This month's blog article was featured in the May 2023 issue of our digital newsletter, Aspire Wire. To receive future Aspire Wire emails, subscribe here.

by Stephen DeFilippo, PsyD
Associate Program Manager, Teen and Adult Services

As we strive to create inclusive environments for neurodiverse youth, the outdoors is often overlooked as a powerful tool for fostering positive development and well-being. Nature's rich sensory experiences, calming effects, and opportunities for social engagement can be instrumental in enhancing the lives of children, teens, and young adults. This article will explore some of the positive benefits that the outdoors can offer while identifying some important considerations.

The natural environment is a treasure trove of sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes, which can be highly stimulating. These sensory stimuli can offer opportunities for sensory exploration, regulation, and integration. Such sensory enrichment can help develop sensory processing skills, regulate sensory input, and improve sensory integration.

It is important to note that outdoor activities can also be overwhelming sensory experiences for many. Experiencing the outdoors can be made to be more inclusive and accessible with thoughtful planning. For instance, providing visual schedules that include information about outdoor conditions, social stories, or sensory toolkits can help preview outdoor adventures and provide support during the activities. Creating quiet and safe spaces in outdoor settings, such as a designated sensory-friendly area, can be helpful for those who may need a break from sensory stimulation. Offering a variety of outdoor activities that cater to different interests, abilities, and comfort levels can ensure that everyone can participate and benefit from experiences in nature.

The outdoors can also have a positive effect for those who may experience anxiety or stress. Research has shown that exposure to natural environments can have a positive impact on mental health, including reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Nature can also serve as a safe space to engage in self-soothing activities and practice relaxation techniques, which can be valuable tools for managing stress and anxiety in everyday life.

Nature can provide a conducive environment for fostering social engagement and social skills development as well. The natural environment can offer a relaxed and informal setting for social interactions that can feel less overwhelming. For example, outdoor activities such as hiking or playing in a park can provide opportunities for shared experiences, joint attention, and parallel play. These activities can encourage communication, cooperation, turn-taking, and problem-solving skills, which are important social skills to develop and practice. Moreover, nature-based programs or group activities, such as nature walks or outdoor activity groups, can provide a supportive and inclusive environment for social engagement and friendship building.

In addition to the sensory, emotional, and social benefits, spending time in nature can contribute positively to physical health. Engaging in physical activities outdoors can help improve physical fitness, coordination, and motor skills. Additionally, natural sunlight can have positive effects on the sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythm, which may contribute to better sleep quality and overall well-being. Increased Vitamin D has benefits such as improved immune functioning and reduced inflammation.

It’s important to keep in mind that every individual is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Some folks may find the outdoors overwhelming or uncomfortable. For others, spending time in nature will be a wonderful way to improve quality of life and promote overall well-being.