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Connecting Students with Special Needs to the Environment

by Lynn Dominguez and Mary Lou Schilling

Subject areas: science, special education, outdoor education

Key concepts: recycling, waste management, water quality, water cycle, watersheds, habitats, toxins

Skills: decision making, constructing models, observation, taking scientific measurements, action taking, lifetime activities

Location: indoors and outdoors

Time: 5-week program of one or two hours daily; field trips to local parks, stores, river/lake

Materials: water-quality testing equipment, outdoor recreation equipment (canoes, paddles, personal floatation devices), consumable supplies (paper, tape, glue, poster board)

Environmental educators know that positive outdoor learning experiences assist in the development of environmental stewardship. But outdoor experiences are often regarded as luxuries for students who have a disability. Their school day already includes life and work skills, in addition to traditional academic subjects, and adding environmental education may seem impossible. Yet most people with a disability are capable of independent or semi-independent living, and, like all citizens, need to understand the impact of their daily actions on the natural environment. Far from being an “add-on,” environmental education can be integrated into the curriculum in ways that supplement and enrich the learning experiences of students with disabilities.

We had the opportunity to offer a five-week environmental education program to high school students in a transition-to-work, special education class. These students, from 16 to 26 years of age, had a variety of disabilities, including Down syndrome, learning disabilities, fetal alcohol syndrome, mild and moderate mental retardation, emotional impairments and mild physical impairments. The goal of our program was to increase the students’ knowledge of environmental issues, such as waste management and water quality, and to help them understand the impact of their environmental decisions on community life. In the following, we describe highlights of our program and offer teaching hints and recommendations that focus on educating people with special needs about the environment. Although ours was a self-contained special education class, the techniques described can be applied to any science or environmental education classroom to facilitate inclusion of students with special needs.


Our environmental education program ran two hours daily for five weeks. The facilitators were university students majoring in environmental education and therapeutic recreation, who volunteered through a partnership between the high school and the university.The program was initially implemented in the classroom and progressed to include field trips to local parks, most of which were within walking distance of the classroom. The parks provided access to a river, fields and woodlots, thus allowing students to explore a variety of habitats. Riverfront access also provided opportunities for water-quality testing, paddling instruction and river cleanups (a lifeguard was present for the river cleanup and canoeing).

While special education resources for environmental education are limited, many hands-on activities designed for elementary-level students can be successfully adapted for older students. Local rangers and other natural resource personnel can be invited to share their knowledge, and interpreters and nature center staff can help in adapting and developing lessons for people with special needs. In developing lesson plans, we adapted a variety of environmental education activities, giving special emphasis to hands-on discovery methods and techniques. Curricular content included the following four thematic areas:

Air, water and soil: Activities included discussions of the benefits of clean air, water and soil; the impact of air, water and soil pollution on humans and wildlife; how to keep the environment clean; and garden and tree planting. This thematic area was used to introduce many concepts that were built upon in the following sections of the program. For example, a “web of life” activity was used to integrate the concept of habitat and the interconnections between humans and wildlife.

Water cycle and watersheds: This area of instruction included an activity demonstrating the water cycle, an action-oriented activity exploring the impact of toxins on wildlife and natural habitats, and the construction of watershed models that demonstrated how toxins are carried in a water system and potentially into drinking

Recycling and product packaging: Activities in this thematic area focused on identification of recycling symbols and codes, knowledge of recyclable items, sorting of recyclable products, creative or homemade strategies for recycling, and product purchasing to minimize unnecessary packaging.

Water-quality testing and river clean-up: This curricular area included water-quality testing, an introduction to the Adopt-a-Stream program, a river cleanup, and instruction in canoe paddling, which was intended to facilitate the river cleanup and introduce students to a potentially lifelong outdoor recreation activity.


Tips on exploring the outdoors

Environmental education activities that promote hands-on exploration in the outdoors are uniquely suited to meeting the learning needs of students with disability. The following tips should help you as you explore the outdoors with your students:

1. Develop buddy systems that allow people without disability to assist people with disability. This technique was particularly helpful in our work with people with mental retardation, fetal alcohol syndrome and Down syndrome. The buddy system provided instructional assistance, enhanced safety and fostered inclusion. Buddies can be recruited from local schools, colleges, seniors’ organizations or community groups.

2. Focus on the process rather than on the outcome of the activity. For example, during a paddle down a river, encourage students to become aware of the natural habitat rather than placing primary focus on the length of the trip and the quality of the paddling stroke. This is particularly helpful when working with people with more severe disability.

3. Repeat and review more often than you would with regular students, especially when teaching more complex and abstract concepts. To reduce boredom, use a variety of approaches to teach the same concept or skill. For example, when we discussed the water cycle, students drew the water cycle on the board, participated in a role-playing activity in which they became parts of the water cycle, created posters tracing the cycle of a raindrop, and taught a water cycle activity to early elementary students.

4. Identify the strengths of the students in order to focus on abilities rather than disabilities. For example, the building of watershed models allowed students to work cooperatively in teams. Some were able to visualize the final product and were best at directing tasks, others were good at manipulating the small objects used in model construction, while others enjoyed “making it rain” on the model. Everyone on the team contributed to the final outcome, a working watershed model.

5. Encourage participation by all students in the class. Active participation reinforces abstract concepts that are first introduced in the classroom (e.g., water quality) and then applied outdoors (e.g., water testing). This also assures interaction between group members to enhance communication and social skills.

6. Consider both mental and chronological age when selecting activities. The content must be appropriate for the students’ mental age, while the process (e.g., leadership style, equipment used, instruction location) needs to be consistent with their chronological age. In other words, it is important to respect students’ chronological age while directing information to their mental age. We found, for example, that the board game Candy Land, intended for four- to eight-year-olds, could easily be adapted for teenagers whose chronological age exceeded their mental age. We kept the color-coded game path and flash cards for moving forward, but destination cards that showed such points as the “peppermint forest” and “ice cream sea” were changed to show people involved in environmentally responsible actions, such as recycling or planting a tree. Cards that showed oil spills and glass bottles being thrown in the trash were used to move participants backwards on the board. The card showing the final destination depicted a local park where the students had recently participated in a trash cleanup.

7. Use field trips as sensory learning experiences to help students become more aware of the environment. Encourage students to touch, smell and listen (especially with their eyes closed). We found that most of our students had never been encouraged to listen to natural sounds around them, or to smell flowers, touch trees, or plunge their hands into cold river water.

8. Provide the most normal learning environment possible. Students with cognitive impairments do not easily transfer information presented in the classroom to the natural environment. Therefore, we created the most functional learning environments possible: for example, water quality testing was done at the riverbank. We found that the students learned and applied skills with greater ease when they were actively involved outdoors.

9. Adapt activities to the physical impairments of the individual. The following adaptive strategies promote success.

• For people with vision impairment, use tactile boundaries, brightly colored objects and specific visual cues.

• For those who are hard of hearing, provide extra visual aids, avoid hand gestures, and assure proper lighting and positioning. Be aware of secondary medical conditions (e.g., cardiac problems, asthma and diabetes) that may restrict or limit participation. Seek the advice of a medical practitioner where appropriate.

• When a person demonstrates decreased strength and endurance, reduce the length of activity sessions and build in rest periods. When a person demonstrates decreased balance, it may be appropriate to provide a wider base of support, lower the center of gravity or use stability bars. If a person displays decreased coordination, you may wish to increase the size of the equipment and use lightweight, stable equipment.

10. Teach new concepts at the beginning of a session when participants are most alert. The majority of students we worked with had varying levels of mental retardation, and we found this technique assured attention to tasks and improved learning.

11. Use step-by-step instruction. Activities may need to be broken down into sequential training steps to accommodate students’ attention deficits and to assure success.

12. Remember that success and fun are the basic ingredients of any recreational or environmental education activity. Make activities fun so that students will maintain their enthusiasm and want to return to your outdoor classroom.



Both students and their classroom teachers were highly motivated and enthusiastic participants in our program. Students said that they had never before been asked how they felt about the environment. Teachers reported continued discussions and homework projects centered on environmental concerns during the program. Most exciting to us was the long-term involvement of the students in environmental activities after our program ended. The students developed and implemented a one-hour environmental education session on the water cycle for a second grade classroom. Additionally, one group continued doing river cleanups.

A new group of students has now entered the transition-to-work classroom, and our outdoor and environmental education students at the university will continue their involvement by partnering with the class to provide environmental programs that are integrated with and supplemental to the classroom curriculum. By providing opportunities for all students to learn about the environment and their impact upon it, teachers can play an important role in helping students move into the community as better prepared, environmentally responsible, informed citizens.


Lynn Dominguez and Mary Lou Schilling are instructors in Outdoor and Environmental Recreation and Therapeutic Recreation at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.


Local agencies and programs

• Local park and recreation agencies with therapeutic recreation programs

• Community colleges with teacher education programs

• Natural resource agencies

• Local universities with outdoor and therapeutic recreation programs



<> Therapeutic Recreation Directory (activity ideas for recreation therapy)

<> Access to Recreation (adaptive equipment)

<> Spokes ‘n Motion (adaptive equipment)

<> Able Data (assistive technology)

<> Sports ‘n Spokes magazine (published by Paralyzed Veterans of America)



American Forest Foundation. Project Learning Tree: Environmental Education Activity Guide, Pre-K to 8. American Forest Foundation, 2006.

Bialeschki, M.D. “Environmental Education Needs of Special Populations.” Journal of Environmental Education, 13:1, 1981, pp. 39–44.

Brannan, S., A. Fullerton, J. R.Arick, G.M.Robb and M. Bender. Including Youth With Disabilities in Outdoor Programs: Best Practices, Outcomes, and Resources. Sagamore Publishing, 2003.

Carter, M. J., G.E. Van Andel and G.M. Robb. Therapeutic Recreation: A Practical Approach (3rd ed.). Waveland Press, 2003.

Cornell, Joseph. Sharing Nature With Children II. Dawn Publications, 1989.

Environmental Protection Agency. Let’s Reduce and Recycle: A Curriculum for Solid Waste Awareness. EPA Publication 530-SW-90-005, 1990.

National Wildlife Federation. Access Nature. National Wildlife Federation, 2001.

Western Regional Environmental Education Council. Project WILD Activity Guide. 2001.


From Teaching Green: The High School Years.

One Comment
  1. I am looking forward these types of Information. tThis is really a good step. These type of Activity will really help to learn learning disabilities and special needs

    June 27, 2013

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