Current events have shifted traditional educational models to encompass a variety of options including virtual sites like at home or small learning pods, as well as in-person classroom models with social distancing and flexible furniture configurations. Furthermore, many schools are embracing the concept of expanding their classrooms into outdoor learning spaces to allow for additional safety while fostering creativity. According to the Children and Nature Network, research indicates there are many benefits to learning outdoors, including better physical health, opportunities to strengthen motor skills, stress relief, stronger verbal and social skills, and increased attention and cognitive abilities.
Children with special needs may need additional modifications when moving classrooms outdoors. Here are some key ideas to consider when designing a space:
- Accessibility is key. Make sure the space is level and there is a path to the space that is wheelchair accessible. Avoid uneven surfaces and be mindful that grass, stone, or gravel surfaces may be difficult for a student that uses crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair to maneuver. Engineered wood fiber or playground foam surfaces are good options.
- Many students with special needs may be heat/sun intolerant due to a specific diagnosis or prescription medication. Be sure to have options that include a covered area and/or sun shades to reduce risk.
- Outdoor learning spaces often incorporate dynamic seating options like stools that offer minimal support. Be sure to consider spatial boundary and supported options for children that may have balance and/or sensory processing issues. The Rifton Compass Chair makes an easy portable choice that can be incorporated into existing study time outdoor spaces. The HowdaHug Roll Up Seat is another portable solution when additional trunk stability and/or body in space cues are needed.
- For fine motor tasks, portable options like a weighted lap desk can provide additional stability. A slantboard on a tabletop may help with more ergonomic positioning by providing forearm stability and reducing glare/eye strain. A 2-3” binder (rings facing away from the student) with a clipboard on top makes an easy DIY option in a pinch.
- As with indoor learning, meeting the sensory processing needs of students is crucial to support focus, attention, and behavior. Adding dynamic seating options like a wiggle cushion or movement/compression pieces like the SqUoosh or PeaPod chairs are good choices that are portable and easy to implement in an outdoor space. Having portable vestibular pieces like the Jump & Play Island for a gross motor sensory break or a Pumpkin Chair swing to crawl into for quiet space time will round out flexible sensory options.
Being mindful of the accessibility and sensory needs of students with special needs is the key to creating an inclusive environment that support the principles of Universal Design for Learning. Check out our Outdoor Learning collection for more ideas!
Cecilia Cruse, MS, OTR/L has a BS degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Florida, and her Master’s degree in Education from Georgia State University. She is SIPT certified and has over 25 years’ experience in pediatrics with school-based services, acute care, and outpatient pediatric settings.
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