While the fight to ensure government funding to improve conditions for, and provide education to, children with disabilities continues (and rightfully so), there are more concrete steps concerned parents, citizens, and communities can take. Creating study groups, play groups, and similar “clubs” with a healthy mixture of children from all backgrounds and levels of ability is one; hosting these groups in areas fit to support them is another.
Just being outside is healthy. In fact, recent studies indicate that some learning disabilities may develop when expecting mothers do not get enough sunlight. Whether or not this proves to be the case, the fact remains that all children (and adults, for that matter) need to spend time outside engaging with others of their peer group.
All of this simply means that we could all use more time spent outside! By making your backyard disability friendly, you will be able to host more people from different walks of life, and introduce your children to those with special needs. If your child, or someone in your family, has special needs, then making your backyard disability friendly is not just an option, it is necessary.
While some disabled children may not be able to physically join all of the activities, just being outside, and being able to observe and interact with the others, provides all of the children with a sense of inclusivity while normalizing children with disabilities. Making outdoor recreational areas accessible to those with disabilities is a big step toward teaching able-bodied children important lessons, but it is also a big step for disabled children who spend the majority of their time in care.
In too many cases, most of these children are only ever around nurses, doctors, caregivers, and peers who also have special needs. Contrary to popular belief, not all of them are just waiting for the chance to be surrounded by strong, screaming, able-bodied children throwing balls at one another! Your backyard can be a safe space for them to overcome those (very reasonable) fears, develop strong social skills, and form relationships.
Children need to learn to get along with others on their own – to resolve differences, find creative solutions to problems in a group setting, and learn how to work (or play) with others. These are important social skills that promote inclusion and healthy relationships, as well as diplomatic approaches to adversities and disagreements. This is also why you should not “helicopter parent” kids’ play sessions with disabled peers.
However, it is always assumed that one or more parents, caregivers, or guardians is supervising. You should never leave a disabled child unattended, even if they are in a group of able-bodied friends.
The goal of great design here is not about overcoming disabilities, it is about facilitating access for those with disabilities. For example, crutches are not built to fix a broken leg but to allow someone with a broken leg to remain mobile until the bone heals; crutches do not overcome a broken bone, they overcome the mobility issue. So, do not focus on your child’s disability, focus on her abilities, then design your backyard space to make it easier for her to do things that use those abilities.
This change in perspective will not only improve your design, it will also save you time and money.
Two hours in nature per week is all you need to improve your health
Benefits of Outdoor Play
Everyone needs fresh air, sunlight, and exercise, but physically disabled children often need more than others. If unused, muscles can atrophy and bones weaken. Indoor air quality is notoriously poor, regardless of steps taken to remedy that. And sunshine provides vitamins C, A, D, and more.
Here are some of the other benefits of outdoor physical activity:
- Increased awareness and attention span.
- An outlet for physical energy.
- Improved physical fitness.
- Relaxation decreases stress levels which, in turn, lowers blood pressure.
- Improved mood and attitude, and more stable emotional health.
- Improved academic performance and studying skills.
Literally making your backyard accessible to those with disabilities takes some work, and a financial investment. However, you don’t have to be a professional construction worker to make a few modifications here and there that can make your backyard more accessible than it would be without them. Fencing or installing a ramp are some examples of DIY projects you could even turn into family projects and educational opportunities.
Covering all the bases is likely to cost some real money and take time, though. You will also need to hire a contractor for the labor and purchase specially designed playground equipment.
- Ramps and sidewalks should be at least 60” in width to allow wheelchairs access to recreational areas.
- Ramps should be at a gentle incline (1:12 slope).
- Handrails along walkways, paths, decks and porches, and seating areas help children with mobility disabilities, and caregivers.
- Use plastic instead of metal for playground equipment, and consider specialized playground additions like a wheelchair swing.
- Fences around play areas are always a good idea.
- Screened porches and decks may allow some the chance to “go outside” and interact with others, even if they are unable to physically join the play group.
- Do not forget access to bathrooms, and handicap stalls in bathrooms, if possible.
Of course, few families can afford to include all of these amenities in their backyards, but just being aware of the needs many disabled children have can help you to better plan play dates and outdoor activities to be sure they are included. Below are some informative articles on the subject and, further down, we will look at a number of activities requiring little or no specialized equipment that are great for children of all needs.
This WikiHow article teaches you how to build a wheelchair ramp in 12 easy steps.
This post from Build Direct takes it a step further by teaching you how to make your entire backyard handicap accessible!
(This assumes you have some construction know-how and experience; a DIY project of this magnitude takes time and cannot be done alone.)
Playworld is the leader in professional playground equipment for children with special needs.
How to Install a Handrail on a Deck (DIY Network)
Although children with physical limitations are those with the most obvious needs to be considered when designing an outdoor play area, those with mental and emotional disabilities should not be forgotten. A healthy mix of activities targeting the senses, encouraging physical activity, and providing mental and social stimulation gives all of the kids activities to enjoy.
While they will not all be able to enjoy the same activities at the same time, this is true of any group. If they each have something to do outside, they will still be able to get some fresh air and sunshine while socializing with their peers.
Art is stimulating on a number of levels and is often prescribed to those with physical, mental, and emotional medical conditions as a proven relaxation technique. Art boosts children’s mental and emotional development, and could even lead to a career later in life. It is also a way to include children with special needs in outdoor activities in which they might not otherwise be able to take part.
This includes those with asthma, severe allergies, issues involving overstimulation and attention, or other disabilities that preclude their being able to go outside as often as others, or at all. Some medications can also force children to remain in shady areas or refrain from strenuous physical exertion, and Art is a good way for them to pass the time outside while still having opportunity to socialize with their friends.
Art improves motor control and fine manipulation skills, as well as being visually stimulating. Children learn about shapes and colors, and develop a sense of accomplishment which builds confidence. A foundation in Art can be a good conversation starter for making new friends, as well.
Drawing & Painting
These hands-on activities are lots of fun for children, and being outside means less clean-up for caregivers. Paints, chalk, and charcoal can be applied to a variety of surfaces, and rain or a garden hose will wash them away. Blank (printer) paper, notebook paper, and construction paper are inexpensive, and every household with children has a crayon box, if nothing else!
Developing observational skills can be trying for those with attention disorders and similar disabilities, and visual Art gives them something to focus on. Approach it as an active hobby, and not just something to do. Introduce tactile stimulation through different media, such as pastels, glue, and glitter.
Invite them to feel subjects (if they can) to better understand their textures, then instruct them to try and capture that texture on the page. For example, coloring on a rough surface makes interesting textural patterns on the page, and crayon and pastel will adhere to sandpaper for interesting designs.
Several of the following activities, such as observing wildlife and rock collecting, are fantastic opportunities for Photography. Especially now that cameras are so ubiquitous, Photography is an activity which makes kids eager to go outside while also teaching them a useful, and possibly even lucrative, skill.
Photography is an especially inspiring activity for children with progressive diseases or disabilities. It allows some wheelchair-bound children to be involved in group physical activities, even if from a distance. And, it opens up other social opportunities, like Photography clubs, yearbook committees, school newspaper positions, and more.
Here are some fun and easy crafts for children with special needs.
Big Learning‘s Treasure Trove of Photography for Kids lists dozens of sites and resources to get you started.
Here is a guide to creating a Photography Scavenger Hunt for your kids and their friends that gives everyone a reason to go outdoors!
Inexpensive Outdoor Activities
Even with a backyard full of specialized equipment, you and your children need other activities to make spending time outside enjoyable and worthwhile. The items on this list are relatively inexpensive and require few, if any, tools or skills to enjoy. Best of all, they can be scaled to group size or tailored for the individual with only minor considerations.
Gardening is not only a relaxing way to spend some time in the sun, it is good for the environment, and it can save you money. Imagine being able to pull dinner from your garden, or throw together a quick salsa for unexpected company from ingredients you grew yourself. Gardening gives kids a good reason to play in the dirt (as if they need one) and it can be educational, as well. The tactile sensations, coupled with learning a helpful life skill and the sense of accomplishment and confidence that brings, makes gardening a strong option for spending time outdoors with disabled children.
A few sandwiches, a blanket, and some fruit is all it takes for a fun afternoon outside. But you can do much better than a few plain sandwiches and a bag of chips! Get creative – not only in your choice of picnic foods but in your planning and presentation. Invite the kids to help with the entire process. You can even turn it into an educational opportunity.
Bird feeders are an inexpensive and highly stimulating way to provide children with inclusive play opportunities while teaching them Science, Biology, Wildlife, and more. Activities like filling the feeders stimulate tactile senses, while the birds and squirrels that feed from them are visually stimulating. Combined with Photography, bird-watching can be great fun for the entire family.
You can literally build a sandbox yourself using a tarp, four boards, and some glue (try to avoid nails or screws, unless you have brackets and some carpentry skills). These are especially good for including a wide range of children, including those with disabilities, as they provide tactile sensory stimulation, activities for focus, and stimulate creativity. A few plastic buckets, shovels, and some water turn a sandbox into a construction yard for budding, young architects. (Just be sure to hose everyone down before sending them home!)
Let’s Get Wet!
Speaking of garden hoses and kids, here are several fun activities that require little special equipment, planning, or setup. Water obviously stimulates the tactile senses, but it can also help with developing motor skills and fine manipulation.
What kid doesn’t enjoy playing in the sprinkler? Obviously, this is not inclusive to all children with physical disabilities, but they can be included simply by handing them a camera!
Water Fountain or Bird Bath
Water features in gardens and yards are just as entertaining for children as they are for adults. Water does not have to be touched to be enjoyed; water fountains are both visually stimulating and relaxing to listen to. The wildlife they attract, including the plants surrounding them, are also fun and interesting, and provide excellent educational opportunities.
Wading pools for children can be purchased for under $10.00 (US) and provide a chance for even physically challenged children to literally get their feet wet! Standing water attracts insects like mosquitoes, so be sure to empty the pool after each use and store it properly.
No one has to get wet when playing with bubbles, but why wouldn’t they? Fun, visually stimulating, and an educational opportunity, bubbles are fun for everyone. A bowl, a hoop, and a bottle of dishwashing liquid are all you need, though adding some food coloring to the mixture is another idea. This is another good use for a wading pool, too.
Turn existing outdoor features around the house into play things. Short retaining walls (climbing without a great risk of injury), sidewalks (sidewalk chalk art, hopscotch), rock collecting (a hobby which can last a lifetime and possibly even inspire a career path), and other common landscaping and natural features are all good examples of safe and creative alternatives to specialized equipment.
Be sure to set definitive limits on play areas. That children should not be allowed to play in sheds, workshops, or under vehicles may be obvious to adults, but not at all obvious to kids. Being allowed to write on the sidewalk but not on Dad’s car is another not so obvious rule you might want to point out!
Outdoor fun can be achieved without spending a fortune – luckily, kids are very creative, especially in group settings. A volleyball net can also be used for badminton, and a set of monkey-bars is always a good stand-in for a volleyball net. A tennis ball and a sturdy wall are all most kids need to stay occupied, and disabled children are not much different.
As mentioned in the Resources section above, unstructured outdoor activity is just as important as any other outdoor exercise. Structured games like freeze tag and Simon Says teach them to follow rules and work within the structure of the game, while unstructured play appeals to their creativity and teaches them to cooperate and compromise. As long as there is supervision, the children should be encouraged to find things to do on their own. A few common toys can serve as inspiration but probably are not necessary.
Even if you cannot afford sandboxes, landscaping, or wheelchair accessible walkways, an assortment of common outdoor toys, such as balls, jump ropes, and sidewalk chalk are all most kids need to have a good time. While some of the children may not be able to use the toys in the manner in which they were intended, the play group will find ways to enjoy them.
While some of the suggestions below may seem evident, we all need a little help finding something to do sometimes. If nothing else, use them as prompts for developing your own, unique activities with your children’s play group.
Pet-Friendly and Accessible
While not technically a natural feature or activity, pets are a wonderful, loving addition to any family. They make loyal companions to any child, and teach them patience and responsibility. Many disabled children rely on pets as emotional support animals, and do not function well without them. Making your backyard pet friendly doesn’t take much, but it goes a long way toward making it disability friendly.
Be sure there is plenty of cool water available at all times, and that it is accessible. Large, open spaces inside of fenced-in areas are great for playing fetch, Frisbee, or plain old tag. Just be sure to keep cats away from the sandbox!
Including disabled children in everyday activities is an important lesson for able-bodied kids. It teaches them acceptance and provides opportunities for finding creative ways of overcoming adversity. But, the point is for all of the children to have a good time together, so remember to include them in your backyard play space design, as well.
The point is to create areas where all of the children can co-mingle and play together, not force friendships or able-bodied children into caregiver roles. None of the kids should feel burdened or left out. The areas should be designed and laid-out in such a way as to promote co-mingling and activities they can all enjoy together.