By Michelle Beekharry, Head of Physical Education at TreeHouse School, London
As a child, I loved the outdoors and spent a lot of my childhood playing in the garden, walking in the woods and throwing pebbles in the sea. My love of being outdoors is part of the reason I chose to become a physical education teacher and currently I work at a special school for autistic children aged between three and 19 years. I firmly believe that whatever their ability or disability, all children should spend part of their day being involved in some form of physical activity.
Enabling a child to be outside means they are exposed to different environments. A simple walk in the woods or along the beach allows a child to engage with their surrounding area while being great exercise too. Gross motor skills can be developed in the garden by playing with different types of ball for example, or learning a new skill on holiday, such as skiing, horse-riding or bowling. For children with special educational needs who accomplish this, their enjoyment is palpable.
Sometimes as a parent you might feel concerned that your autistic child will have a sensory overload because of a new experience. At first it can be a huge shock but by routinely attending the same venue, students can get used to unpredictable noise and will eventually want to interract with their surrounding area and run around with freedom.
Children will also be exposed to different smells and will surprise you with their requests for a snack! I have seen at first hand just how much a young person’s confidence can grow once they have ‘mastered’ their new experience.
There are many simple activities that you can do with your child to promote exercise and being outdoors. If you like to run, take your child on a jog for a short period of time. There is lots of evidence suggesting that running disperses excess energy and enables a child to regulate emotional and physical composure. This, in turn, will aid patterns of eating, sleeping and calm.
Having simple sports equipment at home, such as a balance ball, yoga mat or even a garden trampoline will enable you to engage with your child while helping them to self-regulate, improve co-ordination and develop speech and language.
Swimming is an amazing way to engage your child or just simply floating in the water using buoyancy aids.
Parents of children who are on the autistic spectrum are at times reluctant to allow their child to be exposed to the outside world for fear of judgement. Although understandable, I have seen the incredible benefits that regular physical exercise can have on children with autism. At TreeHouse School our learners have personalised programmes which include physical exercise. Not only does this boost their confidence, they learn how to take turns and how to play and interact with other pupils.
The great thing about the outdoors is no matter what your financial or social background, whether you live in the city or the countryside, all families can access something to engage their children.