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Enjoying God’s Playground
By Debbie Sherman

As a mother of children with special needs, I am constantly on the lookout for new techniques, innovative ideas, and specialized teaching tools to expand and enhance our homeschool. However, no matter how hard I look, or what new discovery I make, nothing compares with the good, old-fashioned, tried-and-true learning that takes place outdoors.

God chose to bless my husband and me with seven extraordinary children, by both birth and adoption. Three of those blessings happen to have Down syndrome. It is our obligation and honor to give them the best life we can. He has entrusted their spiritual upbringing and their education to us, and we embrace those responsibilities wholeheartedly. We’ve found there’s no better place to start than outside, among all the beauty and wonder that nature has to offer.

About a year and a half ago, we were fortunate enough to buy a house located on 5½ acres of riverfront property just outside the tiny coastal town of Nehalem, Oregon. As homeschoolers, we could think of no better place to raise (and teach) our children. It didn’t matter that the house was too small or that the kitchen countertops were an ugly shade of teal blue (gulp). What mattered was the sound of the trees swaying in the wind and being able to watch the river cascade through our yard. What mattered was knowing that our children would grow up walking along the beautiful, rock-filled riverbank, discovering spiders and snakes, bats and birds, beavers and deer, all at their fingertips in the environment that God created.

Most children who are differently “abled” are visual, hands-on learners. Reading about a deer in a book was nothing more than an abstract idea for my eight-year-old daughter Jenessa, who happens to have Down syndrome. But seeing a group of deer wandering around in her backyard was quite another experience! She stood mesmerized by the window as the deer investigated our yard, watched as they ate apples off our tree (who am I to interrupt a teaching moment?), and laughed when a noise startled them and they went prancing off into the trees. Jaden, her four-year-old brother (who also has Down syndrome) quickly learned the sign for “deer” and now alerts us to their arrival by running through the house with his hands on his head, pointing excitedly out the window! This type of learning is perfectly suited to a child with special needs, because it is real and tangible.

Ever read about snakes in a textbook? They look scary and mean! The discovery of some garden snakes in our yard turned into a teaching moment when we learned that they could be gentle creatures (and not at all slimy like I imagined!). My children held the snakes and watched them slither off into an old tree trunk. And bats? The noises that they make are loud, and they look dark and menacing as they glide through the air, but we now know that without them we’d have a lot more mosquitoes bothering us! And eagles . . . wow. What a sight to see an eagle flying by. Their graceful flight is truly a thing to behold.

One day we were all inside minding our own business when I caught a glimpse of an animal—no, make that four animals, creeping across our yard down by the river. Turned out it was a family of beavers who apparently were out looking for a lost sibling. You’re probably thinking, How does she know that? How else do you explain that there were five of them when they went back by a half-hour later?

Having these firsthand outdoor experiences has greatly enriched my children’s desire to learn indoors. This is especially true for my kiddos with special needs, because they learn better if the concept is “hands-on.” Playing outside provides us with countless opportunities to see, touch, watch, and feel. Last summer when we stumbled across an anthill, we sat down and observed. We talked about what the ants were doing, and we watched as they carried small pieces of dirt back and forth. We even imitated their movements! Then we went inside, read some stories about ants, colored pictures, and Jenessa and my older girls “notebooked” ants! Much of what we choose to learn about is dictated by what we have just seen outside, as each new discovery paves the way for natural learning.

The adventure doesn’t end with animals. We enjoy researching different types of trees, with their distinctive leaves, trunk patterns, limbs, fruit, and so on. Pressing leaves has never been so fun! Last year we started our very first garden and grew lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, spices, and broccoli. Teaching the children where vegetables come from is all fine and good, but having them plant the seeds, water those seeds, chart the progress, pick the finished product, and then, the best part—eating it—is a thrill that we all shared. Seeing the fruit of their labors (literally!) taught my children, especially Jenessa, how food ends up at the grocery store. The hands-on experience of being able to touch it and feel it made it come alive.

Children with various special needs thrive in an outdoor setting. A child who is blind can enjoy the fragrance of the flowers, the sun on his skin, or the wind in his hair. He can hear the birds chirping, the waves lapping, and the bees buzzing. He can feel the texture of the sand and the ebb and flow of the waves. Those experiences can help paint a vivid picture in the child’s mind, whereas a textbook would fall short by comparison. Children who are deaf or hard of hearing can take in all the visual beauty; they can feel that which they cannot hear. A child who uses a wheelchair certainly doesn’t need one when he sits in a swing! Other play equipment and adaptive swings that are available nowadays allow children with all sorts of unique needs to more easily enjoy God’s playground.

 My five-year-old daughter Jayla, who is autistic and has both Down syndrome and sensory integration disorder, loves to explore anything outside that she can touch. She enjoys sifting sand (or dirt!) through her fingers. She could spend an hour exploring a single blade of grass, all the while spinning in the sun. She finds just the right angle, where the sun shines the brightest, and she watches that sunlight bounce off the blade of grass or whatever she has found to play with. She loves to run and climb, and climb some more. She is most content when she is outside, but when the weather forces her inside, she will sit in front of our large windows, completely mesmerized by the rain or snow. (She’d sit outside while it was raining if I would let her!) What a thrill it is to watch Jamey, my eleven-year-old daughter from West Africa whom we adopted this past August. She grew up in a city right on the coast of Liberia, yet she had never been to the ocean before joining our family! Watching her delight in her first trip to the beach or seeing her eyes widen at the sight of elk meandering through a country field could not be duplicated in a textbook. These are experiences you just can’t get without, well, experiencing them!

In all His infinite mightiness, God designed this beautiful world for us to enjoy. He created it as our dwelling place, to teach us things, to arouse our senses, and to nourish our souls. When we give our children the privilege of spending time outside, surrounded by nature, we are passing on God’s blessing to them. It gives them a whole new place in which to worship and explore. Somehow, when children are gathered outside, one seems to notice their differences a bit less. A child with a missing limb or ears that cannot hear or eyes that cannot see or legs that cannot walk or lips that do not speak are all welcome. It matters not whether they can read, write, or do arithmetic. Learning and playing in a natural environment can be shared equally among them all. For that, I am truly grateful.

Whenever I allow myself a moment to take in a rainbow or to watch the snow falling or to listen to the birds, I simply marvel at the enormity of our God. And I wonder, how can anyone deny His existence?

Thank you dear Lord in Heaven, for allowing us to live among the beauty of all you made for us. Thank you for giving us this awesome place for each of our unique children to simply, just be . . . to be children, to be free, and most importantly, to be themselves.

Debbie and her husband Bill live on the northern Oregon coast with five of their seven children. Debbie is the author of Jenessa’s Journey (www.jenessasjourney.com). In addition to writing, she speaks and teaches publicly about Down syndrome and is the President of the North Coast Down Syndrome Network (www.ncdsn.com). You may contact Debbie at debsher123@msn.com.

Copyright 2008. Originally appeared in The
Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Summer 2008.
Used with permission. Visit them at


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