Outdoor Play and Autism: How to Create a Safe and Supportive Environment

Every parent loves to see their kids play in the great outdoors and enjoy all that nature has to offer. Spending time outdoors is great for your kid’s development, too. Kids who play outside are physically healthier, more engaged in the classroom, and display more positive behavior.

However, as a mother of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may need to adapt the way your kid interacts with the outdoor world. While every child is different, folks with autism tend to experience over or under-sensitivity to stimulation, extreme anxiety, and mental shutdown. Some children with autism have difficulty navigating rules and need extra time to process information.

Overcoming these challenges is possible with the right mindset and support. As a mom, you can set your child up for success by teaching them about risk awareness and encouraging them to explore their interest in the great outdoors.

Outdoor Play and Autism

Scheduling time for play and exploration is important for all children. However, it can be particularly beneficial if your child has ASD. Playing promotes healthy growth in kids with ASD and helps them learn to navigate their condition. This is crucial, as many folks with ASD have co-morbidities that may also make outdoor play more challenging.

When encouraging your child with ASD to play outside, consider playing a more active role in their learning. This engages your child both mentally and physically while they express their creativity. Playing in a safe outdoor environment can be a powerful stress reliever, too. This is key, as many folks with ASD experience heightened anxiety throughout the day.

This sentiment is echoed by naturalist Chris Packham. Packham, who has Asperger’s syndrome (a form of ASD), explains that nature is where he feels safest. He explains that walking “is an absolute therapy,” that helps him temporarily “shut the world out.” This can serve as a powerful respite for children with ASD who feel overwhelmed or stressed out by social expectations.

Discover the benefits of outdoor play for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and how to support their exploration in a safe environment.

Finding a Good Environment

Encouraging your child to play outdoors can relieve stress and help them connect with nature. However, their time outdoors will only be beneficial if you find a supportive environment that keeps them safe. This is crucial, as many children with ASD struggle to understand the so-called “unwritten rules” that will keep them safe from harm.

Get the ball rolling by identifying a neighborhood with safe play areas. Before setting your kid free to roam and ramble, check the traffic and look for parks or natural areas close to roads with lower speed limits. You can usually find a park that meets these parameters on your local Parks and Recreation Department website.

When you arrive, take some time to talk about signage and hazards together. Many parks feature signage like “Slow, Children at Play” or “Pedestrian Crossing”. Speak to your child, and tell them to look for this kind of signage when trying to cross over a road. This minimizes the risk of your kid wandering out into traffic and will keep them safe from harm.

Try to observe your child when they’re playing and take note of things that catch their eye. Some kids with ASD may love the sound of birdsong, while others may find trees and trails more interesting. Try to build playdates around their interests and look for low-traffic areas where they can explore with freedom. This reduces the risk of an accident and gives your kid room to explore.

Making Playdates

Setting up a playdate can be tricky if your child has ASD. Some children with ASD simply prefer their own company, while others may struggle to connect with their peers. Rather than forcing your child to socialize, speak openly with them to manage their expectations. This will help you set up successful playdates and minimize the risk of conflict or overwhelm when outdoors.

When on a playdate to a botanical garden or forest, try to balance supervision and independence by risk-assessing the space as a team. Establish a meeting point before you let them roam free and speak openly about potential risks. Give the kids an “out of bounds” zone to ensure you can always see them and try to choose play areas with limited hazards.

You’ll need to talk about stranger danger before the playdate, too. This is crucial, as some children with ASD may struggle to understand the difference between “safe” adults and strangers. Others may struggle to self-advocate when in a confusing situation. Teach your child to only interact with direct caregivers and remind them to say “This is not my mom/dad” if an adult is speaking to them.

Responding to a Misstep

Children love to play with freedom when in the great outdoors. Eventually, this will result in scrapes, cuts, and bruises.

Help your child with ASD bounce back after a fall or bump by learning first-aid tips and skills together. For example, if your child cuts their finger while playing on park equipment, teach them to raise the wound above their head and use a mixture of salt and water to clean the cut. Learning first-aid basics helps children with ASD feel more secure and confident when they are interacting with nature.

If your child does suffer a setback, try to talk about what went wrong. This can reduce the stress that your child feels and help them learn from the experience. When you next schedule outdoor play, help your child overcome their fear and navigate the hazard that caused the setback together.


Teaching safety skills for outdoor play if your child has ASD. Even simple conversations about stranger danger and first aid can help your kid feel confident and give you peace of mind. Just be sure to supervise your child when in a new situation, as they may need your support to navigate confusing situations and minimize risk.

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