How to Create an Awesome Backyard Playspace for Autistic Kids

May 16, 2021

Guest Post by Rob Woods

It's simple to create a safe, fun, sensory friendly backyard playspace for autistic kids. Here are a few tips to help you accomplish the task.

child playing with buckets of sand

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My son was 6 when we got his formal diagnosis of autism, but I had been managing his autism since he was about a year old. The first time I held his bare feet above spring grass in the yard, he drew them up toward his torso and wailed; he didn’t like the feel of it on his feet. He had deep-seated texture aversions, and one of them was grass.

This was a sign of things to come: My son hates the great outdoors.

However, with a little ingenuity and a lot of trial and error, we were able to create a safe and engaging play area in the backyard of our home that he’s begun to enjoy.

Thanks to Michelle, I’m able to offer up the following insight on how we were able to make this play area happen.

Give your autistic child a structured setting for unstructured play.

When you first assess your yard, make sure yours is a fully-fenced backyard that can help eliminate wandering. Greater Learning LP suggests also doing a perimeter check on a regular basis to address any structural issues. For extra safety, consider installing a keyed or combination lock on any gates kids have access to, which ensures that a curious hand won’t be able to swing gates open.

Typically, a young child with autism will engage in parallel play, alongside other children, more than interactive or cooperative play. You can encourage involvement with other kids by offering multiple designated areas within your playspace for many different activities. Group noisy activities together, and create separate locations for quiet play.

Autistic kids need sensory-friendly spaces.

Set up a sandbox area to enhance sensory play. This should be a contained space with clean play sand, and utensils for scooping, sorting and building. This can be a great place for a pretend building site, or an imaginary archaeological excavation.

You can also work with your child’s interests here. Create a treasure hunt for buried Pokemon, or help him draw out a map of his world with colored sands.

Children with autism frequently experience vestibular abnormalities that can cause issues with balance. Scholastic notes that a swing set and jungle gym help kids develop coordination and dexterity, and learning to cooperate with other children to use the equipment is great for improving social skills and communication.

Climbing, spinning, swinging and sliding all work to help your child understand how his body occupies space and moves within it.

Prevent sensory overload with a quiet, calm place.

Set aside a quiet space in the yard where your child can recoup his energies and calm down when he needs to. A playhouse, gazebo or even just a shady area with comfy seating, such as a glider, can be a good addition for the whole family.

This will permit your child to move away from loud or uncomfortable situations going on elsewhere in the yard. Consider keeping some quiet time toys in the area. For restorative downtime, you can provide a table for building blocks, or even keep a waterproof toy box containing books and art supplies.

Add non-toxic, colorful flowers and plants for visual interest. You can even encourage your child to participate by cultivating his own garden. Consider teaching your child how to use a good pair of gloves and tools to develop his own floral or vegetable garden.

A word on water-safety and autism.

Access to water can be a great sensory tool in the garden, but be careful when installing fountains and pools. As PBS points out, children with autism can be drawn to water, as many find it calming. But this can be extremely hazardous if they are not strong swimmers.

Any pool should be fenced in such a way that your child cannot access it without adult supervision. Pool alarms can let you know if someone has entered the pool without authorization, helping you respond quickly in case of an emergency.

Outdoor water features should be designed so that your child cannot enter them or fall into them, behind fencing or landscaping and in open lines of sight.

By no means do these tips provide a comprehensive look at what you can do for a playspace for your child with ASD, but my hope is that it offers you some food for thought.

Children with autistic spectrum disorder like to climb, swing, run, and play as much as any neurotypical child. They just need a little more attention to help keep them safe and engaged. With the right preparations, any parent can create a functional play space that is both safe and stimulating for their whole family.

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