7 Outdoor Activities for Kids to Support Self-Regulation
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7 Outdoor Activities for Kids to Support Self-Regulation
Learning to self-regulate is one of the most important achievements in childhood. Self-regulation is the ability to control emotional and behavioral responses in order to get along with others and act in ways that are appropriate for any given situation. For example, when asked to clean up a favorite toy and move on to a new activity, a child who can self-regulate will be able to manage their disappointment and recognize that they will have future opportunities to play with the preferred toy, whereas a child who is still developing self-regulation may be overwhelmed by their frustration and have a tantrum. Mastering self-regulation will help children better cope with stress over the course of their lifetime, and the capacity for self-regulation is a predictor of academic success.
Self-regulation includes being able to:
- Calm down after an exciting or stressful event.
- Manage big emotions like anger or fear.
- Transition smoothly from activity to activity.
- Focus and pay attention for longer periods of time.
- Process sensory information accurately.
- Think critically and problem-solve effectively.
- Plan activities and complete multi-step tasks.
- Comprehend verbal instructions.
- Engage appropriately with same-aged peers.
Self-regulation is a process that develops over the entire course of childhood, from the infant who is soothed by a pacifier to the teenager who learns calm discussions are more effective than door-slamming. Learning to self-regulate effectively continues into adulthood, as evidenced by the multitude of meditation apps and yoga retreats available, but childhood is a time of rapid development in this area. We do not anticipate that a toddler will sit still for more than a few minutes, but a six-year-old is expected to remain seated and attentive for much of the school day.
For some children (and adults), self-regulation comes easily, while others experience more of a learning curve, and almost all children will struggle with self-regulation from time to time. Many children spend far too much time sitting inside playing video games, which provide constant stimulation and instant gratification — severely weakening self-regulation skills. Before your child has a tantrum, they are likely to show other signs when they are having trouble self-regulating. Some indications include the following behaviors:
- Starts acting overly silly.
- Struggles to wait in line or for their turn.
- Talks too loudly or too quietly.
- Stands too close to other people or avoids being in close proximity to others.
- Begins touching people or objects impulsively.
- Fidgets or begins moving too quickly or forcefully.
The good news is that, like reading or throwing a ball, self-regulation is a skill that can be taught and should be practiced. Since being out in nature is inherently calming, the great outdoors is the perfect place to practice self-regulation. Here are7 fun activities your child can do outside to help improve their ability to self-regulate:
1. Balloon Volleyball
In this simple game, replace a regular volleyball with a balloon. All sports require focus and concentration, but playing volleyball with a balloon instead of a regular ball slows down the game. Children will need to exercise patience and impulse control in order to properly maneuver the balloon.
2. Obstacle Course
Obstacle courses require children to remain calm and coordinate gross motor skills with cognition in order to problem-solve effectively. They also offer the opportunity for a wide range of sensory exposure, including proprioceptive (body awareness) and vestibular (balancing and spatial awareness) stimulation.
You can set up a course in the yard if you have one or make use of a playground to create a circuit. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to make a great obstacle course; there are plenty of ways to create obstacles using household items. For example, use a tape line on the ground to make a “balance beam” or put old pillows down and have your kids jump over them. Include a variety of sensory input, such as going on swings to provide motion and incorporating a “crab walk” or a “bear walk” where your child walks on both hands and feet to provide them with sensory information through multiple body parts.
If you have more than one child, try a “partner obstacle course,” where kids must complete the course while holding hands. Or, engage in partnered activities, like a wheelbarrow walk. Activities like these will increase the demand for frustration tolerance and cooperation.
3. Self-Control Games
Game play helps children practice self-regulation as they work on following rules, filtering information, taking turns, and managing frustration. “Stop and start” games— games that require children to respond quickly to instructions to stop and start physical movements — provide an additional level of focus, attention, and inhibition. Bring your child (and maybe some of their friends) to the backyard or a local park and try some of these classic games:
- Simon Says
- Red Light, Green Light
- Freeze Dance
- Mother, May I
- Follow the Leader
- Freeze Tag
Bubbles are always a hit with kids, and they are also a great way to practice controlled breathing – a wonderful technique kids can learn to calm themselves down. They can observe the difference between what happens if they blow very quickly (lots of little bubbles) versus using a deep, slow, steady breath (one BIG bubble!). Challenge your child to blow the biggest bubble they can and help them observe how their body feels when they breathe slowly and deeply.
Another way to use bubbles is to play a game where your child is first encouraged to pop bubbles as quickly as possible and then instructed to sit and just watch the bubbles; resisting the urge to pop the bubbles is a good way to practice controlling impulses.
Pinwheels are a fun alternative to bubbles; not only can kids practice controlled breathing by seeing how long they can make the pinwheel move, but they can also watch and observe the pinwheels in the wind.
5. Create a Calm Space
Sometimes the best thing a child can do to calm themselves is to sit in a quiet space. In my house, we have a “calm-down corner” my 3-year-old can go to when he is feeling overwhelmed, complete with a cozy blanket, books about feelings, and some favorite quiet sensory toys. A similar space can easily be created outside with whatever space and materials you have. Whether you pitch a tent, build a fort, or hang up some sheets, encourage your child to fill their special space with objects that help them feel relaxed and to use it when they need a break.
6. Sensory Bins
Very often, children who are struggling with self-regulation are craving sensory input. Sensory bins — containers filled with different types of textured materials — are a perfect way to provide children with sensory information to promote a sense of calm. These bins are perfect for outdoor play, because you can give your child the freedom to engage with messy substances without worrying about them ending up all over your walls!
Some children respond better to some textures rather than others, so test out a variety of different bins to see which one your child responds to best. Any container you have on-hand can work, and materials can be either wet or dry — plain old water and sand are two classic materials many kids love. Here are some other ideas for sensory bins (and you can find a much more extensive list here):
- Cotton balls
- Popcorn kernels
- Shaving cream
- Pasta (either cooked or dry)
Include scoopers, cups, shovels, and sifters that will allow your child to fully engage with the materials. You can also add other objects into the sensory bins to increase the level of interaction and encourage switching between bins to support a tolerance of transitions. My 18-month-old loves finding hidden toy bugs in her dirt bin and then giving them a bath in her water table. Sensory bins can also be a great addition to your child’s calm-down space.
7. Mindfulness Walk
Mindfulness — the ability to calmly acknowledge your feelings and experiences while staying focused on the present moment — can be an effective tool to help children regulate their emotions. Mindfulness encourages recognizing feelings without reacting to them, which helps children to stay calm in times of challenge.
A great way to enjoy the outdoors while practicing mindfulness is to go on a mindfulness walk where you and your child use your senses to observe your surroundings, including proprioceptive (body awareness) sensations. A mindfulness walk can be done in any environment, from a quiet nature trail to a busy city street. As you walk, ask your child questions to prompt close observation:
- How does your body feel? Do you notice your arms swinging? How do your legs feel as you take a step?
- What do you see? What colors can you find? Is the light soft or bright?
- What do you hear? Is the environment you are in loud or quiet? How many sounds can you pick out?
- What do you smell? Are the aromas pleasant?
- What can you touch? Are the things you touch rough or smooth? Can you feel the ground under your feet? Is it soft or hard?
- Can you taste anything? Does air have a taste?
Try going for these walks in different locations and in various weather conditions and make note of the different sensations. How different is walking in the snow from walking on dry concrete? As you walk, ask your child to reflect on their emotional state, and be sure to share yours with your child.
These activities are a few fun ways to reinforce different components of emotional regulation and to ultimately provide your child with methods they can use to develop self-regulation.
Author’s Note: Most children will eventually master self-regulation skills. However, if you notice that your child seems to have significantly more severe tantrums or challenging behaviors than other children their age, attempts to harm themselves or others, demonstrates increasingly more problematic behavior as they get older, has difficulty making friends and engaging appropriately with others, or isn’t responding to positive behavioral management techniques, you should consult with your child’s pediatrician, a play therapist, or an occupational therapist.