Why children with autism benefit from outdoor play

Playing outside is an important part of childhood that has many developmental benefits for children, including:

  • Skill-building
  • Turn-taking
  • Sensory play
  • Pretend play
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Appreciation of nature

Enjoying time outdoors year-round provides learning experiences that encourage self-discovery, communication, self-confidence, friendships and independence for children, including children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Keep in mind the precautions you should take to make sure your child with autism enjoys playing outside safely.

Outdoor play:

  • Be prepared, and bring items like water bottles, sunscreen, bug spray, bandages, hats and sunglasses.
  • Outside is the perfect place to introduce messy sensory and art activities, such as sand play, pavement chalk, spray painting or construction. Make sure materials you use are age-appropriate. Talk with your child about how to use the materials before starting an activity.
  • It may be helpful to set a timer to remind you and your child to take water breaks and reapply sunscreen. Children with autism like to know what to expect, so it’s helpful to give 20-, 10- and five-minute warnings before it’s time to leave or go inside.
  • Parks and playgrounds can be fun places to play and meet new friends. Check your area for barrier-free parks that have fewer tripping hazards and fenced-in playgrounds.

Water play:

  • Remember, when your child is playing in or around water, constant supervision is key—drowning can occur in just seconds.
  • At least one parent or adult should be a designated water watcher at any given time. The water watcher is responsible for active and consistent monitoring of the water and swimmers. This constant vigilance can be tiring, so trade off this role as needed.
  • Practice touch supervision. Children ages 5 and younger and children with special needs should be within an arm’s length of the water watcher.

Be creative with outdoor play activities, and take the season into account. Have picnics and ballgames in the spring and summer, and try apple picking, collecting leaves and holiday decorating in the fall and winter.

Outside time can be fun and stress-free. Check for local events like festivals and concerts that are family-friendly and accessible. Bring friends and family—extra adult hands—to help make the event fun for everyone, and don’t forget to have fun yourself.


We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of these articles may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.