By Elizabeth Sautter, CCC-SLP
Outdoor activities foster opportunities for exploring new things, building imagination and increasing social competence. Getting in touch with nature gives your child a chance for outdoor play and exploration, and also offers teachable moments where you can nurture social and emotional skills. Next time you are outdoors, practice one of these activities with your child:
Why not build social skills while also getting some exercise? While walking, help your child make observations about the environment. What does it mean about a family if there are toys on their front porch or a doghouse in the yard? After the walk, your child can practice sharing information by telling other family members what’s new in the neighborhood.
While at the park, help your child build “social detective” skills by observing others and trying to determine their relationship to one another (e.g., mom and daughter, grandma and grandpa, etc.). Help your child understand the clues that show how people are connected, such as their body language and what they say to one another. “I Spy” This is an activity you can do in your own backyard or while walking. Begin by making smart guesses about what you and your child are seeing. For example, to describe a ladybug you would say, “I spy something red with black spots.” It will be up to the child to ask questions and determine what you are looking at.
In your backyard or another outdoor location, place clues around and have the child hunt for them to find the final prize. Start out with a verbal hint such as, “The first clue is under Dad’s favorite lawn chair.” If needed, help the child figure out the meaning of a clue. Being able to search for clues and follow directions supports social competence.
Find Your Green Thumb
Gardening is a great outdoor activity to enjoy as a family. First, decide where to garden and what your child will plant. Whether you’re growing flowers, herbs, or vegetables, teach your child what is required to make them grow (water, sunshine, care, etc.). Create a schedule so your child will know when to water the seeds or plants. Your child will learn that it takes a lot of responsibility and nurturing to keep something alive, and it takes patience to watch it grow.
At a park, beach, or in your backyard, create art using natural materials. Sticks, rocks, leaves, acorns, sand and shells are all terrific art supplies. Your child can practice planning and sequencing by imagining the artwork and then gathering the needed materials. Collaborating with a friend or sibling provides a chance to practice cooperation and perspective taking. And, your child can practice flexibility if a creation falls down, blows away, or doesn’t turn out quite as expected.
Not only will practicing social skills outdoors encourage your child to appreciate nature, but it will also increase observation skills that will carry over into other social situations. Remember, whether you are in your own backyard or far from home, there is a teachable moment waiting. Most of the activities described here and many others can be found in my book, Make Social Learning Stick!
Elizabeth Sautter, M.A. CCC-SLP is co-director and co-owner of Communication Works, a private practice in Oakland, Calif., offering speech, language, social and occupational therapy. She is the co-author of the Whole Body Listening Larry books. Her most recent book is Make Social Learning Stick! How to Guide and Nurture Social Competence through Everyday Routines and Activities (aapcpublishing.net). Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.