Access to active, outdoor, or free play is recommended for a child’s optimal development (Tremblay, et al., 2015), and play is the means through which a child can learn about and understand the world (White, 2011). Children consistently report on the fundamental importance of play in their lives (e.g. Coyne, Dempsey and Comiskey, 2012; Horgan, O’Riordan, Martin and O’Sullivan, 2017). However, for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), little is known about their play experiences and in particular, their experiences of outdoor play (Lynch, 2017).


Literature has pointed to differences in play between children with ASD and typically developing children (e.g. Szabo, 2014; Williams, Reddy and Costall, 2001). Consequently, there may be differences also in their outdoor experience. Research specific to this population is needed if we are to develop a better understanding of the place of play in their worlds. This will help develop a broader understanding of outdoor play, its challenges and value, and will support communities to facilitate play opportunities of children with ASD. 

Background to the study and the outdoor environment

This study presents a synopsis of a project undertaken in 2017, to explore the outdoor play experiences of preschool children with ASD, in the context of their homes and preschool setting. One preschool ASD unit, situated in a local primary school setting in a rural area in Munster was recruited for the research. This preschool contained modern, well-equipped, outdoor playspaces: a small garden by the classroom, and larger shared playground area. The preschool children had opportunities to play together in the classroom garden, or in a more integrated setting in the playground. The playground was unusual for many primary schools in that it contained various playground components such as a slide, spinner and rocker, which provided many play opportunities for the children. Furthermore, living in a rural location was conducive to the children also having access to the natural outdoor experiences.


A qualitative, multimethod approach was used to generate data over eight weeks from three different participant groups: six preschool children, five mothers of the children, and six preschool staff (two teachers and four Special Needs Assistants). As the children were mainly non-verbal, parents and preschool staff were selected as interviewees, as advocates for the children, to support an understanding of their play routines and preferences. One semi-structured interview was undertaken with each parent either at their own home or at the school. A focus group was undertaken with the six staff members at the school. Then, two school visits were conducted to observe the children at play in outdoor spaces at the preschool setting and to engage them in a number of projective-technique-based indoor activities (a card-sorting task and play dough activity). Audio and video-recordings were taken of interviews and observations to allow verbatim transcription and ensure data integrity. Data were thematically analysed by both researchers. Codes were generated through thorough review and reflection upon the data using tables to compare and contrast multiple data sets. Analysis of the combined data sets enabled researchers to gain insights into the meaning of outdoor play for these children, beyond their limited capacities for communicating through language. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the participants’ identities.


1. Play is about choice and personal autonomy

The freedom experienced when playing outdoors emerged as a key theme. Given the choice, many of the child participants showed preference for being outdoors rather than indoors, with parents commenting that they would “stay out there all day”. This enjoyment of playing outdoors was confirmed during researcher’s observations when the children actively engaged in various ways in their outdoor environment. For some, the outdoors was a site for sensory play. This became evident in their preferential use of certain playground elements such as the spinning cup and sand-box. Noah, for example, loved running the sand through his fingers. The natural environment also offered sensory experiences, such as the wind blowing and leaves fluttering on the ground, and these features characterised the play of some of the children. Niall’s mother, for example, described how “he puts his head up so that the rain goes on his face”. Physical activity play was also a feature for some. Ethan’s mother described how family trips to the woods were undertaken weekly to satiate Ethan’s boundless energy and love of outdoor exploration. Eoin liked climbing particularly, and scaled the preschool playground climbing frame with ease. From this heightened position, Eoin liked to observe the happenings in other parts of the playground. Noah, meanwhile, liked the slide, and used it in different ways: sliding down, climbing up, and lying at the bottom. In the freedom of the outdoors, children had the opportunity to “do their own thing”, and were afforded a sense of power, described by one mother as “he likes to rules the outdoors”. As well as having freedom to play their own games, the children were involved in the play of others, at times independently, but also through the guided support of adults: preschool staff at the school, and primarily parents at home. At school, organised games like Duck-Duck-Goose were a source of enjoyment to many. Liam for example was seen jumping and laughing with excitement during a game. The outdoors provided space for interactive games with lots of movement, running and catching, without necessarily high language requirements. At home, siblings and neighbours were natural companions for outdoor play. Parents commented how outdoor play strengthened relationships between siblings who discovered shared interests, for example playing with water guns or using the trampoline. Pets also featured frequently as outdoor companions.



Figure 1.  I like to explore the plants and dig in the earth


2. Opportunities for outdoor play: environments and participation

The children’s opportunities to participate in outdoor play emerged as a second theme. At the preschool, the outdoors featured strongly in the daily routine. Access to the two outdoor play sites at the preschool offered a variety of affordances. For example, the sand-table in the garden provided for group-play and the manipulation of different materials, elements such as a slide and climbing frame in the playground provided opportunity to crawl, to run, to slide, to plan and execute gross motor tasks. Apart from those opportunities at school, parents identified other outdoor locations to which their child had access. They included their own garden, neighbourhood parks, woods and beaches. Parents generally highly valued the outdoors for, among other things, its anticipated health benefits for their child, and this influenced the extent of its presence in their child’s life. On the other hand, the publicity of being outside generated some parental concerns and self-consciousness around how their child was perceived by others: that their child’s behaviour might be seen as ‘abnormal’ by onlookers. Some parents reported experiencing negative reactions from strangers, which negatively impacted their desire and capacity to attend such outdoor locations.


Figure 2.  I like to watch and touch the fluttering leaves


3. Power of outdoor play

In the educational setting of the preschool, staff members recognised that being outdoors had a significant impact on the children’s behaviour. Behaviour improved not only during outdoor play, but its effect was seen to extend to the classroom, impacting their indoor attention and focus, and having a lasting modulating effect on their behaviour. Parents agreed on similar results at home.


Discussion and conclusions

This study used a multimethod approach to gather data from three different groups: preschool children, mothers of the children, and preschool staff, in order to understand children’s play preferences and experiences. Overall, children in this study highly valued being outdoors for play, where they engaged primarily in unstructured, free-play. For children with ASD, their lives are typically highly routinised and scheduled, so these finding highlight the need to also facilitate time for outdoor play as a means of providing opportunities for free-play more effectively.

Outdoor play took many forms for these children and meant different things for different children. However, of particular note was the preference for sensory play. Several situations were observed when a child appeared particularly captivated with the sensory characteristics of an activity. As noted in other studies, sensory play can feature as a significant play form/preference for children with ASD (Conn, 2015). Interestingly, most children in this study did not demonstrate sensory-avoiding behaviours during outdoor play, which would also be typical for children with ASD. Overall, the sensory aspect of outdoor play was identified as requiring more attention in terms of designing for the children’s play preferences and needs. Components that incorporate sight, sound, touch, movement, and complexity to varying degrees are important to facilitate participation for children with ASD in sensory play (Sachs and Vincenta, 2011). While Irish education settings take this into account indoors through sensory rooms, this aspect of outdoor play needs more focused attention.

Another significant finding was the promotion of social dimensions of play and the premise that play can be nurtured. Parents in this study strongly desired that their children develop play skills, not so much for themselves, but so that they could play with others and be included in play situations at home, at school, and in their communities. Children in this study, found playmates among peers at school, and in school integrated play was routinely scheduled with typically developing peers in the playground. This was seen to encourage play progression and development of skills important for social play (McConnell, 2002; Vygotsky, 1978). Findings highlighted the value of the ‘safe space’ that the ASD preschool unit in a mainstream school can offer, with opportunity for supported play in the unit, combined with integration with typically developing children. Further research into enabling play in these contrasting settings would be a valuable contribution.

However, social play in communities was more challenging. Although free-play was valued by adults, the children’s ability to engage in community free-play was shaped by community experiences of what constitutes ‘acceptable play’ in public. This was a particular issue for community playgrounds. Parents reported that community playgrounds were more difficult to access, and were places where they sometimes experienced exclusion, which highlights issues of stigma (Farrugia, 2009). For parents, parental reasoning guided their decisions to intervene (Lynch, Hayes and Ryan, 2016): sometimes leaving their child to play freely, and other times scaffolding more socially acceptable ways of playing when in community settings. It seems that for children with ASD, adults experience a tension between how best to enable play that is self-initiated, and internally motivating, yet also meets their needs for social inclusion. Thus, infrastructural supports both for adults and communities in general are required if we are to maximize opportunities for children with ASD to participate in social play in integrated contexts as well as freedom to engage in outdoor free-play.


Future research needs to develop clear and coherent guidelines for developing challenging playspaces that foster social inclusion and afford a range of play opportunities and experiences for all children (Moore and Lynch, 2015), including those with ASD.



Conn, C.  (2015) ‘Sensory Highs’, ‘Vivid Rememberings’ and ‘Interactive Stimming’: Children’s Play Cultures and Experiences of Friendship in Autistic Autobiographies. Disability & Society, 30:8, 1192-1206.


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Horgan, D, O’Riordan, J., Martin, S. and O’Sullivan, J. (2017). Report of Consultations with Children on After-School Care. Dublin Stationary Office: Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Available online at Https://Www.Dcya.Gov.Ie/Documents/Publications/20170404REPORTOFCONSULTATIONSWITHCHILDRENONAFTERSCHOOLCARE.Pdf


Farrugia, D. (2009). Exploring Stigma: Medical Knowledge and the Stigmatisation of Parents of Children Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Sociology of Health and Illness, 31(7), 1011–1027.


Farrugia, D. (2009). Exploring Stigma: Medical Knowledge and the Stigmatisation of Parents of Children Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Sociology of Health and Illness, 31(7), 1011–1027.


Lynch, H. (2017) Playspaces: Children with Disabilities and Social Inclusion. Children’s Research Digest, 4(1), 26-31.


Lynch, H., Hayes, N., and Ryan, S. (2016). Exploring Socio-Cultural Influences that Impact on Infant Play Occupations in Irish Home Environments. Journal of Occupational Science, 23(3), 352-369. Doi:10.1080/14427591.2015.1080181


McConnell, S. R. (2002). Interventions to Facilitate Social Interaction for Young Children with Autism: Review of Available Research and Recommendations for Educational Intervention and Future Research. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 351–372.


Moore, A., and Lynch, H. (2015). Accessibility and Usability of Playground Environments for Children Under 12: A Scoping Review. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 22(5), 331-344.


Sachs, N., and Vincenta, T. (2011). Outdoor Environments for Children with Autism and Special Needs. Implications, 9(1), 1-8.


Szabo, M. K. (2014). Patterns of Play Activities in Autism and Typical Development. A Case Study. Procedia. Social and Behavioural Sciences, 630-637.


Tremblay, M. S., Gray, C., Babcock, S., Barnes, J., Costas Bradstreet, C., Carr, D. and Brussoni, M. (2015). Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(6), 6475–6505.


Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.


White, J. (2011). Capturing the Difference: The Special Nature of the Outdoors. In J. White (Ed.), Outdoor Provision in the Early Years (Pp.45–56). London, England: Sage.


Williams, E., Reddy, V., and Costall, A. (2001). Taking a Closer Look at Functional Play in Children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 67–77. NOTE: for a more detailed report, see Blake, A., Sexton, J., Lynch, H., Moore, A. and Coughlan, M. (in press) An exploration of the outdoor play experiences of preschool children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in an Irish preschool setting. Today’s Children Tomorrow’s Parents, 47,


Author information

Julie Sexton and Aine Blake are Occupational Therapists, who conducted their final year research project in 2017 under the direction of Dr. Helen Lynch: to explore children’s experiences of outdoor play in a preschool setting for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This project forms part of the outdoor play project work that is an ongoing area of study in the department, from a rights-based occupational science perspective. This project is part of a European COST Project on Play for Children with Disabilities: Ludi: