Making outdoor learning work


Mike King provides five tips for engaging pupils with SEN in learning outside the classroom 

The concept of telling children to get outdoors because it is good for them has been around for a long time. I was one of four boys and my mother promoted this idea with great enthusiasm. On reflection, this may have been a coping mechanism for her, but the command to “go and let off steam” was always obeyed.

Since the late eighties, the message has changed format as governments have changed, austerity has impacted funding, mobile phones have transformed communication, and environmental awareness has become a part of more children and young people’s experience. We still though, tell children to get outside because it is “good” for them, but what about those for whom getting outside isn’t all that straightforward? Is getting outside always good for learners with SEN and disabilities? What are the risks and rewards and how do we make outdoor activities work for us as educators?

What does “good” look like? 

In 2015, a report by Fiennes et al. reviewed existing research on outdoor learning. Of the thousands of outputs published between 1968 and 2015, the review concluded that only 58 contained primary research data to support claims around the impact of outdoor experiences. Of these original research activities, very few focussed on the impact of outdoor experiences on those who faced barriers to accessing the outdoors, whether because of physical disability, learning difficulties or socio-economic reasons. 

Indeed, for the most part, academic studies had pursued lines of enquiry that related to the benefits of outdoor learning and outdoor experiences on children in traditional education settings. Clearly, this approach represented straightforward and potentially fruitful ground for researchers to cover at the time. Children in mainstream education could easily take part in a range of outdoor activities, such as residentials and water sports, and the numbers were reliably high since they tended, on the whole, to turn up to take part. Few faced such barriers to access as to make a large sample impossible to achieve. 

One of the unintended consequences of this – in addition to the paucity of original studies that is now beginning to be addressed — is that until fairly recently, much of the research on how “good” it is for children to get outside has leaned towards an able-bodied and neuro-typical understanding of what “good” looks like in the outdoors. Such a perspective tends to promote the myriad physical and emotional benefits of outdoor learning as the key drivers of positive experiences – often characterised as “character development” or “resilience boosting”. While I am not suggesting that these interesting studies in any way promote an ableist or exclusionary agenda, nor do I dispute their respective findings, I do want to suggest that in considering the risks and rewards that characterise the outdoor experience for children with SEN and disabilities, we may need a more nuanced approach that asks: what does “good” look like for children with SEN and disabilities in the outdoors?

Risks and rewards

I have seen the outdoors unlock incredible benefits for those with a range of SEN and disabilities. Many of the children I have worked with, in my tenure as Executive Head in a school for children with SEMH needs, have found themselves excluded from outdoor activities due to the risks they pose. These risks are very real, but I believe a little bit of risk-taking is at the core of what the outdoors can offer those whose self-esteem and confidence are the key to unlocking potential in a range of other areas of learning and life. 

The outdoors can provide the ultimate opportunity to thrive for those who struggle in traditional teaching and learning environments; children can suddenly see themselves in a new light as learners who can achieve. I have also seen the outdoor context exacerbate existing anxieties and work counter to a child’s best interests when practitioners and educators don’t get it right; in this way, learning outdoors always carries a risk. As educators, we cannot expect the environment to do all the work for us, nor can we make assumptions about children’s experiences and learning that are rooted in our own interpretive filters or world view.

Five tips for getting outdoor learning right

1. It’s not about the activity
In my experience, outdoor leaders and educators can over-prioritise the activity or “goal” of the session. For children with SEN and disabilities, the activity will always be secondary to the relationships built with you and with each other. I have spent countless sessions in the outdoors with children who refused to take part in activities, or whose additional needs meant things couldn’t go ahead as planned. What I have learned is that those moments of co-regulation, adapting, and trying to co-create solutions, is where the most learning and growth happens. We need to see setbacks as the natural product of learning, and prioritise relationship building, trust and communication as the real goals of our sessions. In the outcome driven world of education, I understand this is a tall order, but it is achievable with commitment and long-term investment in relationships. The outdoors offers an important vehicle for this because activities are not undertaken in isolation and there are a range of things that can go wrong, from bad weather to a hole in your shelter!

2. It is all about the planning
With careful planning that prioritises learners’ emotional needs, the outdoor environment can provide the perfect level playing field for groups of all abilities to be actively involved together. The outdoors allows those with practical skills to excel and improve, whilst ensuring everyone can take part. As a parent of a wheelchair user, it has also been my experience that the outdoors can provide a real barrier to accessing activities. However, this should not stop children engaging if the planning is done right; sailing, canoeing or cooking over an open fire, for example, are easily accessible to disabled learners with the right plan. It’s crucial to have multiple backup plans that take into account the way learners with SEN and disabilities may respond to challenges; always have a plan A, plan B and plan C.

3. Think more creatively about the outdoors
Not all settings will be able to offer activities like sailing or kayaking, but we can all go outside of the buildings we are in. In order to achieve the best outcomes with vulnerable learners, we need to think of inventive ways to deliver learning outside the classroom, rather than focus on the reasons why we can’t take part. Seeing the outdoors as close to our own environments and freely available will help encourage learners to engage with the world outside on their own terms, and help create lasting habits like resilience.

4. Help your learners harness social agency 
In the past, people oriented themselves around family, religion and the work place. Future generations though, may look towards the environment as a unifying space, or they may focus more on shared socio-economic and political concerns. To prepare our children for how the future may develop, we must help them understand and appreciate the resources they will have available to them. Connecting children to the world around them by embedding learning in the outdoors in meaningful ways can contribute to their experience of belonging and community, instilling a sense of collective social justice as well as promoting individual agency and autonomy. 

5. Take risks
The children I have worked with have usually been excluded from mainstream settings and pupil referral units. They self-identify as “bad” and risk-assessments in previous settings will almost certainly have restricted their access to equipment, limited their interactions with others and prepared for trouble at every turn. The outdoor environment offers us an opportunity to take managed risks and show children who struggle in other environments that they can be trusted. In my experience, it is rare that trust, once built, is not returned by children; this will always result in better outcomes. 

Nobody really likes to be the “bad kid”. Although it is tempting to perpetuate a cycle where risk is removed entirely from a child’s education, this doesn’t easily enable us to show that we trust the children in our care. The outdoors can offer an opportunity to take small risks in allowing children to take part in activities they might not normally be trusted to do. Almost always, the risk results in some form of positive outcome. Sometimes it may take time, but the reward usually comes.

About the author

Mike King is CEO and Executive Head Teacher at Releasing Potential, an education charity and independent school for children with SEN. He is also Chair of Trustees for the Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL).




  • Fiennes, C. et al. (2015), The Existing Evidence-Base about the Effectiveness of Outdoor Learning, UCL Institute of Education, Giving Evidence, Institute for Outdoor Learning and The Blagrave Trust.
Mike King
Author: Mike King

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