Kids with Challenges Rockin’ The Outdoor Life {Part 1}

I am going to attempt to dive into a challenging series that I hope will be met with a positive response.  I have honestly never been so nervous about posting anything on my blog, but also feel strongly that the message here is crucial to get out there.  No, I do not have a child with a disability.  No, I cannot possibly understand what it is like.  However, I DO know that there are many families out there that are working past the challenges, frustrations and special needs and continuing to get out and enjoy the outdoors as a family.  I think it is beautiful and I applaud them over and over.  It is my honor to start a series of posts sharing their personal stories and what has worked for them.  I hope you will join me in learning, teaching, living and celebrating them.
Kids with Disabilities Rockin' The Outdoor Life {Part 1}
Our daughter has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). This challenge leaves her sensitive to light, sound, texture (clothing and food), temperature, and many other sensory experiences in her environment. She loves the outdoors and throughly enjoys being outside and studying the plants and creatures we encounter. She wants to be a Park Ranger when she grows up!
The problem is actually getting her outside. Fluctuations in temperature/weather, clothing layers, tight bathing suits, properly fitting footwear, unpredictable trails, etc… the challenges go on and on… But when describing SPD the analogy of a roadway is often employed: sometimes traffic (the neuro-pathways) run smooth, and other time they are jammed up with traffic. This makes our experiences with her extremely unpredictable. With all of this in mind I can share some strategies we have used to help smooth the way to time in the outdoors.
Kids with Disabilities Rockin' The Outdoor Life {Part 1}
Have a mantra you can use to get out there
We have found that the first 15 min are the hardest and if we can get her out there for at least 15 min we usually can stay out for much longer. My husband and I have found ourselves saying,”15 min” to each other over and over for the first part of a hike. If we can make it through the upset and turmoil of that first 15 then things tend to smooth out.
Have a turn around snack
She is very ridged about “plans” so we try not to have a specific turn around point for a hike, because sometimes we all want to hike longer, or cut it short, and we want to have that flexiblity. She needs a marker so we always have a small snack when we decide to turn around. I always keep a small snack in my bag, just in case we need it for an impromptu walk or hike. (Impromptu does not happen often around here but sometimes we can get away with being spontaneous!)
Take care of their feet
Proper footwear has been a big issue for us. She does not like things that are even the slightest bit tight on her feet so hiking boots have been difficult in the past. Her dexterity and motor skills are also delayed and shoe tying has been difficult. Tying hiking boots was even more frustrating. I replaced the laces in her boots with elastic and tied them loose enough for her to slip on but tight enough to provide a snug fit for her shoes.
She is also constantly getting her feet wet so an extra pair of socks is a must. She is a sensory seeker but often does not like the results of the sensory experience she receives after the fact. This can end a hike really fast and make the hike back super unpleasant. An extra pair of socks in my pack has saved us many times.
She now has waterproof hikers (we finally found some she will wear) and that has helped a lot.
Give them some control
If there is a map available we give it to her and let her follow the trail on the map. This gives her a sense of control, which can be really helpful when on a new trail.
There are other really specific things that we have to take into account on the trail (such as her extreme discomfort with others “going ahead” or “falling behind”) but I think, considering every child is very different, the above challenges and tips are a little more universal for families with these sorts of issues. Just about every family has challenges of one sort or another; some more extreme than others, and we try to be thankful that we even have the ability to hike the trails, cross the rivers, and hop the rocks. We try to look for the positives and know that getting out there, as much as it can be difficult at times, is a form of therapy for all of us. We relish those moments when everything clicks and everyone is happy and content, soaking up all of the goodness nature has to offer. Those moments are golden.
Do you have children (or work with them) with special needs?  What are your best tips?  Please feel free to share – we all benefit from the conversation!
The Famliy crop-1Dawn is a nature loving, homeschooling mama of two, who can always be found with hiking boots on her feet and a bar of dark chocolate in her bag. She taught high school health and physical education before deciding to stay home with her kiddos. She is currently in the process of co-authoring a book combining art and nature, and is the co-author of “The Weather Watcher’s Handbook,” a family friendly ebook about the weather and weather related experiments. She blogs at The Simple Things Notebook and co-blogs at Mud Puddles to Meteors.

© 2014, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author. All photos property of Dawn (and used with permission).

Amelia lives with her husband and three young children in Yellowstone National Park. As a family, they believe that life is precious, short and should be lived to the fullest. That includes introducing a life of adventures for their boys in the form of skiing, hiking, biking, running, camping and lots of outdoor playing. Amelia writes at Tales of a Mountain Mama in an attempt to inspire others to get outside daily too with tips and tricks, stories and lots of gear reviews.


  1. what a fantastic post — thank you!

  2. Dawn, how do you deal with the – extreme discomfort with others “going ahead” or “falling behind”?
    My child deals with this and it’s a battle when we hike with others. He always needs to be first and is terrified of being left behind. He has some sensory issues as well. Thanks.

    • Tanya, This is a really hard one!
      As a family we just try to stay together or pair up with the kids. We only have two kiddos so it is typical for us to just talk her through being with one of us and letting the other pair go ahead a little bit or fall behind because they want to investigate something. We also make it a game to play catch up if she and I fall behind while taking a closer look at something.
      It is difficult when we hike with others. We have had to limit our outings to very small groups (like only one other family) and luckily we have some very understanding friends, with very understanding children. She also goes through times during a hike (almost always) when she has to lead. There was a time when she was younger when we did not go on forest walks with friends because she would push others aside on the trail to get into the lead and this was not okay with me, or fair for the other kids. For a long time we just met up at a pond or lake for the kids to play and investigate in a natural setting without the walking that would trigger the “leader” response.
      I wish I had an answer for you. It is a hard thing to deal with, especially when hiking with other families. We have had more talks that I can remember about letting others lead, reassurance that she would never be left behind, always staying with her, and also did the “Hug-A-Tree” training with the kids. I think the survival training did help a little bit with the feelings of being scare to separate. But we still deal with it on a regular basis and she is ten now.
      Please let me know if you have any other questions. All the best…

  3. Great info that will help so many parents get their kids outside! Thanks for sharing.

  4. What a great idea for a blog series!

    I have a son who has sensory issues but not severe enough to be diagnosed as SPD. Hiking or actually even going to the park terrified me when he was younger (2-3). He had no sense of boundaries and would instantly move to the farthest edge of any given space. At the park this meant the street and in Glacier National Park which we lived near at the time, it meant many places that where totally scary to his mommy who struggles with water and heights. Hiking really was impossible. We had to put some activities aside for a time while we taught him these things and helped him to respond to our voices. That is still a challenge. I have found that with special needs (I call them extra needs) that you can’t always be exactly like other families, but you still get out like you said. I could go on and on, but mostly I am thrilled that someone is writing about sensory processing issues. It is really a hidden disability and often my son just looks or feels extra “bratty” especially when tired or over stimulated.

  5. I understand completely, Angela. We have struggled with all that you have written.
    I remember when we would meet up at the park and all of the other toddler mom’s where talking together with their tots playing at their feet while I was running around making sure my daughter did not do a nose dive off of something, or run into the water at the beach, or on… and on… It was not that I was hovering or being “over protective” but that she had no fear and totally lacked the sense of safety needed to keep herself from getting hurt. And her pain tolerance is out-of-this-world, so often she would get hurt and not even cry or tell me. I would always have to check her over throughout the day for bumps and bruises. Others felt like I was being overprotective but they just did not understand her.
    The fact that she “looks perfectly normal” and on top of that is very big for her age, makes it hard for others to understand the way we behave with her and her, as you say, “bratty” behavior when over stimulated. It is a hidden disability and difficult for those who don’t live with it daily to understand.
    Yes, you can’t always be like other families. This was, and sometimes still is, a hard thing to accept, but we are working on doing the best with all we have.
    I wish you all the best!

  6. Thanks for sharing Dawn.

  7. I am so glad you decided to go ahead and do this series! I work with deaf and hard of hearing kids (who sometimes have varying disabilities as well) and am very excited to read about getting outside and overcoming some of the various challenges as well as ideas from different families. Thank you!!

  8. Wonderful post Dawn! Thank you for sharing that side of your family. I think from seeing you in action that you handle it all with grace!

  9. Great post. I think this series will help us understand and have more patience out on the trails and at the parks with families that have special and or extra needs family members. Thank you for sharing.

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