Outdoor Activities for Special Needs Children
By Carolyn Tomlin

In 1975, Public Law 94-142 clearly defined the rights of children between the ages of three and 18 with special needs. The law guarantees a free (meaning no cost to parents) and appropriate (meaning a program meets the unique education needs of each child) public education for all children. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 presents some challenges to early childhood educators as they plan appropriate education programs for all children. This is especially true in the area of physical education. However, physical education is at the center of a comprehensive approach to creating active and healthy children. The National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA) reports that children who participate regular physical activities develop the knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes, and confidence needed to be active for life while providing a welcome outlet for children to be creative and release pent-up energy. These skills are especially important for children with special needs.          

Can child care programs provide the same outdoor activities to all children? No. Can simple modifications and adaptations in your current physical activity curriculum serve children with special needs? Absolutely! Use the ideas in this article to make outdoor play fun and accessible for all children.


·         A wheelchair-bound child, who has upper body movement, can throw, bounce and receive a ball in a group activity or a circle game. Match a non-handicapped child with one who has physical challenges. One child can hit a ball, and the other child can run the bases. 

·         Provide large balls, hoops, and other oversized equipment on the playground for visually challenged children. 

·         Provide a tape recording of birdcalls you might hear on a nature walk for children with perceptual or sensory deficit. Adjust the volume control and make available when needed to accommodate these children as they learn to identify different sounds.  

·         Place a 20-pound bag of topsoil on a table for a wheelchair-bound child to create a tabletop garden. Cut several large “X” shapes in the top of the bag. Insert small plants (marigolds are easy to maintain) into the spaces. Water and watch grow. Encourage the child to share the garden with classmates. 

·         Play a listening and moving game for children with attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD). Place objects on the playground or designate points to tag or run around. For example, say, “Hop ten times on one foot;” “Run around the flagpole two times;” or “Crawl the length of two mats.” Listening, moving, and focusing on directions will enable children with ADHD to learn while having fun. 

·         Provide large sticks of chalk for sidewalk drawing or outdoor easels complete with paint and brushes for children with fine motor difficulties.  

·         Adapt a beanbag game for children with limited vision by moving the equipment closer to the child.  

·         Encourage all children to participate in physical activity during outdoor playtime. Offer praise and help each child feel successful. Making learning fun will lead to other accomplishments for special needs children.


Carolyn R. Tomlin is a former professor of early childhood education at Union University. She is a frequent contributor to numerous education publications.


Additional Resources:

Bennett, S. and Bennett, R. (1993). 365 outdoor activities you can do with your child. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, Inc. Publishers.  

Miller, M. (1974). Kindergarten teacher’s activities desk book. West Nyack, NY: Parker Publishing Co.