Research has a lot to say about nature play. When it comes to outdoor play, there is a lot that can be discussed too. Occupational therapy professionals encourage a lot of open-ended play, outdoor games, and outdoor play. There is a natural sensory aspect to outdoor play, which supports self-regulation, emotional regulation, attention, and learning, all through just playing outside! Today we are talking all about what the research has to say about outdoor sensory diet activities and outdoor play.
Benefits of Nature 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! But to take it a step further, did you know there are benefits of outdoor games? Did you know that the outdoors support executive functioning skills, self-regulation, and motor skill development…all through playing outside?
Use this information when explaining about what a sensory diet is and what a sensory diet looks like for kids with sensory needs.
There are quite a few benefits to sensory experiences in the outdoors:
- Outdoor play is a calming environment.
- Nature play adds proprioception input.
- Outdoor play offers vestibular input.
- Outdoor play is rich in fine motor experiences.
- Nature play is a natural opportunity for heavy work input.
- 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.
- Nature play offers opportunities to support auditory processing needs.
- 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.
- Nature play offers opportunity for gross motor coordination development.
- Outdoor play encourages body awareness.
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.
Research on Outdoor Play
There are many benefits of outdoor play.
There have 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 benefits of outdoor play include:
- fine and gross motor development
- absorption of basic knowledge
- social skills
- language skills
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.
Studies have found that dynamic and varied outdoor play offers opportunities for decision making that stimulate problem solving and creative thinking, opportunities that aren’t as easily found in the more static indoor environment.
Still other research supports the many health benefits:
- reducing stress
- decreasing symptoms of ADHD
- protecting against myopia
- boost the immune system
Outdoor Nature Play 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.
From an occupational therapy perspective, nature play offers supports for underlying skill development. Children have the opportunity to develop motor skills, visual perceptual skills, confidence, executive functioning skills, and self-regulation that enables them to feel confident in their abilities. These areas of development support functioning and independence!
When heading outdoors, you can put on a coat, boots, or jacket and work on self-dressing skills. You can experience all of the motor rich opportunities for movement in the outdoors. Navigating the environment (whether in the woods or the city) offers visual perception, motor planning, and eye-hand coordination opportunities.
Just going outside for a walk is an exercise in skill-building!
Outdoor Sensory Play Ideas
Knowing the benefits of outdoor games and free play, let’s cover some fun ways to offer the movement, regulation, and input from the outdoors. Here are some outdoor play ideas that tick all of the boxes.
- Climb trees
- Play lawn games
- Play backyard tag games
- Set up a sensory kitchen
- Play at a playground
- Play hopscotch
- Play at the beach
- Play pretend games
- Play in the woods
- Go on a nature walk
- Water play or a water sensory bin
- Play with the sprinkler or hose
- Messy play
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!
Sensory diets and specific sensory input or sensory challenges are a big part of addressing sensory needs of children who struggle with sensory processing issues. Incorporating a schedule of sensory input (sensory diet) into a lifestyle of naturally occuring and meaningful activities is so very valuable for the child with sensory needs.
Sensory diets and specific sensory input or sensory challenges are a big part of addressing sensory needs of children who struggle with sensory processing issues. Incorporating a schedule of sensory input (sensory diet) into a lifestyle of naturally occurring and meaningful activities is so very valuable for the child with sensory needs. That’s why I’ve worked to create a book on creating an authentic and meaningful sensory lifestyle that addresses sensory needs. The book is now released as a digital e-book or softcover print book, available on Amazon. The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook walks you through sensory diet creation, set-up, and carry through. Not only that, but the book helps you take a sensory diet and weave it into a sensory lifestyle that supports the needs of a child with sensory processing challenges and the whole family. Get The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook here.
That’s where the Outdoor Sensory Diet Cards and Sensory Challenge Cards come into play. They are printable resource that encourages sensory diet strategies in the outdoors. In the printable packet, there are 90 outdoor sensory diet activities, 60 outdoor recess sensory diet activities, 30 blank sensory diet cards, and 6 sensory challenge cards. They can be used based on preference and interest of the child, encouraging motivation and carryover, all while providing much-needed sensory input.
Here’s a little more information about the Outdoor Sensory Diet Cards
- 90 outdoor sensory diet activities
- 60 outdoor recess sensory diet activities
- 30 blank sensory diet cards, and 6 sensory challenge cards
- They can be used based on preference and interest of the child, encouraging motivation and carryover, all while providing much-needed sensory input.
- Research tells us that outdoor play improves attention and provides an ideal environment for a calm and alert state, perfect for integration of sensory input.
- Outdoor play provides input from all the senses, allows for movement in all planes, and provides a variety of strengthening components including eccentric, concentric, and isometric muscle contractions.
- Great tool for parents, teachers, AND therapists!
Be sure to grab the Outdoor Sensory Diet Cards and use them with a child (or adult) with sensory processing needs!
Benefits of Nature Play References:
- Frost, J. & Sutterby, J. (2017). Our Proud Heritage: Outdoor Play Is Essential to Whole Child Development. Retrieved from: from: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/jul2017/outdoor-play-child-development
- Hanscom, A (2017, October). The decline of play outdoors and the rise in sensory issues. OccupationalTherapy.com, Article 3990. Retrieved from http://OccupationalTherapy.com.
- Moore, R. (2014). Nature Play & Learning Places. Creating and managing places where children engage with nature. Raleigh, NC: Natural
- Learning Initiative and Reston, VA: National Wildlife Federation
- Version 1.2.
- 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.
What are your favorite outdoor play ideas?
Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.