Design Awesome Outdoor Sensory Play

outdoor sensory play for kids

Most kids can’t get enough outside time, but how do you provide sensory play outside that is not overstimulating? Play that actually helps kids regulate and chill out?

It’s true; some kids can get so wound up at the playground that playdates with friends can get out of hand, and outdoor smells and sights can be just too much for some kids, especially if they have already had a full day tagging along for errands, or a day with too many activities.

What about kids who just naturally get over-stimulated easily, or kids who really just need to calm and regroup after the constant barrage of distractions they run into on a daily basis?

Outdoor sensory play is an ideal way to provide sensory soothing and regulation. We could make it so outdoor play provides the opposite, of course, where it amps up our kids too. But outdoor and nature settings seem to intuitively provide calm. So let’s take what nature gives us and use it to our advantage in designing a Outdoor Sensory Soothing Playdate!

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How to Design Your Own Outdoor Sensory Playdate:

First of,  you have to think ahead. Think about what your kiddo likes and what soothes them. It takes planning, but a little prep work will save you time in the end. And just think, your kid will be sensory regulated, focused, and ready to enjoy the rest of their day.  Sensory regulation has a lot to do with how the environment is set up; you as their parent or teacher have the greatest impact on how this activity is structured.

So let’s use an example of a sensory playdate I planned last week, when the sun was so inviting I couldn’t stay in the house any longer. It should give you an idea of how to go about planning your own sensory playdate.

My setup was really basic, one that could be easily duplicated. All you need are some basic materials you have around the house. Then, think of which ones are soothing in general or for your child specifically. I thought soft and warm things, and of course, a way to provide MOVEMENT! When outside, I can’t help but think big, big movement. Baby loves it! And so do the older kids!

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The old Town and Country wagon set the stage for a good supported surface. Baby is still developing her righting reflexes, and the older kids found it a fun and novel challenge. What are righting reflexes? They are the reflexes that keep you sitting if you tip and lose your balance. If you have a baby that is sitting or learning to crawl or walk, this activity will be a bonus workout for your baby’s abs, a few other trunk muscles, and the righting reflexes themselves…but who’s keeping track, right? This is all about fun!

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After setting baby up with a few extra blankets and pillows for safety, we were ready to move. The blankets and pillows provided a back up support in case baby fell off balance and couldn’t catch herself. Safety first! A soft bunting was added texture for her to feel and extra cuddle to make the ride all that more nurturing! We packed in the other kids and were off!

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I had a textured ball with knobby extensions, so I threw it into the wagon. Baby loved it, and it was safe to mouth. I thought this was a good alternative to her usual outdoor mouthing choice of leaves or random dog food kibble (yes, I had to stop her once!) Her ability to mouth something is really calming to her. Even better, I wish I  would have had something she could have sucked on, as the sucking reflex for babies is also very calming. Since babies suck naturally, it’s like they come with a built in calming device. Too cool.

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Once we started to move it was all smiles and eye contact. A true “Hey mom, this is so awesome!” memory making event!

I pulled the wagon in a circle to the right first, and then after a few starts and stops, we turned the circle in the direction to the left. I wanted to stimulate her inner ear in opposite directions. This really makes a difference; changes in movement during vestibular sensory play (aka movement sensory play), especially in direction and position, always deliver a more robust experience. Huh? I mean you get more bang for your buck. More input is registered in the brain so more neurons are formed, and more regulation results. Input and regulation are so important, and so beneficial, for natural development and soothing.

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Movement, in itself, is really soothing. Well, at least the kind a wagon provides.  Straight lines and a little curve. The wheels provide the rhythmic sounds of linear movement and nothing is chaotic. It’s predictable, for the most part.

When movement is wild and unpredictable, or if there is too much movement, as a rule of thumb, it can turn from soothing to over-stimulating. We sure didn’t want to over-stimulate baby or the older kids right before a nap, so we took it slow and steady.

After about 20 minutes, baby was so calm and was all snuggled in the wagon. It really was too cute. And I felt great. The big kids felt great too. Plus, this simple activity met some of my nurturing, sensory and nature activity goals for the week. (Yes, I have goals I write for the week….total developmental geek… I know.)

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We ended up having a super fun time, with baby LOVING it and asking for more! She really did ask for “Wa-gon-train”! She tried to say it. It came out more like “wa-wa-ta” but I was happy that she was trying to speak in order to get more rides on the wagon! It looks like the inner ear stimulation activated her brain for speech! How cool.

What about your own outdoor sensory play design?

I hope you try to create your own Sensory soothing playdate sometime soon. Or if you have done this already, please let us know what worked or didn’t work for you.

The weather is getting to be just perfect for this type of activity, and all you need is five minutes to think and plan for your children specifically.  Then just grab your kids and the materials and head outdoors!

As an update, since the initial “Wagon Train” as the kids now call it, we have gone out two more times to enjoy the weather. It appears to be an activity that both the kids and I really enjoy.  The kids feel like they are on a festival ride, and I get out and move for some fresh air and sunshine. Ahhh….life is good.

(Please note that a helmet is recommended for kids in this activity. I did not use one but I have almost two decades of safety training in working with kids with special needs. I know my safety limits well, and was OK not using one with my set up. I strongly recommend that you use one with your kids.)

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