Studies show that kids with special needs spend less time outdoors than typical children. Barriers like inaccessibility and the need for additional supervision might keep them from enjoying the incredible benefits of the natural world. Outdoor spaces provide a feast for the senses—billowing breezes, crunchy leaves and fresh scents—that can be especially beneficial for children with special needs. These rich sensory experiences can ease attention difficulties and improve children’s moods. For this reason, nature is the perfect space to encourage educational activities.

“The majority of children with special needs respond well to outdoor learning,” says Krysti DeZonia, Ed.D, director of education and research and co-founder of TERI Inc. TERI (an acronym for Training Education Research Innovation) is a nonprofit organization that serves people with autism, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities and their families. DeZonia says it’s important to match outdoor learning activities to children’s interests and ability levels, avoiding environments that make them uncomfortable. Over time, caregivers can introduce new experiences to expand tolerance.

“Many of the families we serve lead very restricted lives because their child with special needs is unable to be integrated into events outside home or school,” says DeZonia. “It is critical to expand these students’ ability to tolerate—and hopefully enjoy—a wide range of experiences. Family quality of life is dependent upon this.”

Consider these local spots for outdoor learning:

Hearts and Hooves Therapy


Book a Pony Playtime session for one-on-one training with a miniature horse. Hearts and Hooves is a nonprofit specializing in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activities (AAA). Sessions are open to all children regardless of age and ability, especially those living with trauma or special needs. Instructors create a custom lesson to suit the child’s level, teaching safety, grooming and foot care while incorporating fun learning games. Sessions last 30-45 minutes and are offered Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Book in advance. Call for afterschool and weekend availability: 619-633-5105.

Find a full list of local equine therapy program providers.

Living Coast Discovery Center

Chula Vista

Discover coastal wildlife and learn about conservation at this hands-on education center. Many of the learning spaces are outdoors. Experience animal encounters, feedings and guided nature walks. Check the calendar for workshops and events. The shuttle, facility and trails are ADA accessible, with private restrooms available to those who need them. Open daily, Living Coast offers one complimentary attendant ticket per person with special needs.

Cabrillo National Monument

Point Loma

Learn about the cultural and natural history of San Diego at this picturesque coastal park, where Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in the 16th century. The National Park provides outstanding interpretive services for those with visual limitations. Tactile models help tell the story of the site, along with audio descriptions and Braille brochures. While wheelchair access is either difficult or impossible at the tide pools, lighthouse and Bayside Trail, accessible attractions include the Coastal Defense Museum, visitor center, lighthouse grounds and the whale overlook, which boasts modified chair-height telescopes.

Japanese Friendship Garden

Balboa Park

This beautiful 12-acre garden includes koi ponds, a running stream and 200 Cherry Blossom trees. Children delight in the beautiful sights and sounds while learning about centuries-old Japanese horticulture techniques. The garden hosts exhibits, programs and classes to increase understanding between cultures. Wheelchairs are available for use, and a shuttle service is provided for the lower and upper garden. Braille books are available. Open daily. The garden participates in Residents Free Tuesdays on the third Tuesday of the month.

Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center

National City

Large groups can book a custom learning experience at this beautiful organic garden and kitchen. Special needs programming focuses on sensory experiences. Taste the difference between raw and roasted vegetables. Learn how water tastes when infused with different herbs. Best of all, get hands-on experience in the garden! Sessions for up to 33 children last about two hours and are available Monday through Wednesday mornings. Sessions also available in Spanish.


Anne Malinoski is a local contributing writer and mother of two boys.