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Beth Gardner explains how getting out and about has huge benefits for children with special educational needs 

From children with autism practicing communication skills at a local café, to pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties being exposed to new sensory experiences in their own school garden, children with SEN benefit enormously from frequent learning outside the classroom experiences.

Taking learning outside the classroom walls is especially valuable to pupils who are hard to reach or who do not respond well to traditional teaching methods, for whatever reason. Children with special needs often learn best through doing, and the opportunity to get out into the school grounds or local community, or further afield, can provide pupils with real life experiences that can help them lead a more independent life in adulthood.

Learning outside the classroom (LOtC) helps children relate what they learn at school to the world around them. It is known to motivate young people, raising attainment and reducing poor behaviour and truancy. Educational visits form some of the most vivid memories from childhood and these experiences can really bring learning to life whilst engaging students’ interest. More and more schools are recognising the benefits of integrating LOtC into the everyday curriculum.

For a child with physical disabilities, the opportunity to participate in adventurous activities such as canoeing or horse riding can bring a powerful sense of freedom and have a dramatic impact on their self confidence. Likewise, the sensory opportunities offered by learning in the natural environment, in the school grounds or local woodland, can help pupils with profound learning difficulties expand their horizons and become more alert and aware of the world around them. Bringing autistic students into contact with different people and environments gives them the chance to practice their social skills and adapt to new situations.

Making these experiences a regular part of the school day needn’t involve a dramatic transformation of your teaching approach, nor should it be a cost-prohibitive process. It’s probable that only small changes are needed to ensure that LOtC experiences form part of your pupils’ daily lives.

Whether your school is in the city or the country, a school’s grounds and local area offer a wealth of opportunity to conduct LOtC on a regular basis.

Use the school grounds:

  • school grounds can inspire pupils during lessons. Why not take your pupils outside to paint or use things in the grounds to create art?
  • growing, cooking and eating fruit and vegetables produced in their school garden can help children learn about healthy eating and how to look after themselves in the real world.

Use the local community:

  • a regular visit to the local shop to buy things with real money can give children with autism the opportunity to practice valuable life skills and help them become more independent
  • a visit to a farm can help children with profound learning difficulties learn that the world is a bigger place than they experience at home or school, and teach them how to cope with new experiences.

Increasingly, teachers are seeing that getting children out and about has huge social, emotional and educational benefits, and teachers are also reaping the rewards themselves. Relationship between teachers and young people improve through shared experiences, and many teachers have found new ways to relate to their pupils.

LOTC at Chatsworth High School & Community College

Chatsworth High School & Community College in Salford recently won the North West 2009 Learning Outside the Classroom Award for Excellence and Innovation. Deputy Headteacher Sue Goldsworthy explains how the school has developed LOtC:

“Chatsworth is a Special School for pupils with a range of severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and autism. LOtC has always been part of what we do. As a special school, it is vitally important that our pupils get out into the community to develop the skills that they need. Our provision has developed significantly over the past few years, since we completely re-worked our curriculum to make it bespoke for our pupils.

“We consulted widely with parents, teachers and pupils to find out what skills and areas of learning were important to them. We then set about devising a curriculum that provides the broadest range of relevant learning opportunities. Our starting point was thinking about the skills that pupils would need in the future and then we related this to where our students are now.

“One week every term, we focus specifically on developing the pupils’ understanding of economic well-being, both as consumers and employees. Experiencing the world of work and going into shops and buying goods are, themselves, powerful experiences. They help prepare pupils for situations they will come across in the future, and practice a range of different social skills in a safe and structured way. These types of situations also help them develop decision-making abilities.

“By working with other people within a local business, our students can become valuable members of a team, which helps to raise their aspirations and ambitions. Several students regularly help out in a charity shop, and other staff members have said that they are “a breath of fresh air.” Recently, we saw a former pupil enter the workforce at a local restaurant; it was a big moment, not just for him, but also for the staff and current pupils here.

“We encourage teachers to plan activities that enable students to generalise their learning, and we know that we have to place learning within an appropriate and accessible context for our students.”

As a special school, we have always been creative in our approach to teaching. For example, our science teacher may teach students about changes in the environment in autumn by getting them to listen to the sounds leaves make as you roll over them. Any school, with a degree of flexibility in its curriculum, can introduce this type of approach.”

LOtC Quality Badge

The Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge is awarded by the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom to organisations and venues offering good quality learning experiences whilst managing risk effectively. Visiting badged organisations simplifies the process of arranging learning outside the classroom experiences by immediately reducing the amount of paperwork involved. Over 500 venues across the country already have the badge. For more information, visit:
www.lotcqualitybadge.org.uk

Further information

Beth Gardner is Chief Executive of the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. For information about LOtC and to access the Council's free web resource, Out and About, visit:
www.lotc.org.uk

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