Active for life


Outdoor activities can have a positive impact that lasts a lifetime

As a teenager, I was very lucky to be part of a youth group that enabled a succession of 15 to 21-year-olds the opportunity to spend a key part of their formative years learning about themselves and others through outdoor adventure, mainly in the nearby Peak District, but also further afield in both the UK and abroad. The 70s and 80s were very different to today (for better and worse) and the older members of the club (without necessarily any formal qualifications) taught canoeing, climbing, mountain navigation, caving and other outdoor skills to the younger members, who in turn taught younger members as they themselves got older.

It was great fun at the time, not just the activities (practised up to a high level of competence and technical difficulty) but also the experiences of friendship, independence and cooperation. I am sure our parents signed relevant disclaimers and that back in the day we had significant liability insurance too, but at that age we weren’t too bothered about all that. We took controlled risks as part of the experience and it provided important lessons for later life.

Aged 19, I went to university in London and for the next 20 years I took full advantage of the social and career opportunities that a big city has to offer, never once doing any of the activities that I had so enjoyed. Now I am older though, I recognise what those early experiences of learning in the outdoors did in terms of helping to form my later life.

Another thing I recognise is that our group did not have one member with a disability. It didn’t strike me as such at the time, but how unfair was it that those with disabilities didn’t get the opportunity to have the experiences I had and enjoy the lasting positive effects that they gave me?

Well, unlike in the 70s and 80s (with a little help from The Disability Discrimination Act, 1995) there are now plenty of places across the country that can support you as SEN professionals or disability group leaders in helping those in your care do amazing things they never thought they could achieve, giving them potentially life changing experiences that stay with them long after they have returned home. It’s just a matter of knowing what you want to achieve and how best to go about it.

The benefits of learning through outdoor activities

There are many reasons why outdoor education is so effective for children and young people with SEN and disabilities, some of the key ones being:

  • an increase in confidence
  • independence
  • a realisation of abilities
  • opportunities for increasing social and support networks
  • practising social skills and enhancing friendships
  • a catalyst for continued physical exercise in everyday life.

The degree to which these outcomes are obtained differs across groups and is influenced by the reason for the visit and whether the establishment wants the group to attend for recreational, educational, social or rehabilitative purposes. A recent survey of senior management within the SEN sector stated that their perception of pupils on their return from outdoor learning residentials was that they showed an increase in confidence, a raising of their ability when back in the school environment and an increase in sociability.

Although the activities that appear to contribute most towards achievement of the reported outcomes are climbing, canoeing and (if presented in an appropriate format) challenge tasks and walking/chair pushes, in some respects the activities themselves are secondary to how they are delivered by instructors. Some of the most important lessons for students are:

  • achievement in the face of adversity
  • developing interpersonal or teamwork skills built up from working in a group
  • understanding a common aim and a level of interdependency.

High-thrill short duration activities are considered to contribute towards the immediate benefits, while activities of longer duration, requiring sustained effort, maximise the learning opportunities and longer-term benefits.

Needs, goals and outcomes

All pupils with SEN and disabilities are different and the life experiences associated with their disability or condition can impact on the outcomes of a programme of outdoor education. A residential setting makes a contribution to the quality of the experience by:

  • increasing the opportunities to be independent
  • increasing the opportunity for social interactions
  • enhancing the dynamics within groups and thereby increasing peer support and interaction with teachers and carers.

Below are examples of feedback taken from a sample of SEN teachers and SENCOs after their residential visits to an outdoor activities centre with pupils who had a range of disabilities and SEN. Importantly, this is taken from group leaders who attended a course with the pupils and so experienced the offering first hand, rather than someone back in the office making just the financial decisions and giving their thoughts on the perceived educational benefits.

Comments from group leaders can also reveal a great deal about how they feel outdoor activities help the children and young people in their charge. They also show how much the teachers themselves get out of these kinds of activities.

A group visit to an outdoor centre can create lifelong memories for all concerned. Sometimes, just being at an exciting outdoor centre with their peers is a big achievement for these students. It can be very inspiring for teachers to see young people who may struggle in the classroom environment interacting with others of different ages and abilities and often achieving things they never thought they would be able to do.

It can also be invaluable to enable students to have fun together out of school. This can help provide a great boost to self-esteem and confidence. Benefits such as these often carry on long after everyone has returned to school.

Planning your visit

The success of a residential visit, and therefore the satisfaction of pupils and school staff, will be largely dependent on the quality of the offering provided by the centre. This will include the activities on offer, as well as other factors such as the food provided, accommodation and the quality of service from the centre’s staff.  It is important, though, that those organising such visits from the school should remain consistent in terms of the goals and expected outcomes of the visit.

When looking to take a residential outdoor learning trip with a large number or high proportion of pupils with SEN or disabilities, it is therefore worth taking a number of key steps to ensure that everything goes smoothly to meets these goals and expectations.

  1. Make sure you are happy that the provider you use really does have significant experience in working with pupils with SEN and their teachers. Centres more used to mainstream groups may underestimate the additional time and staffing required, causing complications when you are at the location, when it is too late to effect changes.
  2. Before booking, discuss your pupils’ specific needs with the facilities and instructing staff. Make sure you consider any adaptations or equipment that each pupil might need. Discuss what facilities the provider can supply, what adaptive equipment is in place and what training the staff has received.
  3. If possible, undertake a pre-visit in advance of the trip and go through the detail of what each pupil requires. Make sure you discuss all your requirements, such as accommodation, personal care, overnight security (if you have wanderers), the centre’s ability to cater for a very wide range of dietary requirements, security of medicines and the experience of the staff when it comes to supporting children and young people with SEN.
  4. Discuss the activity programme in detail and identify how pupils with SEN and disabilities can be meaningfully included. If it doesn’t look like all pupils will be able to achieve the aims and objectives of the visit, then don’t be afraid to change the programme, the activities or, if necessary, the provider.
  5. Work with the provider to ensure that the pupils are given the chance to participate and are challenged to try new things.

A successful visit

The quantitative and qualitative benefits of outdoor learning through the medium of activities at a residential centre can be huge, so it is well worth considering how you might tackle the barriers you think could be encountered with a group of pupils with SEN – such as awareness of where to go, the perceptions of staff and parents/carers in terms of pupils’ abilities, and even the travel logistics of organising such a trip to a suitable centre.

Overcoming these barriers is well worth the effort and you will be amazed at what you, your group and the individual students involved can achieve. Positive outdoor experiences for all children and young people can have a major and positive impact on the rest of their lives; they certainly did for me and after my 20 year gap, I am also now back doing a range of outdoor activities, just as I did as a teenager. So take the plunge and do something that will make a real difference to the lives of your students.

Further information

Justin Farnan is Business Manager at the Lake District Calvert Trust, a residential outdoor centre which delivers challenging outdoor adventure holidays for people with disabilities:

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outdoor education
Lake District Calvert Trust


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