Fresh air with benefits


Outdoor activities offer so much more to children with SEN than just a little fun in the sun

We all know that getting out and about in the great outdoors can be fun. For children and young people, though, outdoor activities can also provide valuable alternative, and often non-competitive, avenues for achievement, as well as opportunities to develop self-confidence and self-esteem. Through successfully facing up to the challenges some activities present, conquering fears and apprehension along the way, young people grow dramatically in confidence, with implications for all aspects of their development. And, while building self-confidence and self-esteem is important to any young person’s development, for children and young people with SEN, it is paramount.

“Children with special educational needs achieve significantly better when offered outdoor learning opportunities”, says Chris Gaskin of Crosby Lakeside Adventure Centre. “Children should have a safe opportunity to explore, to experience risk, and to be physically and mentally challenged, and this is vital to their continued development.”

Engaging in outdoor activities can also encourage young people to exercise regularly, as their confidence is boosted by demonstrable progress in both ability and fitness levels. What’s more, exercise enables the body to release tension and lower anxiety.

Finding stimulation

Water sports are amongst the most exciting of outdoor activities; they can boost learning potential in many ways and, thankfully, water is never too far away. Taking part in water sports can improve a disabled person’s self-esteem by enabling him/her to compete with non-disabled people on an equal footing. Sailing, for example, offers those with limited movement the chance to compete with able-bodied people via the use of adapted boats. As well as helping to reveal new talents and abilities, adapted equipment can also aid improvements in body strength.

Water sports provide opportunities to try new activities and experience different sensory stimuli. The experience of moving rapidly along the water can, for example, provide a new and interesting form of stimulation for someone with visual impairment.

Taking part in these kinds of activities can be a great way of engaging children and young people with SEN and helping them to focus their minds, and communication and social skills are developed through increasing interaction with a child’s peers and friends.

Relating to others

Outdoor activities can also be particularly beneficial when they involve interaction with animals. The experience of being with an animal, that is non-judgmental and gives affection unconditionally, can be very profound, and it can also open up new opportunities for both physical and emotional therapy. This could take the form of physical development, for example, by strengthening muscles and improving balance through horseback riding or low-impact swimming with dolphins. Alternatively, spending time with service dogs and companion dogs can provide a tremendous confidence boost for those who may be lacking in self-esteem.

One outdoor pursuit that is receiving an increasing amount of attention as a fun and beneficial activity for children with SEN is equine therapy. Research has shown that working with therapy animals can be highly beneficial additions to treatment programs for children with SEN, and particularly for those with autism.

John Doran, of Sefton Council’s Aiming High team, has witnessed many positive outcomes of equine-assisted therapy. “All children get something positive from being around horses and, for the majority of the children I have organised equine projects for, the benefits the child has received have been remarkable”, he says.

The rhythmic motion of riding encourages children to focus on the movement of the horse, which is slow, deliberate and extremely relaxing. Through the constant, steady movement, children indirectly learn how to concentrate better, and this is aided by the calming effect of riding. Some equine-assisted therapy facilities have a policy of allowing the horse to pick the child, rather than assigning the child and horse to each other. A member of staff will gently lead a child to a horse and watch for the horse’s reaction. If the horse dips its head or nuzzles the child, it is an indication that a bond is being formed and the child has been “chosen.” It’s a method that has seen excellent results.

In addition to the movement experienced when riding the horse, tactile senses are stimulated. The horse’s skin is fuzzy, the mane and tail are rough, and the nose is soft. Discovery of these sensations often helps draw a child out, stimulating development of their verbal communication and interest in other physical objects.

Motor skills are also developed as the child learns to ride and eventually groom and tack. The process of developing new skills in this kind of safe and secure environment can, in turn, increase the willingness to learn skills at home and/or school. Learning is no longer scary, but fun, interesting and rewarding.

Through equine-assisted therapy, a child’s social interaction skills can also be enhanced. The therapy sessions teach the child how to interact with the counsellor and staff. Group sessions allow the child to work and play with other children and counsellors, teaching them how to handle relational conflict and how to help others. Not only are basic communication and motor skills improved, but many children also experience improvements in their overall mood. Children who previously were prone to angry outbursts or who rarely smiled, are suddenly calmer and smile more readily and frequently.

As with other types of animal-assisted therapy, the introduction of the animal seems to calm and soothe children. The playful nature of animals encourages children who tend to be typically withdrawn or isolated to come out of themselves. Often, they begin making eye contact with the animal first, then with people. Indeed, a relationship with an animal can be a catalyst for a child becoming more open to relationships with people.

Throughout the UK, we are fortunate to have an abundance of facilities and locations offering outdoor activities and animal-assisted therapy for children and young people with SEN. Even those of us in cities are never too far away from lush countryside, abundant water and parks galore where children can learn, play and grow in safe and stimulating environments.

Further information

Tina Powsey is Assistant Business Development Officer for Sefton Council, Merseyside, which runs Active Sefton:

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