5 Great Opportunities for Outdoor Activity
Opportunities for outdoor activity
When we can finally venture outdoors, I get excited to find out what exercises and activities my athletes can perform beyond the gym or home setting. Generalization, or the transfer of a skill from one environment to another, is an area of common difficulty for the autism and SN populations. Since the entire point of fitness and adaptive PE programming is to develop abilities that enhance independence in daily life and beyond, I want to know what they look like in those “beyond situations”. Outdoor environments provide five great opportunities for physical activity.
1) Generalization of mastered skills
When my athletes have independently mastered medicine ball push, overhead, and scoop throws, the next step is opening the door and testing those abilities on grass in the outdoors. Will they be able to perform those throws to the same level of expectation? Will the potential distractions (visual, auditory) of being outside create a more challenging situation? Is being outside more motivating and does it lead to even better performance than indoors, as is the case with a few of my athletes?
Being in a new environment can also provide insight as to the retention of labels and the contingency between a verbal direction and correct responses. Sometimes my athletes need a few minutes to adjust with a fitness session being outdoors and may require an extra prompt to perform the exercise correctly.
2) New Reinforcers
Marc (featured in the video companion to this article) has a great deal going. He performs one of our designated activity circuits primarily focusing on increasing upper body strength and low body stability, then gets to run over to the swings (where I get in some upper body pushing after he asks me with a full sentence to push him higher). Having a preferred movement activity as a reinforcer makes a lot of sense in an outdoor situation. We can also identify novel ways of making movement more enjoyable.
3) Guided Exploratory Play
Exploratory play is often a deficit for individuals with autism and related disorders. Much like socialization, in which we can’t simply push two individuals together expecting social skills to magically emerge, even the finest of jungle gym playground wonderlands may not be immediately inspiring. Using the “let’s try this” technique and nudging an athlete towards a piece of playground equipment or a new area can help with overcoming anxiety and provide some structure to a potentially chaotic situation. The “let’s try this” approach is far superior to “do this now” which “kind of/sort of” completely takes away the “play” element. Initially, keep engagement to the activity time open to get an idea of how long the individual might spend performing a particular activity.
4) Sharing Space
When I get questions about the difference between developing fitness programs for the neurotypical population and the ASD/Special Needs population, I go right to my playground example. When I set out our brightly colored cones, Dynamax balls, Sandbells, and other fitness funstuffs on the playground, inevitably some children will begin to meander over, eager to pick up a ball or jump over a cone. With my Autism Fitness athletes I do not usually have this initial luxury of predisposition towards play.
When other children do enter our space, it is a natural opportunity for learning to share both space and objects with others. Jake became quite anxious when other children began playing with some equipment that we had set out (I had let them know it was fine for them to use it). Meanwhile, Jake and I talked about how it was fine for them to share it with us, particularly because we were not using it at that time and they might enjoy it for a little while. These were very appropriate, in vivo (in the living world) opportunities to teach abstract social skills.
5) Observing Unstructured Movement Skills
Free to roam the playground, my athletes give me a treasure chest of information about how well they are moving, where there might be some weakness or compensation, where motor planning might lag, or, happily conversely, where our work together has instilled increases in strength, stability, and the desire to seek out physical activity. Being able to observe “playground” skills in an actual playground or outdoor setting can help us to plan more individualized and effective exercise programs. It is an important component of the coaching experience. A working knowledge of how our athletes move when not being prompted/guided/instructed should be a determining factor in exercise selection during structured fitness and physical education time. So get outside. And, whenever possible, get your athletes outside. Test three or four of the exercises you’ve been working on in the colder months and allow for plenty of less structured, guided movement exploration time. It is all on the continuum towards pursuing play for a lifetime.
Eric Chessen, M.S., is the Founder of Autism Fitness. An exercise physiologist with an extensive ABA background, Eric consults with families, educators, and fitness professionals around the world. Eric works with his athletes in the NY metro area and is the author of several E-books. Visit AutismFitness.com for more information.
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This post originally appeared on our May/June 2016 Magazine