be a powerful antidote. It improves their overall mood after spending time outside, changing from depressed, stressed, and anxious to more calm and balanced. Time spent in nature or scenes of nature is associated with a positive mood, and psychological wellbeing, meaningfulness, and vitality.

special needs kid with animals

When children enter the world, they begin trying to make sense of their environment, this is done through input to their five senses; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Sensory play also includes balance and bodily awareness or movement. Sensory play is a vital part of early childhood development because it builds nerve connections that act as pathways of communication in the brain, refines sensory thresholds, and improves physical, cognitive, social-emotional, and language development.

The natural world is one big sensory extravaganza, full of exciting and engaging sights, smells, and sounds. Nature is not only the ideal form of sensory experience but also the best prevention for sensory dysfunction. Think walking barefoot, playing in the mud, outdoor swings, and climbing across logs.

For children who are hypersensitive, sensory stimulation can help them experience life in a whole new way. Often it can be difficult to encourage children to try new things without capturing their imagination first. Outdoor play helps heighten the senses and encourages engagement.

In extreme conditions such as Tactile Defensiveness (TD), children can have painful reactions to the everyday textures that most of us disregard. The flexibility of outdoor play means that these children can engage in activities such as water and sand play, which don’t trigger the same hypersensitive response.

special needs kid climbing trees

Nature is the perfect classroom. Children with special needs often do well with visual learning and the natural world is ideal for this. Activities in the outdoors can also lead to better focus and concentration for a student. Moving reading time and other traditional class activities outdoors can make a big difference in learning and behavior. Tell stories while sitting around a sandbox or practice addition by counting seeds before planting. New vocabulary is remembered best when words are used in context, and outdoor spaces provide this, greatly enhancing memory and comprehension for ESL learners and children with special needs.

Nature is a powerful teacher. Nature teaches us about science first hand, and we can often combine formal subjects with the outdoors, but there’s so much more. Nature teaches us patience through waiting for a bud to bloom into a flower. Nature shows us compassion when we help a small creature cross a sidewalk. And nature gives us understanding that something, or someone, doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. All invaluable lessons.

Nature study requires movement and experiential study. For children with learning differences, this can make all the difference in terms of understanding and retention

Activities outdoors can be more physically and visually stimulating than doing it inside the home or in a gym. There is also a growing amount of research that shows exercising outdoors is better for us mentally. Simply attempting to climb a tree, hang from a branch, or roll down a grassy hill will give a decent amount of exercise. Even a sitting child can toss stones into the water, play in fallen leaves or stretch in the grass and still get a fair amount of physical activity while having fun.

Children often have limited opportunities to enjoy physical activities. Video games and television have replaced jump ropes and treehouses in the past decades. And this is particularly true for children with physical or behavioral limitations. Throughout the US, 25.6 percent of persons with a disability reported being physically inactive during a usual week, compared to 12.8 percent of those without a disability. And much less since the pandemic. Yet people of every age and ability still need to engage in physical activities that promote body wellness. Being outdoors with nature is a natural way to encourage these behaviors. Children can see improvements in flexibility, muscle strength, and coordination with routine exercises. Active outdoor play can increase body awareness, balance, cardiovascular efficiency, and motor skills.

special needs kid smiling with confidence

Children with learning differences spend most of their educational time feeling behind, struggling with concepts and skills that other children seem to easily understand, and perform. It can be discouraging at best.

It’s an unfortunate fact, but many children with special needs and those who require pediatric physical therapy struggle with issues of self-esteem. Rather than being differently-abled, they are perceived as disabled and that doesn’t make for confidence boosts. 

However, going outside to spend time in nature can help strengthen confidence and level the playing field for our children. It uses sight, sound, smell, and touch in ways that often incorporate a child’s strengths. Nature study requires little to no reading and writing for a child struggling with reading and writing. Children can dictate how they play, which leads to increased success. Naturally, success leads to confidence. Likewise, there are no judgments in nature. The ocean, trees, rocks, and grass don’t tease.

happy special needs kid in a field

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