There has never been a better time to help all children enjoy the benefits of outdoor activities
The Olympics and Paralympics may be over but the legacy lives on, with children across the country being inspired to take up a new activity or return to one that they used to enjoy. Our Paralympians are living proof that disability need not be a barrier to participating in sport or embracing a new challenge. Indeed, many people with disabilities and SEN find that taking part in new activities helps them develop skills and confidence that are of great benefit in their day-to-day lives.
Most teachers recognise the benefits that learning outside the classroom experiences bring to their pupils, either within the school grounds or out and about. Taking up a new sport or activity really can be a life changing experience for children. It can be exciting, nerve wracking, enjoyable and sometimes even downright terrifying, but ultimately it offers a fantastic sense of achievement which pupils bring back into the classroom environment.
Now is an ideal time to build on the enthusiasm generated by London 2012 to engage children in exciting outdoor activities. There is such a wide range of activities on offer and I hope that by outlining just a few, I can get you thinking and get your creative juices flowing.
Were your children excited to see our brilliant cycling Paralympians, such as Sarah Storey, David Stone and Mark Colbourne, winning gold? Why not help them emulate their success with an accessible cycling session?
There are many different types of accessible cycle, including recumbent trikes, side by side tandems, wheelchair front-loaders and hand-crank cycles, as well as dedicated wheelchair bikes.
Accessible cycling sessions allow a child to develop their self-esteem and confidence, as well as their motor skills and balance. They can also be great sensory experiences, offering the wind, sounds, smells and sights of being in the great outdoors.
Interacting with horses is a fantastic way to engage, enthuse and excite a group of children, and there are so many activities with horses that can be enjoyed in addition to simply riding. A Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) registered centre should have both the skills and equipment needed to offer a safe, engaging and fun session for children, whatever their additional needs.
Horse-based activities might also include carriage driving (which can be done from a wheelchair, with the right carriage), horse behaviour and “learning to speak horse” sessions, or tandem riding (where a child who can’t support themselves can have a member of staff sit behind them).
Children can also get involved in stable management sessions, such as grooming, tacking up and mucking out. Horse agility sessions (involving working with a horse to get round a course of cones, and over tyres and seesaws) are also popular.
While horse-based activities offer numerous benefits to children of all ages and with all sorts of needs, they can be particularly useful for pupils on the autistic spectrum. Horses read body language in a different way to humans. To a horse, making direct eye-contact is aggressive, dominating behaviour, whereas if you are a little shy or reluctant to make eye-contact, a horse’s natural reaction is to come and “say hello”. Often, children on the autistic spectrum, who may be withdrawn and uncommunicative, begin to express themselves in the company of horses.
Canoeing and kayaking
Paddle sports such as canoeing and kayaking can be undertaken in many different ways and across such a great variety of locations that wherever you live, you are never far from an opportunity to give them a go.
Whether you go for a leisurely paddle on a secluded lake or one of our many inland waterways, try your hand at canoe polo or kayak slalom, or tackle the challenging thrills of surf or white water kayaking, paddle sports can be accessed by people of all ages, all abilities and all levels of fitness.
Paddling equipment adapts easily to accommodate many disabilities. There are, for example, many seating options available which offer additional support and adaptive hand grips for those who find it hard to grasp a paddle. Canoes can also be paired into tandem rafts for much greater stability.
A specialist outdoor activity centre may well have other equipment available as well, such as a hoist on the jetty allowing wheelchair users to be hoisted out of their chair into the boat, or hoisted with their chair into a tandem raft.
Taking part in paddle sports offers a broad range of positive benefits, from a stimulating sensory experience, through improving motor skills and coordination, to learning and developing technical and cognitive skills.
There are three main types of archery bow: longbows, recurve bows and compound bows. Each offer different approaches to the sport and can be used in different ways. All three types can be adapted depending on the motor skills and upper body strength of the individual. Bows can even be attached to a fixed stanchion and fitted with a hair trigger, allowing even those with minimal motor skills to participate.
Targets can also be adapted to suit the group, both by adjusting the distance involved and by changing the actual targets to dartboards, balloons, bells, or stacks of cans to knock over.
Archery is great for developing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. It also offers exciting ways to help teachers bring other school subjects to life, be it through the story of the English longbow and the battle of Agincourt in history lessons, or through discussion of trajectories, force and energy in physics and maths.
With a creative and open-minded approach, outdoor activities can be linked into many areas of the curriculum, reinforcing learning and helping children to apply the skills learnt outdoors in the context of the classroom. How this is done will vary greatly depending on age and ability, but examples include: making presentations, slideshows and videos from the activity in an ICT session, exploring the development of the activity in a history lesson, writing stories or poems about the experience in English, looking at how circulatory systems and muscles work in a science class, or even exploring how the experience felt by writing a song.
There are many clubs and providers across the country that will run taster sessions or work with schools to help deliver these kinds of activities. Specialist activity centres can also provide opportunities to try several activities at once, perhaps during a residential break, to really kick start kids’ enthusiasm. You may well be surprised by how much both you and the children enjoy it, and by the impact you see in the classroom as a result.
Rob Lott is Head of Communications at the Calvert Trust Exmoor, an outdoor centre specialising in accessible activities for those with disabilities and SEN: