Schools can use outdoor play areas to foster learning, improve behaviour and promote inclusion
It is widely recognised that outdoor learning makes for happier, healthier children. Offering therapeutic sensory stimulation, it has proven benefits in engaging children with SEN in the curriculum, teaching them essential life skills and helping to improve behaviour and boost confidence.
In recent years, more and more schools have embraced the idea of taking lessons outside, but many are still missing a trick when it comes to recognising just how beneficial outdoor learning can be for children with SEN.
By adapting school grounds and outdoor spaces to support learners with SEN, schools offer their teaching and support staff more open-ended resources, and options to allow them to better engage and communicate with their pupils. This makes for better results and healthier, happier children, which is what matters most.
Everyone benefits from improved health associated with time spent outdoors. Worldwide research points to the importance of Vitamin D for physical and mental health and wellbeing, and the sun is the best natural source of this. Children need to get outside and gain a sensible amount of exposure to natural sunlight and fresh air every day. Playgrounds that are well designed to accommodate children with mobility issues are imperative so that everyone feels the benefit.
Regular outdoor physical exercise is an essential part of keeping fit and maintaining a healthy body weight. Individuals need to participate in different types of physical exercise in accordance with their own body needs and abilities.
It is important that outdoor playgrounds are accessible to all children, and offer a range of facilities that can be used by children with very different levels of ability. It’s about making sure they can get outside and move their bodies, strengthen their muscles and participate in an appropriate amount of cardiovascular activity every day. Regular outdoor exercise has also been linked to better sleep patterns.
Ready to work
Managing challenging behaviour is an issue that teachers of pupils with SEN deal with every day. This can be difficult within the confines of a classroom, which can feel formal and pressurised, and where children don’t always have the space they need to let off steam and come back to the task when they are ready to focus again.
Getting outdoors gives children a sense of freedom, where they don’t feel so controlled by their environment and the people around them. By creating safe outdoor learning spaces, schools can give children daily opportunities to work within more natural surroundings. This can play a huge part in helping learners with SEN to focus, to reduce anxiety and ultimately to draw benefit from the learning experiences they are exposed to. What’s more, their ability to communicate with staff and peers, and to work in teams, is also improved. This, in turn, has a wonderful knock-on effect on their overall happiness, motivation and self-esteem.
The variety of opportunities that outdoor resources offer, and the new inspiration that naturally flows from them, encourages therapeutic, sensory stimulation for learners with SEN. By moving about and interacting with nature, children expend energy and expel frustration in a productive way.
Hands-on learning experiences, which come with their own sense of fun, mean that new challenges can be approached as something enjoyable and exciting, rather than frustrating, so that change becomes less of an issue. And by taking on new challenges, and experiencing the sense of achievement and satisfaction that comes from conquering these challenges, children start to learn essential life-skills and develop some of the independence they will need in their daily life as adults.
Making it work
For outdoor play and learning to be effective for children with SEN, time needs to be spent thinking and planning how the outdoor space is to be structured. It doesn’t need to be overly complex, but there are some important things to take into consideration.
A “quiet zone” to step away from the hustle and bustle is essential for many children with SEN, especially those on the autistic spectrum who often need space to resettle and rebalance.
Keeping the quiet zone simple avoids over-stimulation. There is a lot that can be done with visual and audio resources to create a mood. Comfortable seating and natural, therapeutic sensory stimulation is key. Planters filled with different textured plants and herbs, to break up space and provide screening, are perfect for this. Fabric canopies provide shade from sunlight, cover from rain, and the sense of comfort and safety that you might get from being in a den. Mobiles that reflect the light, move in the wind or make musical sounds are simple but effective for distraction and relaxation. Quiet zones should be placed well away from busier more energy-orientated areas to avoid disturbance.
Outdoor spaces are best designed with the quieter areas nearest the classroom exit, equipped with creative resources such as sandpits, growing areas, and painting and craft areas.
Busier and more energy driven activities – involving climbing, running, bikes and balls – should be located further into the outdoor space, so children can move on to them when they are ready and have had the chance to observe and acclimatise. There should be easy access routes to the outdoor space and it should always feel like a part of the classroom, rather than an attachment for occasional use.
It seems obvious, but accessibility is key. It is so frustrating for a child using a wheelchair, for example, who wants to join in an activity but cannot access it because the pathway is blocked, too narrow or has an unsuitable surface. Plan wide spaces around each resource and install resources at different heights and levels that can be reached by everyone. Use well-maintained wheelchair-friendly playground surfacing.
Find creative ways to take lessons outside that would usually be classed as indoor subjects. Take advantage of the wonderful natural outdoor resources on offer. Children love reading outdoors; it is relaxing and can be even more enticing when they find books hanging from trees or hiding in a reading bush! The same principle applies across the curriculum at all key stage levels. Introduce new and exciting lessons as well. Wildlife study and gardening are wonderful for children with SEN because they are so investigative, sensory, cross-curricular and inclusive. Developing the patience to see plants grow, and the ability to tolerate changing weather conditions and different seasonal patterns, are good life skills.
Keep children involved in creating their own outdoor space. They will appreciate the opportunity to have their own input, to take responsibility for the space and make it their own. They will also take pride in the fact they have been able to do it themselves.
Sam Flatman is the Outdoor Learning Consultant and co-owner of Pentagon Play, which supplies outdoor play equipment and designs outdoor spaces for schools: