Special programming for special kids

Kayakers at Prairie Oaks' Adaptive Adventures program. (photo Bryan Knowles)
Kayakers at Prairie Oaks’ Adaptive Adventures program. (photo Bryan Knowles)

It’s widely accepted that outdoor play and exploration is essential to the healthy physical, cognitive, social and emotional development of all children. But children with special needs often face barriers to accessing and connecting with the outdoors. This is a challenge that Metro Parks and the YMCA Early Childhood Resource Network+ have taken on, to ensure that families with special needs children have access to natural environments and outdoor play.

We have plans to expand our programming for families with special needs children, building on the success of 10 programs we have co-organized since November 2015. These programs, attended by more than 1,200 people, allowed families to participate in activities that usually would not be accessible to them. Programs like getting in the creek and catching crawdads, fishing and calling in owls on a night hike. In September we held an Outdoor Adaptive Adventure where 625 people joined us at Prairie Oaks for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing and a picnic lunch. The core Adaptive Adventures and our other programs serves as a hopeful seed of a more inclusive society, in which diversity is welcome and accepted, and a love for nature flourishes.

This programming is already helping families, many of whom may be hesitant to engage in nature due to physical and social barriers, past negative experiences, or fears of the unknown. Parents worry about breaking out of routines or become anxious of what others may think or say if their child is behaving differently than what may be considered socially acceptable. Children are uneasy about their physical capabilities or fear bullying from peers. Lastly, given the constant additional expenses of caring for a child with a disability, families often fear that activities outside of the home are costly and therefore unattainable.

Bubbles of happiness excite the kids at play during Prairie Oaks’ Adaptive Adventures. (photo Lisa Williams)

Our partnership with the YMCA tries to address these worries by offering free, nature-based, social and recreational programs, intended to inspire personal growth and community integration. Children with disabilities can play alongside their peers, participate in positive physical activity, discover at their own comfort level, and overcome challenges in a safe, fun and welcoming environment. We know from feedback that families can foster hope, happiness and healing through networking at our programs with other families facing similar issues. As well as developing special needs children’s appreciation and awareness of nature, the sensory experience of outdoor spaces contributes to their overall health, happiness, social growth and wellbeing.

This spring we will be starting a Hiking Club that will meet at a different park every month. Families will be able to get outside and become familiar with different trails while receiving the benefits of physical activity. We have a Woodcock Walk and Roll program at Prairie Oaks in March and Tram Rides at Blacklick Woods in April.

Learn more about our partnership and programs

If you are interested in attending or scheduling a special needs program contact Jen Rosa at rosa@metroparks.net