Outdoor learning for children with SEN


Can learning outside the classroom boost confidence and improve behaviour among children with SEN?

The Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) Manifesto, launched by the government in 2006, provided a breath of fresh air for the educational agenda. With the aim of persuading teachers to make the most of outdoor learning opportunities, the Manifesto states that “every young person should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development whatever their age, ability and circumstances.”

The Manifesto encourages education professionals, local authorities and voluntary organisations to make learning more engaging and relevant to young people of all abilities by getting them into more hands-on environments, such as museums, farms, adventure centres or simply their school grounds.

So what does this mean for children with SEN? Moving beyond the classroom has been found to have a range of advantages for children of all abilities and backgrounds. A particular benefit for those young people with learning difficulties or SEN can be the new, and sometimes therapeutic, visual and sensory stimulation they experience when learning in an outdoor environment. This can be liberating for those who struggle in a structured school atmosphere and is often demonstrated through improvements in children’s social skills and behaviour.

These benefits have been witnessed first-hand by the National Trust, which has been supporting the Manifesto through its School Guardianship scheme. The Guardianship scheme, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is part of the National Trust’s Discovery Programme, sponsored by Sky. The scheme links National Trust sites with local schools and colleges and enables them to deliver active hands-on learning through outdoor activities that are based around the national curriculum.

The charity is currently running over 100 Guardianship projects across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in partnership with a range of different schools and colleges, including those catering for pupils with SEN.

One such project is the Leith Hill site in Dorking, which receives regular visits from the local Moon Hall School, a specialist school for dyslexic children aged seven to thirteen. The group usually visits the site once a month to take part in a range of activities based around the curriculum. As the children were recently focusing on a school project about Australia, for example, the Guardianship team at Leith Hill developed a series of activities based around aboriginal art.

“We made natural pigments, using vegetables, charcoal, chalk and mud, and painted them onto small birch trees to make a memorial totem,” explains Ruby Cole, who is Warden of the Leith Hill site and co-ordinates all of the children’s activities.

Ruby agrees that the scheme has a positive impact on the children involved. She says: “I find that the children really enjoy being outside. The more they visit, the more co-operative they become. They listen to instructions and explanations better and their confidence has definitely increased with asking for help.”

The children have also recently taken part in the National Worm Survey, which involved them measuring and identifying worms and studying different soil types. They also participate in lots of other fun activities including parachute games, scavenger hunting, and poster designing. Ruby explains, “They’re really well behaved and participate willingly in both riotous games and quiet activities alike.”

Research has also shown that having opportunities to learn outside the classroom and participate in outdoor activities can impact positively on young people’s self esteem and teamwork skills. This is something Marian Gwyn, the Learning and Communications Manager at the National Trust’s Penrhyn Castle property in Wales, wholeheartedly agrees with.

The castle works with two groups, a primary school and a special needs group from a local college. The college students are aged between sixteen and seventeen and have a range of SEN. “They come with their tutors and develop a diary of the work they’ve done. They get involved in practical work and learn about tool management, health and safety practices, path maintenance, and growing plants,” explains Marian.

“Sometimes frustrations build up in the group but this encourages stronger team work. It helps them to understand the different challenges faced by others and encourages them to become more nurturing with other members of the group” she says.

“I would definitely recommend learning outside the classroom for other special needs groups, it’s absolutely fantastic. It offers them so many experiences that they can’t get in the regular school or college setting.”

Debbie Queen is the National Trust’s Guardianship Coordinator, and is responsible for overseeing all of the projects. Explaining why she thinks the Guardianship scheme has been so successful in helping those with learning difficulties and SEN, she says: “Taking children out of the classroom provides an ‘opportunity to shine’ for all students, including those with SEN or other at-risk factors.

“Both teachers and National Trust staff involved in the Guardianship scheme overwhelmingly emphasise the positive outcomes observed among children who participate. These include increased confidence and self-esteem, positive relationships among students, and reduced discipline and behaviour problems. Teachers feel the programme provides hands-on, effective environmental education, which serves as a foundation for subsequent classroom instruction.”

With such a wide range of benefits, and a growing number of success stories, it’s clear that LOtC is here to stay.

Further information

Adrian Tissier is from the National Trust:

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 41: July/August 2009.

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