Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Environmental Education and Autism May 10, 2011


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!


National Autism Association

10 Activities for Autistic Students

Outdoor Toys for Autistic Children

How to Use Play Therapy to Treat Autism

Best Physical Activities for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autistic Children Activities


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 See you out there!


10 Tips for Teaching Environmental Education February 24, 2011


When I am not writing this blog or struggling to make myself get out into the snow, I am an environmental education coordinator for a local school district. I work with K – 12 grade classes, creating outdoor activities that fit with class curriculum and PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) exam standards. My goals are always two-fold: 1. to have students learn something about the topic at hand, and 2. to give them an experience with nature that will increase their comfort in being outside and turn nature into a “friend.”

Before this position I spent time as a museum guide in Philadelphia, a park guide at Arches National Park in Utah, a nature camp leader, and as a “content expert” for high school geoscience teachers at a conference in Pennsylvania. Each of these brought their own set of challenges, rewards, and lessons, and each has helped me to grow as a person and educator.  I am always changing based on new experiences, but here are the ten most important lessons for teaching environmental education that I have learned so far!



1. Don’t depend on the teacher to get control of the class for you.

This is sometimes hard to do, because you don’t want to come into a new place and correct someone elses’ kids. I am not saying you should go overboard with this, but sometimes teachers are going to welcome the brief respite from teaching and take the time to grade papers, plan the next activity, etc.  They will not always be available to step in for you, or step in at the time you need it. The ability to gently bring a group back together when they are not listening on your own is very important!


2. You don’t know what else these kids are dealing with, so be compassionate!

You can’t let kids walk all over you, but you will often find that the kid who is having the hardest time sitting still or listening to directions is also struggling in other ways. I once told a kindergarten class to show the work we did to their families when they got home, and the student who had been the hardest to work with said quietly, “My dad only calls me bad names.” A 4th grade student in a writing exercise about a favorite place in nature wrote about a tree in his backyard that was his only friend, who he could “tell all his secrets to.” The list goes on.  Some kids are struggling with very difficult things, and you won’t always know what they are.

Along these same lines I am careful to never address letters home to ‘parents,’ and don’t use the word ‘parents’ to students–I only ever say ‘families.’  I am also careful to say “where you live” instead of house.  It requires less effort than it might seem–it quickly became a habit for me and now I don’t even have to think about it anymore. It might seem extreme at first to worry about this stuff, but it is a small change that might make a big difference.


3. Instead of being angry at a “difficult” student, invest extra time into that student or get her or him to help you with an activity.

This is one of the very best pieces of teaching advice I ever got. If a teacher tells you in advance that one of their students might be difficult, set up a positive relationship with them as soon as possible. Your initial reaction to hearing someone is difficult might be to assert dominance and show them you can’t be messed with. Resist this urge! Instead, ask them to help you set up an activity or ask for their opinion on a topic. If you discover that a certain student is causing problems in the middle of the activity, use any down time to see how that child is doing, what they find exciting about the class, etc.

Shortly after I first got this advice I had a 3rd grade student who had a really hard time working in a group and following directions. During the lunch break I noticed him looking at a plant and went over to talk to him about it. After I showed interest in what he was thinking, he was much more willing to work with me in the second half of the day. It was amazing what a difference this minimal effort made!


4. Kids will be excited if you are excited!

And they will be bored if you are bored. One of the best tools you have for reaching kids is your passion for a subject. It is contagious, and will keep kids listening and wanting to learn more. Don’t ever forget that you got into this field because you love the topic, and you want to share that love with others. You are making a difference in ways you won’t ever even know about!


5. Some students you work with will have Asperger’s syndrome, sensory processing disorderattention deficit disorder, anxiety, Down syndrome, etc. Sometimes you will know about it and sometimes you won’t.

In my opinion, the more you can learn about these different topics the better you will be at working with ALL students. This is a bit like #2, in that if you are not the regular teacher you never really know what an individual student is dealing with. I started thinking about this a lot recently after watching the documentary “I can’t do this but I CAN do that: A film for families about learning differences.”  I highly recommend watching it if you have a chance! One of the stories that especially stuck with me is of a boy with auditory processing disorder. He had a very difficult time understanding what the teacher was saying over other class noises, and as a result was always in trouble for “not paying attention.” I think back in horror now to every time I ever said to a student “Well, what did I just explain to the class?” After seeing this film I started asking myself, “Why do I care about explaining something a second time? What is the big deal to me?” It is possible some people could argue I am being ‘too easy’ on the kids, but I have made the decision that my most important goal is to get kids excited about nature and science while keeping everyone safe. This means that I will stop an individual who is disrupting the class or calm a group down that has gotten out of hand, but I don’t feel the need to punish a kid for being distracted when I first explained directions. If the regular teacher wants to do that, I will leave it up to them, but it isn’t my job in the few hours I see a group.


6. Make sure students really know they can ask you questions, and be willing to cover less than you thought you would if students are confused.

I make sure to ask students if they have any questions often, and at times explicitly say, “Please tell me if you don’t understand this topic, I don’t mind and I am happy to explain it in a different way.” Sometimes you won’t find out until the very end of a lesson that students have no idea what you are talking about. This is okay! Remember that your goal is NOT to just get through all of your material, but to impart knowledge to other beings. It is okay if you can’t cover everything you hoped if students really understand what you do cover.

One of the more difficult sides of this is that you really do need to explain things in a different way if kids aren’t getting you. This can be difficult, but the better you know your material the easier it will be. I once had a math class in college where the professor would answer my question by repeating the exact same sentences and examples he used the first time. I really hated this, and it did nothing whatsoever to help my problems with math. It is very frustrating to be willing to learn in spite of struggling, and not have the instructor meet you half way.


7. Be willing to change your plans completely.

It will rain. The teacher will forget you are coming that day. The students will remember the golden retriever they saw at the farm above every other thing they learned that day. You will teach a whole activity and find out at the end that you were accidentally using a word beyond their vocabulary but nobody told you. Most importantly, sometimes you will just feel that things aren’t going very well. When you get this feeling, CHANGE YOUR PLANS! Do not continue to teach to blank faces, do not cling desperately to your notes as you go down with the ship. You have to be willing to adapt to each individual class, their interests, and their needs. This will be difficult and scary at first but will get easier with time, and is one of the most important things you can do to be an effective educator.


8. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something!

If you don’t know something and make up an answer anyway, they will know, and they will not listen to anything else you say. This advice was given to me when I was working as a park guide in Arches National Park, and I have stuck by it ever since. The most important part about saying you don’t know something, though, is to tell students/groups that you will find out the answer and get back to them, and then actually do it. More than a few times I have e-mailed a teacher after an activity with information that the students wanted to know that I just didn’t. Saying you don’t know something will also seem scary at first, but it is really important. If you are willing to say what you don’t know, people will trust what you DO know even more, and students will see that the learning process continues even in adulthood.


9.  Spend a few seconds before each activity getting mentally ready.

This is probably one of the biggest “little” things you can do. Spending a short time before an activity reminding yourself of the topic, why you like it, and to be “centered” will make you more confident and ready to deal with whatever comes next. I do this a couple of different ways–sometimes I run through what I want to say again in my head, sometimes I center myself by thinking about all of the atoms in my body with their electrons spinning around (this is a weird thing I have done for a while–don’t know quite where it came from!), and sometimes I just think about how cool the science topic I am about to teach is! I find taking this time really helps with #4, and conveying my excitement and interest to the students.


10. Reflect, reflect, reflect!

The best way to get better is by doing, making some good decisions, making some bad decisions, and then reflecting on why one was good and one was bad. Sometimes you will have an amazing day with kids who are excited and asking great questions, and sometimes you will wonder if you made any impact at all. You need to figure out what went well! I try to do this immediately, while I am driving home from an activity (although sometimes I just listen to music and sing along loudly). If you like writing, journaling can be another good way to do this. Other times I reflect just by talking about my day to someone. Explaining things out loud to another person helps me recognize patterns or reasons that I didn’t see at first.

I’ve also started sending out brief 5 question surveys to teachers after activities. I made the survey for free on, and ask questions like “Q: Do you feel students were engaged in this activity? A: Yes, the entire time. B. Yes, for part of the time. C. No, they were not engaged,” “What was the best part of this activity?” and “What would you like to see in the future?” The teachers don’t always have time to answer but the information I do get back is well worth the effort.

Reflecting will also help you develop your own personal tips and guidelines. Five years ago I was afraid to speak up and correct a class if their teacher wasn’t doing it. One year ago I had never thought about how saying “parents” might affect kids who lived with their grandparents, a family friend, or a single parent. 6 months ago I had never even heard of sensory processing disorder! I can’t even imagine what kind of things I will learn in the next activity, the next 6 months, the next years of my life. But I do know that I will find out, thanks to reflection and the help of those around me.


So how about you, readers? What have you learned from your time in the classroom or outside, with kids or adults? How do you stay excited and interested in your topic? How do you convey that to others? What kinds of life experiences have affected the way you interact with others?

I hope you will leave some of your experiences and tips in the comments section! There is such a wealth of personal experience out there, and we are always better for sharing. I would love to learn from you!