Playing outside the box


How creative outdoor play environments can support learning and promote wellbeing for all.

Interest in outdoor learning and play is on the rise worldwide. As more and more studies highlight the benefits of children spending quality time outside, there is growing curiosity into how this can help improve a variety of physical and mental skills for those of every age and ability. However, it is estimated that there are over 770,000 children with SEN currently living in the UK and many do not have access to an outdoor space that is accessible and exciting. Creating play areas suitable for children and young people with SEN is clearly something on which schools need to focus.

By designing accessible outdoor learning and play spaces, schools can provide every one of their pupils with the help they need to develop and grow. A fun and interactive play environment is particularly beneficial for vestibular and proprioceptive development. Schools can develop their playgrounds to ensure that they are suitable for those who need to improve mobility, coordination and spatial skills. Vestibular training can be stressful for children, so creating a safe environment at school where they can climb, balance and play on equipment with friends can help improve their development without it feeling like doctors’ orders.

Introducing more outdoor learning and play to pupils with SEN allows schools to add a new dimension to their daily routine through sensory stimulation. Taking lessons outside, where pupils can explore and understand the world around them, is a stimulating experience. To promote multi-sensory engagement and encourage positive behaviour and emotions, schools should develop an outdoor space that combines natural stimulators, such as wind and grass, with play equipment that features heightened sounds, textures and colours. In addition, a multi-sensory environment can improve interaction and communication, prevent boredom and reduce stress.

Schools that do not have space for outdoor learning and play readily available for children with SEN could be creating an environment where pupils feel socially excluded from their friends. Introducing outdoor play equipment designed to fit the needs of these pupils can ensure they are included where it really matters. A playground accessible to everyone means that those with SEN don’t have to feel that they have been separated out, and can therefore help combat problems of exclusion and bullying.

Letting off steam

Some children with SEN find themselves feeling stressed and uncomfortable at school. Having regular access to outdoor play, and a fun way to expend energy, can help reduce tension and anxiety. Confidence is a big issue for all children, but it can be particularly important for pupils with SEN; being able to play on the same equipment as their friends can boost self-esteem and improve social interactions for many of these children.

The example of Calthorpe Special School in Birmingham demonstrates how a well-designed playground can benefit children with SEN. The school wanted to redesign its playground to offer a unique experience to each child. It chose musical instrument play panels designed to develop investigative, musical and creative skills. It has found that the creative drawing wall and playground graphics have helped improve imaginative thinking and encouraged pupils to work together to find new ways to play. The children now interact more with each other and staff, are inspired by their natural surroundings, and motivated by the new equipment. Having a new way to expend energy has helped to reduce stress and anxiety and the opportunity to play on a variety of equipment has boosted their confidence.

Innovative equipment, such as musical panels, can stimulate creativity.Inclusive design

Planning an outdoor learning and play space for children with SEN is a process requiring care and consideration. Every school is unique and has pupils with specific requirements, so it is vital that this is reflected in the playground design. Working with staff and children, throughout all stages of playground development, will ensure that the school is fulfilling everybody’s needs. What’s more, involving the pupils gives them a sense of ownership of the playground and is an exciting process in which they can participate.

Health and safety issues are a major concern for all schools when developing their playground. Creating a safe space for exploration and play means that schools have to meet regulations without compromising on fun and adventure. Rules and requirements will vary depending on the school and needs of the pupils, but working with a school ground specialist will ensure the correct precautions are taken. Health and safety issues do not have to create conflicts with play and a little imagination can make a space that is both fun and safe.

Schools should choose playground equipment that can be incorporated into both outdoor learning and play, in order to provide stimulation and motivation in all aspects of the daily routine. Sandpits, musical instruments and planting beds can be combined to create a natural, sensory outdoor classroom that can be used to teach about the environment, and as a base for interactive play.

Schools must design a social space to encourage all children to play and learn together. Installing equipment that is accessible to all pupils, and using a variety of activities requiring teamwork and coordination, will make the process much easier. Zoning (the creation of separate themed areas) for noisy active play and relaxed quiet play gives pupils the opportunity to play and learn alongside other children in the same mood or mindset, reducing the chances of arguments and tension.

At The Court School in Cardiff there are a number of children with severe social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. When designing a new playground, staff focused on equipment that would be multi-functional and easy to incorporate into a variety of activities. A play lodge has inspired imaginative and cooperative play, while swings help the pupils develop physical skills together. Giving pupils something to share has minimised opportunities for inappropriate behaviour and bullying. Since installing the new playground equipment, the pupils have become more engaged and have been able to develop their social skills, improve relationships and enhance their self-esteem.

Outdoor learning and play benefit all children and have been shown to have a particularly positive influence on young people with SEN. Spending more time outdoors in an environment that caters for all abilities is good for children’s health and development. It provides sensory stimulation and can help reduce problems with social and behavioural issues. A creative and inspiring space can also provide the stimulus for safe and unique learning experiences. Schools should work alongside specialists, staff and pupils to design playgrounds that can bring inspirational outdoor play and learning to all.

Further information

Dr Colin MacAdam is Managing Director of Playforce, a company specialising in the design and creation of children’s play environments:

Colin MacAdam
Author: Colin MacAdam

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