"What can I do mom? I'm bored!" So goes the dreaded complaint of summer. If you are like most moms, you have an immediate response that might go something like this, "If you can't find something to do, I have plenty of housework for you!" My kids learned early on to engage themselves or I'd find some chore to occupy their time. We all know that play is considered a child's work, and that playing outside is fundamental to our child's growth. For years I searched yard sales and auctions to acquire inexpensive outdoor play equipment for our children. One time I came home ecstatic because I had won a school auction for a huge pile of pieces from a disassembled, redwood jungle gym...with no instructions on how to reassemble it. My husband dubbed it, "Ruth's Folly" and I don't believe we ever got it back together correctly. The good news is kids don't need a lot of fancy equipment to play. But they will thrive if you can offer them a safe, interesting outdoor space.
Now is the time to begin to create a backyard that is fun, safe and inviting for your kids this summer. It just takes a little thought and preparation. I've been in touch with Danny Knight who recently finished building some backyard elements for an autistic child. Danny is a dad living in Philadelphia who enjoys DIY projects, almost as much as raising his two children. He is the co-creator of FixItDads.com, which offers tips for home improvement projects. Danny's article on creating a tranquil outdoor environment for your child, particularly if they are autistic or prefer a calm, peaceful place, has several easy ideas any child would enjoy:
Four Ways to Create a Safe and Fun Backyard for Your Autistic Child
Summer months are normally associated with loud outdoor activities, including cookouts, parties, neighbors doing yard work, and fireworks on (and in some places, for days after) Independence Day.
But for children on the autism spectrum, the noises from summer activities that might be normal to us could send them into sensory overload. The motorized droning of the neighbor’s lawn mower could sound like a jet engine that won’t shut down, or the smell of a cookout could make it seem as if the house is on fire. Noise from Independence Day fireworks could constantly startle and frighten the child—and some neighborhoods have people who set them off all day long!
Make the Summer Space Safe and Fun
However, summer can also be a time for autistic children to engage in focused, calming activities that can happen right in their own backyards. They can learn that being outside during the noisy months of summer is a time to create joy, feel safe, and truly engage in the season.
Here are four ways you can make a backyard a fun, safe, accessible, and creative space for an autistic child. Not only do these lessen the fear of going outside, they also engage children in calming sensory activities that can help them focus and learn.
1. Mix Sun and Shade
Boulder County Home & Garden suggests that while it is still possible to overstimulate an autistic child with an abundance of flowers in the backyard, you can easily balance garden areas with appropriate amounts of shade. Reserve the brightest area in the backyard for a fragrant garden of red and yellow flowers. Use the shaded areas as a space for the child to feel calm and safe.
2. Build a Backyard Retreat
If your backyard doesn’t have enough natural shade, use old bedsheets and blankets (the darker the better) and build your child a retreat. You can string it up along a fence or use boxes or plastic bins to support it. The retreat can be a space where he can engage in quiet play or reading (and even get messy with a foamy sandbox, which we’ll describe later). Be sure to join him for some activities in his “summer house” to help him feel extra safe.
3. Give Them a Table of Their Own
Since many autistic children are good at drawing and art, spread a sheet of butcher paper over a picnic or patio table, hand over the crayons or markers, and turn the child’s creativity loose. This is not only a good way to keep the child focused, but she can also use it to express how she is feeling and release some energy. And when she’s finished, don’t throw the paper away. Roll it up and keep it. That way you can have an end-of-summer art show of her work and invite a small number of family and friends over (and later in the evening, go catch some fireflies).
4. Create a Foamy Sand Box!
No summer is complete without some messy fun. All you need is a large container (anything from a medium-sized storage bin to a small wading pool), some play sand, and a few cans of shaving cream. The recipe for it is here (basically, one can of inexpensive shaving cream for three cups of sand). Pour in the sand, spray in the shaving cream, and let your child dig in with his hands. It fully engages his sense of touch, while at the same time minimizing the mess. If there’s room enough in the container, let your child build shave-foam sand castles. Bring in the toy trucks and plastic dinosaurs. For the younger children, bury plastic letters and go on an alphabet treasure hunt.
Make It Safe, Comfortable, and Fun for All
Autism expert Steven R. Wertz says that any environment you make for you and your autistic child must be a comfortable place for both of you. By keeping your own backyard safe and comfortable, summer can be a magical—and even productive—time.
All children benefit from areas to play that are inviting, engaging and relatively safe. Let's get this summer started with backyards that draw our children out to play.
Please share in the comments below how you prepare your backyard to engage your children with outdoor play.
Photo Credit: Unsplash
Article by Ruth Grunstra
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Hi I'm Ruth
What is the biggest challenge you are facing with your child? My husband and I had the first of our 8 children in 1984 and our youngest in 2002. We've been married since 1980 and we are always learning new ways to engage our children. We would love to hear from you. Contact us and let us know what you have found that works and what doesn't, or ask me a question.
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