Disclaimer: I am not a trained special needs educator, and am still learning how to best engage with Autistic and other special ability students. This post is about what I have learned so far in my journey to work with students on the Autism spectrum in my school district. Each student is different, and what works for one child might be completely wrong for another. There is also a lot we are still learning about Autism Spectrum Disorders, and so some of what I am writing could change in the future. If you would like to work more with children with special needs, please work closely with their educator to ensure that your activities are as safe and engaging as possible.
Do a quick google search for “outdoor activity” + almost any grade and a variety of activities on different topics come up to start you on your way. Do a search for “outdoor activity + autistic students” and it is a completely different story. To be fair, every student on the autism spectrum is different, and as a result it is hard to write curriculum the same way you can for “neurotypical” students.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been trying to expand programs into the special needs classrooms. It has been a great experience so far, and I have learned a LOT already. I want to make it clear right off the bat, though, that I am writing this just as a novice for other novices. While I hope to take some coursework on this subject some day, I have not yet, and everything I am saying here I have just learned from a few experiences and reading a variety of blogs and websites. I wanted to write it up anyway, though, because there are so few activity descriptions out there, and even if every child is different I think it can help to at least have a starting point to jump off from.
First, anyone considering doing an activity with a class of autistic students should speak as much as possible to the special needs educator. If possible, go into the classroom a few days before your activity to just sit silently and watch the students–this can really help you feel more prepared. I would recommend listening carefully to the way the educators speak to the students, and the methods they use to communicate with them. For example, in my class there is one deaf student, so I learned the signs for a few simple words related to my activity like “tree,” and “bird” before going in. You will probably notice that the room is very quiet and there isn’t a lot of extraneous explanation. Students on the autism spectrum tend to do best with direct and specific instruction.
Many times, students with autism also have sensory processing disorders. The details vary greatly for every student, but generally you should avoid loud sudden noises and be willing to stop to take a “sensory break” if necessary. On this note, the very best piece of advice I can give someone who is interested in working more with these children (or any child, for that matter!) is to always be willing to change your plans. I would even explicitly tell the teacher that you would like them to stop you or step in if they feel that the children need a break or should be doing something else.
It is also useful to provide the teacher with info on what you are planning to do ahead of time–they might want to take the class to the outside area first to get them used to it, or talk about some of the topics before you get there. In some cases, you might even find that the best thing you can do is just provide the teacher with activities and materials to work with the students her/himself.
When I think about being an educator, I always think of Walt Whitman’s poem “There Was a Child Went Forth.” In the poem, everything a child sees or learns become a part of him. I feel the same way as an educator! Everything I read or experience comes back to help in small, unexpected ways. For this reason, I recommend reading as much as you can from the many blogs, books, and websites available. There is still so much we don’t know about autism, so each source will tell you something a little different. When I was creating the activity written out below, I was wandering around a store looking for different textures to use. I had been planning on using mainly rough textures, when I suddenly remembered a blog post written months ago by a mother of a 4-year-old child on the spectrum. In the post she talked about how he went through a phase where he rubbed playing cards on everything because he really liked the smooth feeling. Because of reading that post months ago that at the time was nothing more than a story, I changed my tactic and gathered together a variety of textures, including smooth and soft ones.
The activity I ended up creating is about trees and their different parts. I started off by singing this song from the “Sequoia Riverlands Trust” website. It is to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” and goes through the crown, branches, trunk, roots, etc. The special needs educator at my school recommended to me that songs with hand motions are useful–that way students can sing or hum along if they want, or can just follow along with the motions.
Next, we went outside to an enclosed courtyard in the school and walked around feeling the bark of the trees, the smooth leaves, the soft dandelion flowers, and anything else we could find. This part went fairly well, except that one student got very upset at first because he had put his jacket on and thus thought he was going out to play. This makes sense to me in hindsight because routines are a very important tool for autistic students, and he has probably been taught specifically that he needs to put his jacket on before he goes to play. This kind of thing will come up when you are teaching, and, if you learn from them, these mistakes will make you better for the next time.
Finally, we came back in the classroom. We ended up doing a finger painting activity where the students drew a tree trunk on a paper and then used their thumbs dipped in paint to make leaves. I had a whole other activity planned for this part, but the teacher thought this would be best instead based on the kind of day the students were having. I had brought the finger paints along as a sort of un-formulated back up plan, and was really glad I did! It makes me look like a bag-lady, but I try to keep as many supplies as possible in the trunk of my car just for this kind of scenario. In the future, I will make more detailed back-up plans like this in case I need to use them with the students.
As I said, we did not end up using the other activity I had planned, but I want to write it up anyway because the teacher said she thought it would work on a one-to-one basis with the students.
To tie in with the tree song, I constructed a tree “puzzle” out of a variety of materials. Autistic students generally like different tactile sensations, so I tried to make it out of as many different textures as possible, as mentioned above.
I cut the tree trunks and branches out of sand paper for a rough texture, the leaves out of vinyl fabric for a smooth texture, and flowers/fruits out of yarn for a soft one. I made one complete version of the puzzle and taped it to a small white board so the students could look at one and copy it if they needed to. My original idea was for the students to arrange the parts in the proper order onto white poster board to make a tree. I realize now that it might be even better to have the pieces already arranged and have them spend time feeling the different textures and helping them label the parts, although this probably depends on the individual abilities of each child. The completed tree looked like this:
As mentioned, this one is taped to a white board so I could label the different parts in real-time.
While students on the autism spectrum tend to like different textures, which textures they like depends entirely on the student. In the class I worked with, one student really enjoyed the rough texture of the sand paper bark while another became very upset after touching it because he preferred smooth textures. For this reason, the greater variety you have the better off you will be, with something for each child.
I sent a letter home to the families of these students explaining what we had done that day, lyrics to the tree parts song, and a description of how they could make their own tree “puzzle” if they wanted to. I am a big believer in this type of thing so that the families can work with their child later on what they learned in school–I try to do this with every class I work with, not just the special needs classes.
I had a great time working with these students and I can’t wait to do it again in the future. Again, the most important piece of advice I can probably give is to be flexible, that it will not always go the way you think it will, and that’s okay! In my head I imagined the children being very engaged in the tree puzzle, exploring the outdoor space with awe, and everyone carrying me out of the schools on their shoulders cheering about how great the activity was (…okay maybe not that last part). In reality, one student had terrible allergies outside and starting sneezing, and then became very upset about the horrible and overwhelming sensation of his newly stuffy nose, we changed activities at the last moment, and my entire session lasted half as long as I had originally planned.
I am not there yet, but every time I go in to this classroom I get a little better and a little more aware of how to best interact with these awesome students. I am always looking to learn more, so if you have a favorite resource about engaging with Autistic students or working outside with special needs children, please pass the information my way! If you are a parent or educator and have any insight on what kinds of things your child/student likes to do outside, I would really love that information as well. Also, she probably won’t see it, but I want to give a quick thank you to the simply amazing special needs educator at my school who has been willing to work with me, teach me about her students, and help me be a better educator myself!
If you would like to read more, here are some of the resources I have found helpful so far. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and I am still looking, but it is a place to start!
Thank you so much for reading! I hope some of this information can be helpful to other environmental educators/outdoor enthusiasts looking to bring the wonderful world of nature into a special needs classroom. If you have any other insights, advice, corrections, or information, please leave it in the comments or send me an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. See you out there!