Embracing challenge


Outdoor activities can be so empowering for children with SEN, writes Robert Squirrell

Time spent outdoors plays a fundamental role in the development of almost every child. For children with SEN and disabilities, outdoor activities offer wonderful opportunities for promoting physical health, improving wellbeing and understanding the natural world. They can also be great for boosting confidence and helping children to develop social and other skills. In a world where many children and young people spend a great deal of their time indoors, often staring at screens, getting outside and being active is more important than ever.

Working at an outdoor education charity, I have seen first hand the benefits that getting out of the classroom can have for all concerned. I have met thousands of children, parents, teachers and carers and seen them all learn something about themselves, each other and the world around them. 

Outdoor activities enable children to break out of their typical routines, often with spectacular results. I have seen children who their teachers would describe before a session as “problematic” being the most engaged pupils in the class. They become the ones leading the team around the activity course or dishing out jobs at shelter building. These children often seize the opportunity to discuss things more informally and use trial and error to explore options without the fear of failure. Just as importantly, parents and teachers also get to learn something about their children, which can help them to improve relationships in the future. 


The chance to learn independently is also incredibly worthwhile. Despite the best efforts of families and professionals, all children, and particularly some of those with SEN, can display a degree of learned helplessness. They may be used to the familiar relationships and routines of school, and being told what to do much of the time. Getting outdoors can change that completely. Giving students with SEN the freedom to explore and exert control over their activity choices can be liberating. I always love seeing the look of amazement, excitement and slight apprehension on the faces of children when they are told that a pair of them will be following a compass trail by themselves. It’s also great for the teacher or parent to see their children rise to the challenge. 

Getting outdoors also helps to broaden young people’s horizons. They can, for example, learn about conservation whilst taking part in planting trees, clearing brambles, raking leaves and laying paths. This is the sort of endeavour many pupils get really engaged in, as they enjoy the natural environment while learning valuable life skills. Pupils can even work towards formally recognised awards. For some, this may be the first certificate they have ever earned and the recognition of their achievement can do wonders for their self-esteem. Being involved in conservation, and other activities associated with the outdoors, can help children to develop a new perspective, and may even offer them a career to aspire to. 


Outdoor activities also provide a chance for young people to see their own progression. Reaching the top of a climbing wall, making it through a cave and completing a ropes course are all amazing accomplishments that can be seen, felt and shared with the whole group. I remember one pupil who, initially, was reluctant to take part in a ropes course run for students with autism. In the first week, he wouldn’t get off the minibus. Next week, he got off the bus just to look at the course, but no more. Then, over subsequent weeks, he put on a harness, then a helmet, learnt how the karabiners worked and eventually got up onto the course. Even though he didn’t complete the whole course, the progress he made was something of which he could be really proud. 

Outdoor activities can take many forms and they don’t have to focus on being adventurous. Even getting out into woodland, with all the new sights, smells and sounds involved, can be a big achievement for someone who is not used to it. It’s ideal for those who prefer kinaesthetic or tactile learners to get outside and actually handle something, rather than just hearing about it in a classroom or reading about it in a book. Changing weather and seasons provide additional levels of unpredictability to any activity and additional tests to meet. 


It is incredibly rewarding to see children and young people enjoying taking part in something they never thought would be accessible to them. Staff need to be creative to take account of everyone’s needs and it can take careful planning to ensure all pupils are included. On one overland expedition that involved a team member with a wheelchair, a route was planned that followed bridleways and canals so she could travel everywhere with the group. They travelled more than 20 kilometres over two days and camped out overnight. The students were all so thrilled to complete their expedition, and the additional challenges they overcame only added to their sense of accomplishment. 

Over the years, I have seen a great deal of hesitation from parents and teachers about taking part in outdoor activities with young people with SEN and disabilities. However, while it can be a daunting experience, it can also be so rewarding, and for some, even life changing. 

About the author

Robert Squirrell is Community Education Manager at The Sayers Croft Trust, an outdoor education charity in Surrey.



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