Learning outside the classroom is a perfect way to engage and nurture kids with SEN, writes Victoria Wilcher.
In a recent article for the Guardian Teacher Network, Ben Fogle expressed his concern that “Children have become tiny cogs in a box-ticking government machine”. He went on to discuss his own time at school and how exploring the natural environment helped him to find his path in life, following disappointing A Level results. Fogle is just the latest of several public figures who have expressed concern about the way in which the education system can lead to children being cooped up in classrooms for large parts of the day, leading to disaffection, disengagement and even mental and physical health problems.
For pupils with SEN, the confines of the classroom can be even more restrictive and damaging. For many of these children, the opportunity to learn outside the classroom not only brings learning alive, making it more engaging and easier to understand, it can also bring benefits for mental and physical health, and aid personal and social development. Learning outside the classroom (LOtC) can make learning more engaging, more accessible and more relevant for pupils with special needs. Having flexibility in the location of the learning enables staff to tailor learning to pupils’ particular needs.
Learning outside the classroom gives real world context to learning, allowing the opportunity for practical application of concepts and building pupils’ confidence by introducing them to a wider range of people and situations than they would otherwise encounter.
Many special schools are demonstrating exemplary practice in LOtC because they recognise that real world learning is best for their pupils. In this article, I have identified some of the key benefits of LOtC for pupils with SEN, alongside examples of good practice.
Exploring the world
Learning outside the classroom takes place in a wide range of settings. Much of it takes place in the school grounds, in growing areas and sensory gardens; some schools now even have livestock onsite. Educational visits also offer important learning experiences. These might include cultural encounters in museums and galleries, life skills development in shops and town centres, adventurous activities, curriculum support in natural environment settings and the interest of unfamiliar locations; the possibilities are endless.
For many pupils with SEN, life outside school can be very limited, with few opportunities to explore the world around them. LOtC can broaden pupils’ horizons and give them experiences they would not have otherwise. The adventure and exploration offered by LOtC should be guided by context, and should be appropriate to the young people involved. Dennis Concannon, one of the nominees for the 2015 Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Learning Outside the Classroom, realised that for his pupils, many of whom rarely leave their home except to go to school, it was important to give them experiences within their local community. For them, an expedition did not need to involve a lot of travel; the challenge was to leave the familiar environment of school and home, so he focused on taking groups out into the local community and encouraging them to explore their local spaces. Dennis supports pupils with high anxiety to step outside their comfort zone and enjoy positive shared experiences with their peers.
Context for learning
Activities outside the classroom can bring real world applications for learning, aiding pupils’ understanding of their learning. It is much easier to understand plants and living things through growing activities in the school garden than by being taught about the principles in class. Pupils develop understanding through observation, rather than learning from being told. The physical engagement of outdoor learning, feeling the soil between their fingers or the texture of tree bark, is much more memorable than simply being given facts.
LOtC can help pupils to build their resilience. Leila Atkins, LOtC Co-ordinator for Castlewood School, and another nominee for the LOtC Awards, has had great success in developing growing activities at the school. She instigated a potato growing competition, empowering pupils by giving them responsibility for looking after their own plants. When some of the crop was destroyed by vandals, the children were understandably upset, but Leila used this as an opportunity to teach pupils about how their behaviour can affect other people, and also build their resilience to cope with disappointment. Learning outside the classroom often offers these opportunities for unplanned learning, whether it is meeting and talking to a new person during a visit, or reacting to an unforeseen incident. A skilled teacher can use these as dynamic learning opportunities, which better prepare pupils for life after school.
Personal and emotional development
Pupils with mental health issues can find LOtC experiences, particularly engagement with the natural environment, very beneficial. Contact with nature can have a calming effect, and the physical aspect of being outside and active can be much more beneficial than sitting still in a classroom.
Art and creativity outside the classroom can also have a huge impact on pupils’ emotional development. Robin Johnson, Cultural Learning and Development Officer for Kedleston Schools, has developed a range of projects to support his pupils with social, emotional and behavioural needs.
In order to meet the specific and complex needs of pupils, the school embraced creativity and culture in developing a curriculum which could support its pupils. Robin’s aim was to give pupils a sense of wonder about the world and develop their abilities, personalities and imagination. Robin worked with arts and heritage providers to create tailored opportunities for his pupils which would meet their needs, such as working together to make an animated film based on a visit to a local museum. These opportunities have, over time, improved both the emotional wellbeing and the classroom attainment of pupils.
Learning outside the classroom offers students practical experience of the real world, which can expand their horizons to new possibilities beyond their school life. Nick Hastings, winner of the award for LOtC Educator 2015, is Head Stockperson at Walby Farm Park. There, he is able to work closely with students from Beaumont College, an FE college for young people with physical and learning disabilities. He is able to give them practical work experience on the farm, giving the young people a sense of responsibility and achievement, and opening up new career options which they had not previously considered. A parent of one boy with autism involved in the programme described how, though initially her son was scared and unhappy to be visiting the farm, by the end of the first day, he was full of enthusiasm and confidence, and keen to go back the next day. LOtC experiences give pupils who are used to having limited independence an opportunity to become more independent and learn new skills, within a safe environment.
Residential experiences can bring even greater benefits in terms of allowing young people to experience a sense of independence and encounter new experiences. The Learning Away project worked with over 60 primary, secondary and SEN schools across the UK to pilot and evaluate the value of residential experiences.
St George’s C of E Primary School in Barrow-in-Furness focused on how to include children with behavioural issues on a residential trip. Many schools are wary of taking pupils with behavioural problems on residential visits, but these can often be the pupils who benefit most from such an experience. As noted by the school, residential visits are not conventional teaching experiences and as such, the normal rules do not necessarily apply. Guidelines for conduct vary because the pupils are not confined to a room; new rules are made, others are modified and expectations can differ. Behaviour often changes in a new environment and, in the school’s experience, this has always been in a positive way. As a consequence, staff perceptions of pupils have changed, meaning the changes which happen on the residential stay are transferred back to school.
One pupil with severe behavioural difficulties found huge benefit in a residential visit. During the camping trip, the headteacher chose him to help demonstrate tent building. This request for help greatly empowered the pupil. “That head had no idea about building a tent. If it wasn’t for me, no-one would have a tent that would have stayed up an hour, never mind the whole night”, the pupil happily boasted.
Even his classmates were impressed by how clever he was at solving the problem of putting up a tent. He spent the next hour supporting other children with hammering in tent pegs, laying mats, unzipping sleeping bags and being generally helpful.
All the plaudits he received helped him grow. His self-esteem rocketed and he chose to be “the helpful boy”. The label and attitude stuck with him on his return to school. With only four weeks left of his final years of primary school, the pupil was able to show he had turned a corner in his attitude.
He left primary school secondary-ready and with a reputation of helpfulness preceding him. Two years on, he still recalls the camp with fondness; it was there that he made good friends, who helped him settle positively into secondary school.
The school has had great success in taking children with challenging behaviour on residentials. The children have behaved well, forged new friendships, and grown in resilience and self-belief. They have never had to remove a child from the camp. The benefits of taking pupils away have been maintained back at school, with pupils feeling empowered. They have shown that they can control their own behaviour and have experienced success.
These are just a few of the benefits that learning outside the classroom can offer pupils with SEN. By taking learning outside the confines of the classroom, we can offer experiences that are tailored to their needs and will support both their academic attainment and personal development.
Victoria Wilcher is Development Manager for the charity the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. The Council organises an annual awards event to recognise organisations and individuals who have made outstanding contributions to learning outside the classroom: