Outdoor activity centres provide vital opportunities for young people with SEN to build confidence and develop their independence
“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little”. I see these inspiring words from Edmund Burke every day at work. They are framed in reception at the Calvert Trust Exmoor, a centre offering breaks for young people with disabilities and SEN and their families and friends. For me, the quote encapsulates the ethos of the organisation and defines the true spirit of outdoor activity centres.
Any parent could have concerns about their child undertaking the kind of activities on offer at an outdoor activity centre, such as rock climbing, abseiling, horse riding, sailing or canoeing. For the parents of a young person who may not be able to fully understand the risks involved, because of a learning disability, for example, such activities could be even more worrying. Our society is becoming more and more risk averse and, when the mantra of “Where there is blame, there is a claim” is to be heard regularly on the airwaves, it is easy to see how young people with disabilities and SEN might become isolated and dependent within very “safe” environments.
However, outdoor activity centres offer exciting alternatives that allow young people to push the boundaries and achieve what has hitherto been viewed as beyond their capability. It is widely acknowledged that sport and out of school activities are good for children; they can teach them discipline, a team ethic and, most of all, to push themselves to achieve all they can. These things are vital parts of the progression towards adulthood, independent living and the world of work for all children, regardless of disability or SEN. It should always be about what you can do; achieve something new and you will transfer the experience, skills and confidence gained into your wider life at school and home.
Take M, for example. She is a fourteen-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome who had a weekend break at our centre with her mum and brother. While M requires 24 hour supervision and is extremely introverted, she slowly began to find her way around the centre on her own, much to her family’s surprise. This massive achievement gave her confidence and now, back in her home environment, her Mum says that M “is now able to go to our local corner shop to buy things that I’ve forgotten”. This is clearly a really positive step forward for M on her journey to adulthood.
K is a teenager with a profound learning disability who lives in a very protected environment and is unable to communicate verbally. Despite being very nervous, she started taking some steps up the centre’s indoor climbing wall on a recent visit and, with patience and encouragement, continued upwards until she reached the top. K went on to try all the activities on offer at the centre, and her foster mother believes that this experience was an important factor in K’s developing independence. K’s school also noticed the difference. As well as remarking that she was more vocally communicative and bubbly, a staff member said that “After fourteen years of being done to, K is no longer a done to child.”
The idea, then, is to provide young people with disabilities and SEN with a safe and social environment in which they can take those first tentative steps towards greater independence. Families and carers can also take part in the activities. Indeed, as K’s foster mother said, “it is important for the family and carers to see what disabled people are willing to do… it was life changing for me, everything was can do”.
Sometimes, just spending a week away from the home environment and regular routine can have a profound effect on a young person with SEN. J was seventeen at the time of his visit, and had never stayed in a room on his own when away from home, always insisting on sharing a room with his parents or other family members. At home he ate his meals in his room away from his family. However, after only 24 hours at the centre, and with just the right amount of encouragement, J slept in his own room and was eating in the dining room every day. By doing this, and through his involvement in group activities, J was able to cope with other people being closer to him than he had previously been used to or comfortable with. Before his stay at the centre, he would simply get up and leave the room if someone was too close to him. Now, however, J is undertaking A Level studies and he plans to go to university. This aspiration would have been unthinkable for him before he developed coping strategies for integrating with other students and living independently.
The centre is currently working collaboratively with other agencies and organisations in the South West, and a new pilot project for young people with learning disabilities is being funded by Children in Need in 2010. The “I Can Do It” project is a five day programme being planned with input from the twelve young participants. Centre staff will work with specially commissioned experts to run workshops on topics such as “how my body works” and “I am what I eat”. In addition, there will be an “independence day” in a local town centre and a “music day”, culminating in an evening performance by the young people.
Each young person will have the opportunity to be the team leader for an activity, and team working and leadership skills will be integral parts of each activity. The project will focus on assisting the young people to develop “life skills”, including those needed for the practical, everyday tasks of independent living. The participants will be empowered and encouraged to make more decisions for themselves, rather than being told what to do. After the programme, staff members at the centre will keep in contact with the participants, and their families and carers, to assist and offer further advice and support during their transition to greater independence.
Activity breaks will never be the panacea for all problems that someone with SEN may face, but they can help to provide young people with the confidence to challenge misconceived attitudes about their abilities, and to prove that, above all, it is what you can do that counts.
Fiona Sim is Deputy Centre Director at Calvert Trust Exmoor:
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 44: January/February 2010.