Kids with Disabilities Thrive with the Right Environment

By Adrian Johansen

When you look into the face of a child, you are looking into the face of tomorrow, the face of the world we will leave behind us. And that means that the challenge, the responsibility, and the honor of our children's tomorrows are upon us today.

However, whether you are the parent of a child with disabilities, or you work with special needs children, or you simply seek to build a more inclusive world for all children, you know that opportunities to thrive are not always distributed equally. Children with disabilities are likely to experience several obstacles to the full and equal participation in our society that they deserve. There are things though, that can be done to help children with disabilities thrive both at home and in the larger world outside their front door.

Kids and the right environment

Tailor the Environment

All children have their own unique needs. This isn't specific to children with disabilities. However, whether at home, at school, or in the community, the environment can have a significant impact on the functioning and wellbeing of children with disabilities.

For children who have been diagnosed with autism or other sensory processing disorders, for example, tailoring the environment to the child's specific needs can dramatically increase the child's overall quality of life. For example, a sensory-friendly room with rich, warm colors, soft lamp lighting, and tactile fabrics can provide sensory stimulation without becoming overwhelming.

Similarly, for children with mobility impairments, creating physically accessible spaces can help them not only enjoy and feel at home in their environments, but it can also support their social inclusion. For instance, accessible ballfields and playgrounds that can be fully utilized by all children, whether they use wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, or no mobilities aids at all, enables children with disabilities to experience the fun of childhood play just as every other child does.

This is a profound benefit to the child's social and emotional development, their sense of self as an individual who has a disability, but who is neither defined nor limited by that disability. For example, accessible parks and ballfields can provide children with disabilities the opportunity to participate in games and sports, including organized sports teams. And as any childhood athlete knows, the friendships children develop with their teammates can last for a lifetime!

Kids and the right environment

The Power of Nature

Perhaps the best, most healing environment you can provide your child is the one outside. The extraordinary power of nature to heal body, mind, and spirit has already been amply proven by research. For children with disabilities, this healing power only seems to be magnified, no matter what the child's particular needs or medical circumstances may be.

The outdoor environment is always a feast for the senses, providing a whole library of sights and sounds, aromas and sensations, that just can't be duplicated on a plastic playset inside or a video screen held in your hand. For children with sensory and developmental challenges, the gentle sensory enrichment of nature can be at once soothing and stimulating.

Similarly, for children with physical challenges, spending time in nature can help develop important fine and gross motor skills. It can encourage physical activity that can, in turn, improve balance, flexibility, and muscle development and strengthening. Being active and breathing the fresh clean air of nature is also a gift to the cardiovascular system, reducing blood pressure, conditioning the heart and lungs, and contributing to a healthier body mass index (BMI).

Best of all, as anyone who spends time in the great outdoors knows, being in nature is the perfect antidote for depression and anxiety.

Tools of Engagement

Another way to create an environment in which children with disabilities can thrive is to give them the tools they need to engage with their surroundings in new, exciting, and motivating ways. For example, if your child has difficulty expressing themselves verbally, but they love the visual arts, then consider giving them a camera and encouraging them to take pictures of the world as they see it.

Photography can be an amazing pastime for children with disabilities because it encourages them to engage with their environment in new ways. And for a child who may have difficulty communicating in words, photography can be an incredibly empowering medium for self-expression, even as it allows them, and you, to better understand their world as they see it, feel it, and experience it.

Girl climbing at Abilities Expo

Every child deserves the opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive. Children with disabilities, however, may need a bit more support in seizing on all the glorious possibilities of childhood. That begins, above all, with creating environments that support their physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development, whether this is through the creation of sensory-friend rooms and accessible parks and ballfields or through encouraging their engagement with their world through a tool such as photography.

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