Ben Shears looks at how to design an outdoor learning space that celebrates ability
As any good teacher will tell you, no two children are the same. In every group you’ll find individuals with a wide range of differing abilities, all presenting with their own challenges for learning and skills development. Many schools have worked hard in recent years to provide better and more integrated learning experiences for pupils with SEN. The effective use of outdoor space is often low on a school’s list of priorities though, particularly for pupils with SEN, who can find themselves with very limited opportunities to enjoy time outdoors at school.
I believe that success in outdoor learning lies not in concentrating on special educational needs, but in considering all educational needs. Whether you are designing a playground for a special school or improving the outdoor learning provision in a primary setting, don’t just look at restrictions imposed by disabilities; instead, focus on enabling children of all abilities to take part. For children to learn outdoors they have to feel included and empowered. This means providing opportunities that suit those with a wide range of abilities and are accessible to them. When we think in terms of ability – rather than disability – children with SEN are no longer separated out and outdoor learning and play can start to become more inclusive.
It’s important not to play it safe when it comes to presenting learning and play opportunities. One of the key things that children learn through play is to embrace challenge. If children aren’t challenged, they don’t experiment and they don’t improve their skills. Children of all abilities need to be given opportunities to explore new things and make mistakes, as these are vital elements of the learning process.
As part of the scheme for one special school’s outdoor learning space, panels that offer rewards or targets for the children were added to a tower and ramp design to provide a sense of learning as children make their way through the structure. The panels, which were selected to offer differing levels of challenge, make things more interesting and engaging for the children, as well as providing an accessible route towards the shelter of the tower. Once at the tower, there is a slide or a fire-person’s pole for the children to use, depending on their wishes and ability.
This kind of design allows teachers to integrate a sense of learning and challenge into the play experience: “Can you make your own way to the first panel?” “Can you complete the puzzle at the second zone?”
Another similar type of scheme might, for example, involve using different surfaces (such as bumps, cobbles or logs) and posts for the children to navigate. This could be integrated within an active trail, perhaps on a sloped deck.
It’s important that things are not made too easy for the children, so they complete the activities too quickly, and we also want to ensure pupils are able to move on to the next challenge without restrictions. Providing a range of versions of the same activity, so that peers of different abilities can play and learn together, can be a great way of achieving the right balance.
Good play schemes help all children to build on their strengths, and discover new ones, while having fun. The Seashell Trust, near Manchester, has created an inclusive play area for children living on site and visitors. The main focus was on inclusivity – getting children of all ages and abilities playing together.
Swings with a range of different seats and a roundabout with access for a wheelchair were installed, along with a sunken trampoline, a shelter, picnic tables, teepees and a variety of different surfaces. By combining equipment designed for those with limited physical ability with mainstream equipment, the scheme makes it easy for peers to play and learn side-by-side, as well as offering opportunities for progression.
Reach Primary Learning Centre in Leeds specialises in teaching children with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs. Headteacher Ali Elvidge was keen to include a strong active aspect to her students’ education.
“We really wanted a new outdoor space that would help the children find an outlet for their energy”, she says. “We’ve been able to incorporate a huge range of educational equipment for the children to enjoy, like the post-mounted chalk board, spinning disk challenge and the large mud kitchen. But it’s also involved a range of equipment designed to give them a chance to ‘blow off steam’ and be active”.
Finding positive ways to be active is particularly important for children with SEMH needs and the school’s new outdoor space has, Ali Elvidge believes, had a tangible impact in terms of pupils’ behaviour and social interaction. “We’ve gone from having on average 20+ serious incidents a day to no more than three a day. Now that the children have something fun to do, they’ve got a positive outlet for their energy.”
More and more schools are recognising the impact that active time outdoors can have on pupils’ learning and behaviour, not to mention their fitness and health. Settings of all types are starting to think creatively about how they use their outdoor space for the benefit of pupils. As the examples in this article show, while it is important to consider the abilities and needs of the children who will be using the play space, the crucial thing is to provide an engaging and challenging environment for all children. The best outdoor environments present challenge, integration, progression and, most of all, fun for all children.
About the author
Former primary school teacher Ben Shears is a Consultant at Playforce, who design and install children’s outdoor play equipment for schools and nurseries.