Why outdoor physical activity and play have a fundamental role in children’s development 


Vicci Wells discusses how schools have turned to outdoor-based activities – embedding physical activity into lessons.

Despite the varied and substantial benefits of physical activity, many children and young people are insufficiently active. One group that is becoming increasingly inactive is disabled children and young people. It has been reported that one third of disabled children take part in less than 30 minutes of sport and physical activity per day. This compares to 21% of children without disabilities. This discrepancy in physical activity levels between disabled and non-disabled children has increased during the global pandemic.

For children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), outdoor physical activity and play has a fundamental role in their development. Freedom to move in a therapeutic, stimulating, outdoor environment can make for healthier and happier children. However, with disabled children being less likely than non-disabled children to be active at a park, and reporting worries about getting hurt, how they look or not knowing what to do, we need to be intentional about their activities and environment to encourage participation.

Hand to eye co-ordination

In the Youth Sport Trust’s ‘Class of 2035’ research, young people expressed increased desire to do more sport and exercise, with 54% of five to 16-year-olds expressing this sentiment, up from 44% in 2014. Since the pandemic, more practitioners in schools have been turning to outdoor-based activity, and embedding physical activity into lessons – recognising that often the most memorable learning experiences take place outside classroom walls. Recent research also highlighted that young people want to do more physical activity, and would like to have more lessons outside.

These activities could range from orienteering in geography, engaging pupils to work as a team with compass or map-reading skills, counting trees in maths while moving, or even composing woodland symphonies in music, with a focus on gross motor skills.

As schools across the country adjust to life post-pandemic, a focus on the active recovery of children and young people is vital – particularly for those with SEND. It is crucially important to provide opportunities for pupils to reconnect with one another, and, at the same time, reimagine what the role of physical activity, PE and school sport can be; perhaps exploring ways of embedding more outdoor learning and activity through their school day. Active recovery harnesses the benefits of outdoor play and sport for young people’s self-confidence, self-belief, sense of belonging, re-socialisation, plus physical and mental health.

One way in which schools are embracing active recovery is through the innovation of Sports Sanctuaries. The concept acknowledges that every child and young person will have had their own unique, lived experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. All will have experienced losses to their routines, structures, friendships, opportunities and freedoms. The result is that, as pupils return to schools, they may arrive not feeling safe or secure. These experiences are more likely to be exacerbated for a young person with SEND. They may find themselves particularly stressed and uncomfortable away from their home environment. Having access to outdoor play and activity is a fun way to expend energy and calm the senses, reducing tension and anxiety. When challenging behaviours arise, being outdoors for a change of environment can make a huge difference.

Wheelchair sports

Sport Sanctuaries take the theory of the biophilia (ie love of nature) hypothesis, whereby being outdoors, in nature, creates experiences that result in reduced stress, improved cognitive function, and enhanced mood and creativity. These spaces of sanctuary, which involve the intentional use of certain physical activities, can increase overall wellbeing and productivity. Having space to be physically active outside stimulates and encourages young people, particularly those with sensory sensitivities, to explore all of their senses. It helps improve mobility and coordination, the vestibular system (balance), and proprioception (body awareness and spatial skills).

An example of a school which has uses this practice effectively is Sandbach School in South Cheshire. Sandbach has a focus on outdoor education with provision of climbing spaces to support young people to physically exert themselves, which can provide an outlet away from the busy classroom environment. Pupils can climb and move over different levels and surfaces in a fun way.

Similarly, Alfriston School in Buckinghamshire offers wellbeing walks at break and lunchtimes, offering sensory experiences. Pupils report that this has helped boost their mood and overall wellbeing. Riverside Special School in Northern Ireland has embraced the concept of biophilia by creating a sensory sanctuary in one space of the school, designed to calm pupils, along with a sports sanctuary giving a more active environment in green space. This complements pupil-led individual and group activities. These play spaces also allow pupils to explore where their body is in space, how body parts move, and create dens which can offer them a sense of comfort.

How to create a Sports Sanctuary and a more active outdoor environment – Top Tips

1. Engage pupils – work with and alongside young people to understand what their ‘sanctuary’ is and what the ‘felt space’ around the school feels like for them. How could simple playgrounds or walkways be transformed to encourage physical activity and movement?

Map reading skills whilst orienteering

2. Undertake an audit – complete a sensory audit of the outdoor space around your school or setting. What sounds can be heard? What is there visually to notice or be aware of?

3. Reimagine what this outdoors space could look and feel like – one primary school placed ‘power up’ spots on their trees, encouraging children to move and tap the ‘power ups’ to boost their energy in between lessons and at break times.

4. Reflect on the equipment you have available – offering young people a safe environment to climb, balance and move in a fun way, with their friends, can improve development without them realising!

5. Encourage independent use – equip young people with the skills and confidence to self-pace and self-regulate their emotions through outdoor physical activity.

As we start to recognise the health benefits of increasing participation in physical activity outdoors, and become more aware of our outdoor environments and spaces, we can help young people with SEND to overcome challenges, and learn new skills building resilience and raising self-esteem. This directly increases mental and physical wellbeing, increasing motivation and overall happiness. Every child deserves to experience the benefits of the outdoors – children and young people with SEND most of all.

Vicci Wells
Author: Vicci Wells

Vicci Wells
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Vicci Wells is Head of Sport & SEND Inclusion for children’s charity the Youth Sport Trust.
She is also a Chair of Governors and MAT Director.
T: @YouthSportTrust
T: @vawells1



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