Wind… Wet grass… Wasps.
Snow… Sunshine… Sweaters.
These and so many other things can keep sensory kids from wanting to go outside.
But the great outdoors is a treasure trove of beneficial sensory input that will actually help kids overcome their sensory aversions.
How can you help a kid with SPD enjoy the outdoors, for their own good?
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General Reasons Sensory Kids Stay Inside
Lack of Control
Kids with sensory issues already live in a world that can feel like it’s against them. Touch, smell, sound, movement and more can be perceived by their brain as a threat. Their body may feel like it’s always on alert, ready to fight or flee.
It’s natural for kids to cling to control when everything else seems so threatening. Not surprisingly, the outdoors are not easily controlled. The weather changes, plants grow, insects and animals meander, and people go about their business, unaware how they may be affecting your sensory kid.
(Dear neighbor, could you please stop revving your motorcycle’s engine??? Thanks!)
When children have a negative sensory experience, they often associate their surroundings with that awful feeling. A bee sting at a playground may cause a child to swear off parks entirely. The downtown fireworks display from the past summer may cause your child to get sweaty palms every time they see the skyline.
My boys have made a lot of progress with their sensory related anxiety once I took Natasha Daniels course on Crushing Anxiety. It’s meant to equip parents of anxious kids, with the tools they need to teach their kids how to fight those scary thoughts. I learned SO much and came away with a plan on how to come alongside my boys in this anxiety battle. Check out the details on the Anxiety Ecourse HERE.
Specific Reasons Sensory Kids Avoid the Outdoors
Nature is full of billions of sensations to delight, or upset, our tactile system. Wet or itchy grass can be a serious nuisance. Many sensory kids are super sensitive to the temperature, needing, like the baby bear in Goldilocks, for everything to be “just right”. Even if the temperature feels acceptable to you, remember that their body may be perceiving it differently. Give them grace in that. Even the glorious feeling of warm sun on the skin can feel too intense and even painful to some kids with sensory processing disorder.
Fear of Noise
Auditory avoiders are always on the edge of their seats, fearful of the next sound that will jar them from their sense of calm. As a parent, it can be very frustrating to take an auditory avoider outside because even the adult can’t shield them from all the noises coming their way.
Vehicles honking, buzzing insects, barking dogs and more can cause a meltdown. And don’t forget how wind can howl in the ears and cause a child to be disoriented.
Fear of Pain/ Wildlife Injuries
Nature is wild and free. And while that’s definitely one of the draws, it also means there is some risk involved. Kids with vestibular (movement) or proprioceptive (body awareness) issues maybe more prone to falls as they navigate uneven surfaces and heights. Bees, snakes, spiders and other animals can inflict pain and injury. And even the mere thought of that can produce anxiety in a child with SPD.
Like the Crush Anxiety course recommends, give your kids knowledge and options.
When my boys aren’t wanting to go on nature hikes because of poisonous snakes, we familiarize ourselves with the types of snakes in our area, so we know which ones are dangerous, and which ones aren’t. We also stomp as we walk so we don’t surprise any snakes. (Plus stomping is a great proprioceptive sensory activity!) While bees are still a big fear for my boys, they feel empowered knowing what scents and colors bees avoid. (Vanilla deters bees AND doesn’t bother my boys sensitive noses! Win-win!)
Hate the Appropriate Clothing
When the weather calls for certain clothing, kids with SPD or tactile aversions can recoil at the thought of a sweater, or detest the feel of swimwear. Navigating clothing issues with sensory processing disorder is tough! Be as flexible as you can, picking your battles and remembering that what feels comfortable to them might look silly to the outside world and that’s ok! And ask questions in our sensory parents Facebook group (we’ve got some VERY creative problem solvers in there!)
How to Encourage Kids to Play Outside
Alright, so our sensory kids have a lot going against them when it comes to playing outside. But the benefits of playing outside are way too good for us to just give up and stay inside. Here are some ideas to help get kids outside.
Provide the Gear
Many of a child’s sensory issues can be alleviated by using some equipment. For an auditory avoider, try noise canceling headphones. Sunglasses and hats are a must for kids that can’t stand the sun in their eyes. Be patient as you trying different types of clothing to help your kids feel comfortable.
Go WITH Them
While parents of young kids are obviously right there with their kids when they’re outside, moms of older kids might be tempted to just tell their kids to play outside, without going with them. If your child is struggling with sensory issues, being asked to go outside while their parents are inside (legitimately trying to make dinner or write a blog post…) can feel unfair. Bolster their courage and help them see how very fun the outdoors can be!
DON’T Go All In
If your child is resisting the outdoors, I don’t recommend going cold turkey by going on a wilderness camping weekend. Instead, take small steps! First, show them they can do outdoor things without necessarily coming face to face with their fear.
If a child hates the grass, get them back outside by playing with chalk on the sidewalk. If your kid fears insects, set your tent up in the backyard so they have a barrier between them and the bugs, while still being able to watch the clouds floating by. If the sun feels intense, see if swimming makes things more enjoyable.
The point is, just because one thing makes the outdoors unpleasant, doesn’t mean you have to completely give up on outdoor activities while they work through the fear.
Another great strategy is do give them something to DO outside that is so fun, they’re able to overcome their trepidation for a time. This is the basic science behind a lot of sensory activities: overcome the fear with fun! Try a new Nerf gun, or set up the sprinkler. (This is a MEGA list of sensory toys for kids to give you some ideas!)
Don’t give up sweet mama! There have been seasons in my life where I just wanted to throw in the towel and let my kids live in front of the TV. But with consistent work, your kids will find themselves more and more comfortable in nature. There’s rarely an overnight fix for these things. Take baby steps and just keep working in the right direction. Your kids will thank you for it!