Outdoor Play: Fun Activities You and Your Child Can Do
Authors: Holly Cooper, Ph.D., Early Childhood Specialist, TSBVI Deafblind Outreach
Keywords: play, outdoors, child development
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Expand your child’s horizons through outdoor play! Whether your child is an infant or an older child who isn’t walking yet, outdoor play is an important contributor to their physical development. Being outdoors is enjoyable, stimulating to the sensory system, and beneficial for learning. It will also give your child an opportunity to be together with friends and family members. It can help siblings and other children find interesting ways to play with a child with disabilities who may be shielded from many of the typical experiences of childhood.
Many children don’t have much outdoor play time for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it may be the extremes of weather. In Texas it’s often too hot in the summer to be outdoors after 11 in the morning. In some cases, there may be allergens such as mold or pollen, or there may be a high ultraviolet light risk. Maybe mosquitos, chiggers, or scorpions are a problem. Maybe harsh vegetation like stickers, cactus, or poison ivy makes the outdoors difficult. In cities, finding safe and comfortable places to play outside can be equally challenging. In spite of this, being outdoors is an important part of the human experience and is important for child development.
The outdoors is an entirely different sensory experience than being inside. It is a rich and vibrant setting for a blind, visually impaired or deafblind child. The light is brighter, the temperatures are hotter or colder, the breeze or wind blows, sounds are different and more varied, and smells are entirely different. Your child will benefit from outdoor play regardless of their disability or health conditions. Here are some ideas for making outdoor play safe, enjoyable, and a learning experience.
Make yourself comfortable
- Find or create shade. If you don’t have trees for shade, consider using a shade tent, an overhead arbor, or a covered patio or carport. You can also look at the shade cast by your house at different times of day and set up a play area to take advantage of the shade.
- Find a safe and comfortable surface. For some environments, a small quilt laid over the grass is good. If you are positioning your baby on a concrete patio or driveway, you may want to put down a pad, such as some high density foam floor squares sold for garage, kitchen and workshop use. These can be covered with a blanket if desired. A blanket or other special surface helps define the space for a child while still allowing her or him to explore beyond the protected space.
Fun things to do
- Play in a small wading pool. This can be filled with a few inches of water (supervised at all times). If you need a more sturdy option that will last longer than one season, explore outdoor water garden pools. These are usually plastic tubs, black or dark green, with slightly taller and stronger sides. Don’t leave water in the pool, as mosquitos and some bacteria love it. Also a pool of water can be a hazard to small animals, who may find their way in, but can’t get out.
- Use a wading pool or other containment structure for sand play. Add small shovels, buckets, nesting cups and other toys to explore texture, size, and weight and to develop skills such as scooping and pouring. It’s good to cover these areas when not in use because cats always seem to find them and use them for their toilet!
- Hang banners and wind socks for your child to watch as they move in the breeze. Hang them low so your baby can reach out and touch them. If there isn’t any breeze, put a clip-on fan nearby to create some motion.
- Hang wind chimes for your child to hear. You can make fun home-made ones with your children or by yourself. Ideas for wind chimes can be found on Pinterest and other internet sources made from copper pipe, flower pots, metal washers, old tableware, bells, bamboo, Mason jar lids, metal cans and a variety of other materials. Garden stores often have high quality wind chimes tuned to the musical scale which are more pleasant to hear. Wind chimes which are safe and supervised can be hung within your child’s reach for fun multisensory play.
- Bubbles can be lots of fun for children with vision. I have been surprised many times by the children who are able to see them and enjoy them even with a very significant visual impairment. The reflective surface and movement means many children with cortical visual impairment may respond to bubbles enthusiastically. Also consider plastic long-lasting touchable bubbles. With plastic bubbles children with and without vision can touch, bounce, throw, and play for an extended time. These bubbles last longer than typical bubbles, but adult supervision is advised.
- Bird feeders are also settings for a lot of action for observers with vision. For those who benefit more from sound, they can also be noisy and tuneful. I have a bird feeder handing from a tree in my front yard. I put fresh seed in it at seven o’clock every morning, and within an hour the birds and squirrels have come and eaten and left it empty. If you love technology, you can even get a webcam to mount nearby so you can get a close look at the action. You can share this with a child who has sufficient vision, providing an opportunity to combine technology with an outdoor activity.
- Pets are another good excuse to go outdoors and enjoy some time. Dogs are more reliably cooperative if responsible adults train them and form a loving bond with them. I love cats, and my cats will come and hang out with me when I’m outdoors. Even a house rabbit can be put in a small pen and enjoy the outdoors for a while.
- Herb gardens and flower gardens are often recommended for enjoyment by children who are blind or visually impaired. The San Antonio Botanical Garden has a Garden for the Blind that is enjoyable and a good source of inspiration. In many parts of Texas, herbs will stay green and fragrant year round, or be dormant for just 2 or 3 months in the winter. Some good fragrant herbs to grow include: oregano, rosemary (look for a hardy variety if your area experiences winter temperatures below 25 degrees), mint (I’ve never experienced it “taking over” a garden because of our hot dry climate), lemon balm, lavender and other culinary herbs.
- Go for a walk and explore the seasons. Know your neighborhood or town and find out where the beautiful places are. If it is the winter holiday season, find out where the good lights and decorations are. If it is spring, find out where the fragrant and colorful flowers are. Are there pets or livestock you can visit on a short walk? Do parks in your neighborhood have trails that are wheelchair or stroller accessible? Walk your dog and your child and get out of your own yard, experience nature and chat with the neighbors.
Special ideas for extra budgets
Webcams and video cameras with audio to watch a birdfeeder, nest or other wildlife
Swing sets, modified for babies or individuals who need extra support