Four Areas To Focus On When Creating An Outdoor Playground For Children with Special Educational Needs
Often the best way to connect with children, to help them engage in the classroom, is to get out of it: open the doors and take them outside to learn.
Outdoor learning brings so many opportunities for challenging and engaging children, especially those with special education needs, which is why it’s so important that schools have immediate access to the right outdoor learning environment to support their SEN pupils.
It’s a well-known fact that regular outdoor play helps children to be healthier, happier and more self-confident. For children with special needs, opportunities to develop this self-esteem, to develop the confidence to take on new tasks and an ability to adapt to new challenges, are fundamental to their education.
With greater confidence, comes the ability to develop independence. The value of outdoor learning in supporting SEN children to become more independent was highlighted by Andrew Colley in his role as Senior Lecturer in Special Education at the University of East London:
“SEN students have often learned helplessness and passivity because, consciously or not, we as practitioners exert a huge amount of control, and being outdoors forces us to relinquish that. Giving SEN students that feeling of space, and the sensory stimulation that comes with being outdoors, is absolutely vital.”
Spending time outdoors often exposes children to unpredictable situations. They have to learn to adapt to changing weather conditions and seasons, for example. For some SEN children, change and unpredictability is a real challenge.
But this exposure is a positive thing, says Dr John Crosbie, Trustee of the Institute for Outdoor Learning and former director of UK charity The Calvert Trust:
“The ability to try and relate to situations is a real challenge for children on the autism spectrum, and so is being flexible with their view of order, timescales and routine; being outdoors challenges this.”
Teaching children perseverance, resilience, a “Growth Mindset”, is a hot topic in all schools at the moment. This is in no small part due to the constantly increasing pressure that society places on young people to perform well across the board and the impact this has on their mental health.
For children with special education needs, it’s important to recognise that perseverance and resilience are really at the heart of everything they do as they face and push the limits of their abilities.
Day to day activities that many children can take for granted: walking to the park, riding on a bus, engaging with other children or adults, dealing with noise, following instructions, for example - can be very difficult and require a great deal of effort and bravery for many children.
This should always be taken into account when preparing learning environments and placing new challenges in front of them. But with the right support, with access to a good outdoor learning environment, children with all different kinds of needs can be far better prepared for learning, and for coping with many of the daily challenges they face.
Here are four main focus areas that we believe make all the difference:
1. Design and Layout
The right design and layout is essential if you want to use your outdoor area to successfully engage and support children with different needs in all areas of the curriculum. It might sound obvious, but it’s easy to get it wrong.
A well-planned space requires careful consideration. It can’t just be thrown together, or it simply won’t work. Get it right though, and it’ll be the best thing you ever did.
Part of our service for schools is to design playgrounds according to their specific needs. It’s a crucial part of the process before any installation can begin.
For SEN schools, zoning is really important and something we always have to consider. The ideal outdoor playground can really benefit children with special education needs in relieving stress and anxiety, developing social skills and emotional understanding and learning new practical skills, as well as motivating learning across the curriculum.
To do this effectively, it’s not just a case of providing the right equipment.
The space needs to be broken up and laid out with consideration for how children will be able to transition from one area to the next. Room to manoeuvre, space to escape easily if interventions are needed, minimising interruptions within calmer spaces from messier and noisier activities.
One technique is to set up “quiet zones” nearer to the classroom, under a Canopy, to encourage more hesitant children to step outside whatever the weather and to make the transition to outdoor learning simpler.
Tuff Spot Tables for exploring, Small World zones and Covered Sand Play work really well here. Children can then transition into the wider playground for busier, more active zones.
Giving each zone clarity of purpose helps the children to recognise, prepare for and focus on their learning activities, so teachers can support them more effectively.
Clever use of different types of Playground Surfacing, free-standing Planters and bespoke Screening will create pathways to break up the zones and absorb sound. Our moveable Fence Panels and Mark Making Panels on Wheels allow you to be more flexible with this.
2. Outdoor Sports and Physical Activity
Participation in sports and physical activity helps to keep children physically fit and breaks down barriers. It’s essential that all young people have access to appropriate, accessible, inclusive physical activities that they can enjoy at school on a regular basis.
It’s not just about physical fitness. There’s a social dynamic to sports and games that helps children to learn and understand social interactions, social boundaries and teamwork. Sporting achievements of any kind build confidence, especially where academic work may cause frustration and physical movement can provide a release.
Of course, there will always be challenges for some children with special needs participating in some physical activities, whether they have limited mobility, visual or hearing impairments, a dislike of physical contact or competitive games. But there are always options and there is nothing that we cannot work around.
Our wheelchair-friendly and impact-absorbing Playground Surfacing immediately transforms any outdoor playground to make it safe and accessible for children all throughout the year - ideal for team games without the mud and mess.
All-weather Artificial Grass provides tactile feedback and reduces injuries from falls. Brightly contrasting Playground Markings help children with visual impairments to navigate the outdoor spaces.
Creating a safe but physically fun outdoor environment is important for vestibular and proprioceptive development and is particularly important for children who need to improve mobility, coordination and spatial awareness.
A place where they can balance, climb, enjoy kinetic play and the feeling of freedom and exhilaration that it brings, is something that should be available to all children. The key is to make physical play equipment accessible and enjoyable for them - whether that be calming and soothing, or exciting and energizing.
3. Sensory Stimulation
Sensory stimulation is a major focus area for outdoor spaces in SEN schools. For children that have any level of sensory processing difficulties, it’s important to have variety to give them the sensory input they crave, or to help them learn to cope with any particular fears or dislikes they may have.
On a more basic level, it’s also about adding interest, curiosity, so that the outdoor environment is a space that holds intrigue and enjoyment for children of all abilities. We have an enticing range of Sensory Play Equipment, including Sensory Panels, Sensory Spinners, and our outstanding new wheelchair-friendly Sensory Tunnel and Sensory Arbour, which bring something completely unique to your outdoor space.
Of course, creating a sensory garden is an absolute must - see below!
When you are looking at zoning, focus also on creating a dedicated calm, sensory space for children to go to when they need soothing, a bit of time out, somewhere grounding.
A Sensory Gazebo in a quiet corner is not just a shelter from the weather - it can feel safe and cosy, yet if it looks out onto the right aspect it doesn’t feel too enclosed. With our bespoke gazebo designs you can equip and dress them to suit your pupils’ needs.
Take advantage of your sensory spaces to bring new dimensions to more academic learning, literacy and numeracy. Reading outdoors is much more enjoyable, calming and stress-free for children than the feeling of being confined and watched within the four walls of the classroom.
Children with social, emotional and specific mental health and behavioural needs are often much more eager to get outside into a “reading garden”. You can hide books in trees for them to find, or keep boxes of books stashed in your gazebo.
Musical therapy, art and mark-making practice are also wonderful sensory subjects to enjoy outside in the fresh air. As well as our Outdoor Mark Making Panels and Mirrors, we have a whole range of Outdoor Musical Equipment that is wonderful for communication and bringing children together.
4. Gardening Activities
Gardening and wildlife activities cannot fail to be inclusive and they are so very levelling for children with special education needs. It’s therapeutic, sensory, calming and yet surprising and inspiring all at the same time.
What each child will take from this varies from one individual to another - some may find the messy and disorganised elements of it more challenging, while others may find digging, planting and nurturing (great fine motor work) a welcome respite from day to day challenges they face.
Offering all children a certain amount of challenge, in a supported environment to enable them to cope with it, opens up varied and life-enriching experiences to them. It may take a while to see the results of their efforts, but learning patience and the value of reward from hard work is a good life skill.
Of course, gardening activities are ideal for teaching children all sorts of things - science subjects, language and vocabulary, maths - all the things that go hand in hand with gardening without it really feeling like a lesson!
Learning about what plants need to grow, researching what vegetables the Victorians grew, or what grows in different countries and why, discovering new terminology, exploring colour, shape, scent and textures, experiencing seasonal changes, counting how many seeds they need to sow and measuring distances between them - it’s all in there and there’s something for everyone.
And there’s no doubt that all the wonderful sensory benefits that a child with special education needs can receive from a thriving natural space, are invaluable.
We have a beautiful range of accessible Natural Playground Equipment for digging, planting and encouraging wildlife in your school grounds.
At Pentagon, we design and install a specialist range of outdoor playground equipment to support children with special education needs. We can also create bespoke special needs equipment if you have specific ideas in mind. We have a team of SEN consultants who will work with your school to help you create the best outdoor environment for your pupils.
If you are looking for inspiration to improve your outdoor play and learning facilities for your SEN pupils, take a look at Our Specialist Range of Products here.
If you would like to improve your outdoor learning environment for SEN pupils at your school, please Contact Us to arrange a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our Specialist Playground Consultants.