Turn Your Backyard into a Safe, Accessible Spot for Learning and Fun


Education experts agree that the outdoors provides an optimal learning environment for children. Kids enjoy the change of pace and often feel more relaxed and eager to try and learn new things when surrounded by open air and nature. Specific topics such as science and art lend themselves to an outdoor setting as well. As much as the outdoors can provide numerous educational benefits for mainstream children, those on the autism spectrum gain just as much, if not more.

The developmental and educational benefits of outdoor learning do not have to stop at school. Families can do much at home to extend opportunities for learning in nature. Just outside your back door, children of all ages and learning styles can absorb information, learn rules, and gain experience interacting with others. Brought to you by Independent Identity, here is some insight into how the outdoors helps those with autism learn, along with tips for creating a safe, accessible, and functional backyard for children on the autism spectrum.

Studies have shown that students who incorporate outdoor learning into their education receive better grades. There likely isn’t one single reason for this result. Adding outdoor exposure to life, in general, has marked positive benefits like improving health, mental concentration, and mood. All of these combine to improve one’s ability to learn and interest in educational materials.

Special Learning House points out that learning in nature also improves students’ communication skills. When learning outside, students often are put into groups for specific activities. Unlike a lecture, which usually has limited opportunity for collaborative work, the outdoors is all about doing. Although there can be a positive effect of sitting in the grass while listening to someone read aloud, the primary benefits of outdoor learning come from the emphasis on collective problem-solving.

Not all topics are best instructed outside, but every topic can relate to nature in one way or another. Science learning is significantly bolstered by outdoor activities. Children learn about the science of the natural world. From plants and rocks to insects and birds, kids can take topics that might seem bland or one-dimensional in a textbook and marvel at them in real life. For learning at home, the backyard can easily become as beneficial as any experiential museum.

Beyond science, though, kids can learn about a host of other topics outside. Arts fit well in an outdoor setting, from music appreciation to drawing in nature. History, too, can be appreciated by students through outdoor re-enactment of life in a prior time.

Learning can hide in several activities. Disguising learning as fun can be an effective method of teaching for children on the autism spectrum. According to Very Well Health, one covert learning tool is a hobby. Some great outdoor hobbies that can sneak in teachable moments include birdwatching and gardening. Both of these engaging hobbies incorporate a scientific element: animal classification and plant-life cycle study.

Children with autism tend to respond well to actions with repetitive motions such as those required for gardening. Also, the cooperation of searching and identifying different birds can add a social and communication element to backyard fun.

When doing activities such as gardening and birdwatching, it’s helpful to have the right kind of tools and equipment. Gardening gloves can help protect children’s hands and avoid injuries that might otherwise make a child averse to participation.

A final suggested activity for the backyard is camping. Backyard camping provides many family and educational benefits. It’s fun, cheap and is an excellent introduction to a fun family activity. Work together to set up a tent, or activate inquisitive minds by searching for constellations or shooting stars. So, take steps to set up and improve your backyard (you may even raise your home appraisal value by making these types of changes) so that it’s a safe, beautiful place for everyone to spend an evening outside.

Children with autism can benefit from learning in an outdoor environment right outside their own homes. From increased knowledge to the ability to better socialize and follow orders, outdoor activities and play can help any child thrive.

Written by: Rob Woods,
Photo Credit: Pexels

Geoffrey in the news

The annual Gog for Geoffrey in Alamosa, Colorado donated all funds from their June 2019 event to Independent Identity. From the Alamosa Valley Courier:

This year’s donation was presented to valley native Jenna Taylor as the first donation to her budding organization…As a high schooler in Alamosa, Taylor took part in a Peer Buddy class and became very close to Geoffrey Zaragoza…The passing of Geoffrey happened right at that
time while Taylor was trying to make a decision about her future.

Taylor saw a path and decided to take the steps towards her goal. The Alamosa graduate went on to study special education and..would collect her Master’s Degree in Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis.

With her degree Taylor began making an impact in a field where she felt she belonged, doing one-on-one therapy for individuals with autism for years while also supervising graduate students who wished to follow in her footsteps.

Read the entire article to view plans for Independent Identity and the hurdles Jenna faces in expanding the organization.


Geoffrey’s Story

Geoffrey, a lanky adolescent with a baseball cap on his head, looks back at the camera, smiling broadly. He stands in a high mountain desert landscape with mountains rising up in the distance.

Independent Identity Founder and Executive Director Jenna Taylor’s passion for working with teenagers and adults with autism began in high school when she was involved in a class called “Peer Buddy”.

There she met her friend Geoffrey Zaragoza. Geoffrey was born with an enlarged heart, although this was not known by his family. At 18 months old Geoffrey was diagnosed with a seizure disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder- PDD-NOS.

Geoffrey loved fishing, Mountain Dew, and assisting his dad with the cross country and track teams as manager. Geoffrey had so many special gifts that far outweighed any of his limitations. He was funny, and quite a comedian! He never met a stranger and left everyone he encountered with a smile. In December 2003, Geoffrey’s great big heart stopped beating and he passed away. After this devastating loss, Jenna made the decision to study special education after graduation. Since then, Geoffrey continues to be a guiding light in Jenna’s life and is the inspiration for Independent Identity.