Research has a lot to say about play. When it comes to outdoor sensory play, there is a lot that can be discussed too. With the upcoming release of The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook, which encourages sensory strategies and sensory diet use in creating a lifestyle of sensory enrichment, today we are talking all about what the research has to say about outdoor sensory diet activities and outdoor sensory play.
Taking sensory diet strategies outside is nothing new. But, doing so may just be a meaningful way to create the “just right” state of alertness and calming nature that, well, nature provides!
Research on Outdoor Sensory Play
There has been decades of research on the benefits of play in kids. The information below depicts how outdoor play impacts sensory needs in kids. This is not an exhausted review of the literature, simply a smattering of research available on the topic.
Research shows us that some of the developmental and primary tasks that children must achieve can be effectively improved through outdoor play. These include: exploring, risk-taking, fine and gross motor development, absorption of basic knowledge, social skills, self-confidence, attention, language skills, among others. Wow! Playing outside has a bigger impact than we may have thought!
Other research has shown an increase in communication, along with more observed emotions, and increased interactions in children with autism when more time was spent outdoors.
Outdoor Playground Play and Sensory Input
Children have a large opportunity for sensory input through playground play. But, in recent times, children experience playgrounds that are more safe, allowing for less risky play. Encouraging specific activities such as a playground sensory diet on playground equipment can be beneficial to sensory needs.
Another item to consider is the aspect of applying sensory diet strategies within the classroom or home environments as a fix for sensory processing needs. The specific and prescribed sensory diet activities for a particular child can be very helpful in addressing specific sensory-related behaviors. However, the use of a sensory tool such as an alternative seating system within the classroom provides only one type of vestibular and/or proprioceptive input, such as up and down vestibular input. The child who plays outdoors encounters a wide variety of sensory input across all sensory systems!
You might even call sensory tools used to address specific needs a sensory band-aide. What if we as therapists could encourage authentic sensory input in the outdoors (or indoors, as indicated) that addresses all of the sensory systems. Using meaningful play experiences not only provide all the benefits of play. They encourage healthy development through the senses.
There are quite a few benefits to sensory experiences in the outdoors:
Outdoor play is a calming environment.
Outdoor play is alerting.
Outdoor play fosters listening skills.
Outdoor play encourages risk-taking.
Outdoor play supports executive functioning skills.
Outdoor play encourages participation in the sense of touch.
Outdoor play promotes vestibular input.
Outdoor play provides an environment that encourages a calming and alert state of being.
Outdoor play promotes self-control and comfort in task completion through graded participation.
Outdoor play encourages social development.
Outdoor play improves physical health.
Outdoor play encourages body awareness.
Outdoor Sensory Diet and Improvement in Function and Attention
One study found a sensory diet in outdoor play along with sensory integration therapy resulted in better functional behavior of kids with ADHD (Sahoo & Senapati).
Using sensory activities that are specific in time and quality such as those in a sensory diet should be done in an authentic and meaningful manner in a child’s life. In this way, sensory input is motivating to the child in that it goes along with interests and the environment in which the child lives.
It’s a fact that kids are spending less time playing outdoors. From after-school schedules to two working parents, to unsafe conditions, to increased digital screen time, to less outdoor recess time…kids just get less natural play in the outdoors. Some therapists have connected the dots between less outdoor play and increased sensory struggles and attention difficulties in learning. Knowing this, it can be powerful to have a list of outdoor sensory diet activities that can be recommended as therapy home programing and family activities that meet underlying needs.
Need some outdoor sensory play ideas? Try these outdoor backyard sensory diet activities that inspire free play in the outdoors while encouraging sensory input of all kinds!
Our Proud Heritage: Outdoor Play Is Essential to Whole Child Development. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/jul2017/outdoor-play-child-development
The decline of play outdoors and the rise in sensory issueshttp://OccupationalTherapy.com
Von Kampen, M. (2011). The Effect of Outdoor Environment on Attention and Self-Regulation Behaviors on a Child with Autism. Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://search.yahoo.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1118&context=cehsdiss
Sahoo, S. & Senapati, A. Effect of sensory diet through outdoor play on functional behavior in children with ADHD. The Indian Journal of Occupational Therapy. Vol. 46, (2 ) 49-54.