1. Nature is restorative. Horticulture therapists may be the first to tell you that the natural world provides a reduction in stress and an overall healing environment. Vertical and table gardens are great for those in wheelchairs, and even one colorful hanging basket can become a beloved project for a child. Even though a specially designed therapy garden is wonderful, sitting in a local park, looking up at the stars or watching a colony of ants can have a similar calming affect.

2. Nature is strengthening. Exercising outdoors can be more physically and visually stimulating than doing so indoors. There is a growing amount of research that shows getting fit outdoors is better for us mentally. Simply attempting to climb a tree, hanging from a branch or rolling down a grassy hill will do the trick. A sitting child can toss stones into water, play in fallen leaves or stretch in the grass. You can also join the “Inclusive Playground” movement for great ideas and inspiring projects. www.inclusiveplaygrounds.org

3. Nature is the perfect classroom. Children with special needs often do well with visual learning and the natural world is ideal for this. Activities in the outdoors can also lead to better focus and concentration for a student. Moving reading time and other traditional class activities outdoors can make a big difference in learning and behavior. Tell stories while sitting around a sand box or practice addition by counting seeds before planting. New vocabulary is remembered best when words are used in context, and outdoor spaces provide this, greatly enhancing memory and comprehension for ESL learners and children with special needs.

4. Nature is one big sensory extravaganza. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in nature-centered development, founded TimberNook, a nature therapy program that’s quickly gaining momentum. Hanscom sees nature as not only the ideal form of sensory experience, but also prevention for sensory dysfunction. Think walking barefoot, playing in the mud, outdoor swings and climbing across logs. The list is endless! Learn more at www.timbernook.com.

5. Nature is a powerful teacher. Sure, nature teaches us about science first hand, and we can often combine formal subjects with the outdoors, but there’s so much more. Nature teaches us patience through waiting for a bud to bloom into a flower. Nature shows us compassion when we help a small creature cross a sidewalk. And nature gives us understanding that something, or someone, doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. All invaluable lessons.

San Diego Outdoor Experiences Accommodating Special Needs

Living Coast Discovery Center
The entire facility, shuttle and trails are ADA handicapped accessible. Also, the outdoor exhibits provide plenty of sitting room, and the water frontage is perfect for free play.

San Diego Beaches
Offering manual and powered beach wheel chairs at many locations.

San Diego Playgrounds
Many San Diego parks have smooth surfaces, accessible swings and even vision-impaired components. The Playgrounds for Everyone database allows you to search near you and add to the community conversation.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park
A large accessible animal park that offers many special needs resources, including shuttles and Access Two for One ticket deal. The tram ride is a calming break for the overly stimulated.

Laura Pardo writes from the San Diego neighborhood of South Park