A Complete Guide to Nature Studies for Children with Special Needs
Being in nature, doing nature studies and nature journaling are three of my favorite things to do in our homeschool. But as a special needs family, we also face some obstacles.
I have found that over the years, being in nature does not come as naturally to all as it does to us. I have also learned that there are many excuses for not making the time to be in nature. But sometimes they are not just excuses.
Sometimes we face a legitimate obstacle that we feel we cannot overcome. One of my twins has cerebral palsy. When she was little she used a walker to aid with walking and now she uses a wheelchair full time.
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Getting out and about was challenging at first
And it continues to be as she has grown older. We wanted her to be independent, but her risk of falling in the walker was great. We carried her a lot, but she quickly grew too big for me to physically manage by myself. She also had sensory issues when she was little, eating sensitivities, and a serious aversion to other people touching her. We have seen our share of obstacles, but it did not stop us from doing our best to get outside into nature, learn about the beauty that is nature, and record our observations for our nature studies.
As you continue reading, you will be reminded that you are not alone in this journey. I have talked to many families that are doing the best they can to instill a love of nature in their children, despite the obstacles they face. You will find real-life examples of challenges and actionable tips to overcoming the obstacles that you may be facing while doing the best you can to get out into nature, study the wonder of it all, and create a journal that represents your child’s learning.
“Never be within doors when you can rightly be without”
Let’s start simply with, but yet not so simply, getting outdoors. Whether your challenge is weather related, medical, physical, or any other reason that it makes it difficult to get outdoors and into nature, there are some solutions.
Be prepared. You know your child better than anyone.
Plan a safe trip
-Do your research before you go. Sometimes we have had to be reminded of this the hard way. Yes, we have shown up to an activity only to find that there are stairs, that my daughter can’t overcome. One mom told me that she planned “sensory safe activities” for her son.
Bring the essentials
-Extra supplies, extra clothes, proper food and drinks, any medical supplies, first aid kit and comfort items. When you head out, make sure that you have everything you might need during your nature study.
Have an escape plan
-Pay attention to yours and your child’s limits and cues. Sometimes a child can’t always say that’s enough. Sometimes we as parents push ourselves beyond our limits, because of what we think we should be doing.
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Bring Nature Closer
Locally, to your yard, or into the house, you can bring nature closer.
Bring nature closer, within your community
-Visit local parks, zoos, aquariums, nature sanctuaries, wildlife centers, and museums. Most of these places are accessible. Some will be indoors.
-Have a special nature spot. We visit the same park year round, to observe the seasonal changes. The landscape doesn’t change much, so it is easy to observe the seasonal changes. It has a blacktop path that goes around the park and part of it is a wooded area. This is a great opportunity for my daughter “to walk in the woods” in her wheelchair.
Bring Nature to your yard
-Plant a vegetable or a flower garden. When my daughter was younger we built a raised box that she could garden in. It was just the right height for her to reach from her wheelchair. One year she grew carrots and the next she made it into a flower bed. She was able to plant, weed, water, and harvest it all on her own. We currently have blueberry bushes for landscaping and strawberry and raspberry plants that my daughter can access. Even if you have little room, there are some things that grow great in containers.
-Create a wildlife/butterfly garden. This year we took some old tires and turned them into planters. We put corn and bird seed out there and have attracted all kinds of wildlife. Bonus * You can see it from the window.
-Put up a window bird feeder or birdhouse. This will bring the wildlife, right outside your window. We have identified many backyard birds and enjoyed the antics of our acrobatic squirrel.
Bring Nature in the House
-Set up a Nature Table. Bring things you find in the house to observe and record. We do this all the time. Mostly because both of my girls are collectors. But it can be fancy or simple. You can use a serving tray or shadow box to display items. Change them weekly or seasonally. It’s up to you.
-Create nature sensory bins or boxes with nature’s “loose parts.” These are great ways to bring nature indoors.
-Have a pet. While we have a strict no animals in the house rule. That really means we don’t have a cat or dog. We have had a variety of insects and reptiles. Usually, we keep them a few days for observation and then release them. We’ve had an ant farm and worm farm. We have also raised and released monarch butterflies, which is our favorite.
-Watch a documentary. We do this often. One of my daughters love ocean animal, but we do not live near the beach. That has not kept her from adding them to her nature journal.
“You can observe a lot by watching”
– Yogi Berra
Next, Let’s talk about observation.
Again, you know your child better than anyone. Take into account their activity level, interest, and tolerance of things. Here are some tips.
Make it fun
-Provide magnifying glasses, bug boxes, collection containers, and a camera to make observation more fun. Additionally, a telescope and microscope can provide a lot of opportunity for observation.
-Find hands-on activities. A “You pick site,” for apples, berries, and pumpkins is a great choice.
-Use all your senses. What does it sound like, smell like, look like, feel like or sometimes taste like?
Don’t force it
-If something is not working, don’t force that issue to make nature studies work.
-Don’t compare or feel like you have to do it a certain way because that’s how everyone else is doing it.
-Take it slow. I know that my best intentions made our favorite things unbearable because we were in a hurry or rushed for some reason.
“The pleasure and value of every walk or journey we take may be doubled to us by carefully noting down the impressions it makes upon us.”
– John Burroughs
Some suggestions for Nature Journaling:
Nature Journaling is the recording of what you observe in nature. It is not meant to be an artistic masterpiece. Though many I see are, indeed, masterpieces. A nature journal’s main purpose is to record what you see in nature and a fun part of nature studies. You also get to get some art in there; two birds one stone!
If your child has difficulty drawing or doesn’t like to draw
-Be a good example. Nature Journaling is something that you can do together when you do your nature studies.
-Take photos or print them from the computer. Paste them in the journal and write what you think about it.
-Use stamps or thing that you find in nature to create. Paint with flowers, make mandalas, clover necklaces.
-Press and dry flowers and leaves and then tape them in your journal.
-Start simple. Just add the colors that you see to your journal. Draw the weather that day. Write don’t draw.
If your child has trouble writing or spelling
-Do it for them. Write what they narrate to you. Label the parts of the subject. Add the location and date of the nature studies for them.
-Typing is a great option. My daughter is able to write. But has horrible handwriting. She types what she wants in her journal and then we paste it in there.
Make it their own
-Encourage them to journal any way that they want to. Accept their efforts.
So there you have it- the keys to nature studies for children with special needs!
With some creativity, patience, and a whatever it takes attitude we can overcome the many obstacles that we face with our special children. I hope these ideas encourage you and your family to explore and record the little things and the wonder that is nature.
More about Heather
Heather Rosenberger is a mom to twin teenage girls. They love the freedom they have in homeschooling. A self-described “nature nut,” she loves fishing, hiking, nature journaling and nature photography. You can find her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.
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