Special Educational Needs
The Benefits of Outdoor Play and Learning for Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities
As teachers, we understand that learning is an active process and sometimes the best and most memorable learning experiences take place outside the walls of the classroom.
Published in 2006, the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto believes that, “every young person should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development, whatever their age, ability or circumstances.”
Education is more than the recall of knowledge and facts. Practitioners seek to improve children’s skills, values and personal and social development.
Not all pupils respond well to traditional teaching methods. Children with special educational needs often learn best by doing.
The opportunity to explore the school grounds or local community can provide pupils with real life experiences and can help them to lead an independent life moving into adulthood.
Providing hands-on learning outside the classroom helps children relate what they learn at school to the world around them.
This style of learning can motivate pupils, raise attainment and improve behaviour.
Learning outside in nature can create the most vivid childhood memories.
Integrating outdoor learning and play into our daily curriculum can bring learning to life and engage the most reluctant learners.
All children learn differently, as practitioners we begin to understand each individual to discover the types of resources or activities that will captivate them.
Sensory rich resources can provide a quiet, clam space that reduces distractions.
Appropriate sensory stimulation can increase children’s ability to concentrate and focus.
It can also develop muscle tone and can be an open-ended, inclusive resource.
Children with autism benefit from being neither over nor under stimulated.
Sensory rich play and learning opportunities throughout the day can help children to achieve this.
Sensory processing disorder impacts the way children will interact and engage with their environment.
SPD can cause difficulties controlling sensory information. Pupils may seek or avoid particular activities or have problems with motor-based co-ordination which can link to dyspraxia.
Hypersensitivity is where someone is more sensitive to sensory input than average and hyposensitivity is where someone is less sensitive.
For children who are hypersensitive they could become distressed by certain things that others don’t seem to notice.
Hyposensitivity involves the child seeking more stimulation and showing other symptoms, such as an unusually high pain threshold.
Children could cover their ears if they are hypersensitive to auditory information.
Spinning Objects or following shadows suggests a child could be hyposensitive to visual sensations.
Learning outside, away from the lights, sound and frequencies of technology may greatly benefit some pupils with SPD.
Opportunities for sensory play outdoors
The outdoor environment can provide the perfect setting for sensory play.
Being outside, within nature can have a hugely positive affect on our mood and self-esteem.
Pentagon’s Sensory Tunnel takes children on a colourful journey. Learners are able to explore and engage with sensory stimulation in a safe environment.
Rainbow and surfaced panels and Musical Play Equipment provide heightened sounds, textures and colours which can improve communication and reduce feelings of anxiety.
A sensory play tray can engage numerous senses and create an inviting, tactile stimulus for children of differing abilities.
Playing alongside their peers helps to develop social relationships.
When the Sand Box is filled with shells, toy animals, different shakers and tools, children are focussing on the fun and the digging!
There may not be one particular learning outcome, children can develop their own games, scenarios and learning experience.
Through sensory play children begin to watch their peers, they copy each other and share ideas.
They begin to develop self-awareness by discovering which materials they like and where they prefer to play.
Small muscles in hands and fingers are exercised when scooping, pouring and squeezing toys.
A range of emotions is experienced when playing such as surprise when lifting a sand castle and excitement when using the pulley system.
Varied experience helps to build effective communication.
Children with autistic spectrum disorder may be less social or imaginative with their play.
They may not show an interest in typical ‘toys’ but could really enjoy natural objects found in nature which can be counted, sorted and used to create new items.
Children’s interests can be built upon to encourage social and imaginative play.
A fun and interactive play environment
A fun and interactive play environment is particularly beneficial for vestibular and proprioceptive development.
Playgrounds are the perfect place to improve mobility, coordination and spatial skills.
A playground accessible to everyone means that those with SEN don’t feel separated.
Being able to play on the same equipment as their friends boost self-esteem and gives children confidence in social situations.
A Up Down Slide allows children to gain confidence through repetition of movement.
The slide is 1m wide should practitioners need to assist children and a fitted handrail supports children when balancing.
Playing freely outdoors in the natural environment is particularly important for disabled children.
Pupils with impairments will benefit from exploring a variety of sights, smells, textures and sounds found in nature.
Sensory exploration of outdoor spaces allows children to appreciate nature and contributes to their health, happiness and wellbeing.
Disabled children can be overprotected and given limited opportunities involving challenge or risk.
Outdoor play often involves taking some risks, exploring boundaries and facing the unexpected.
A Sensory Circuit Frame is an inclusive resource allowing pupils in a wheelchair to use the equipment alongside others.
Physical exercise is provided through heavy work, resistance activities.
A key aspect of learning through play is to embrace challenge.
If children aren’t challenged, they don’t experiment and improvements can’t be made.
Children of all abilities need to be given opportunities to explore new things and make mistakes in order to learn effectively.
Trim Trails involving different surfaces such as logs, ropes and artificial grass involve the children in navigating different objects and heights.
Having this type of equipment ensures that physical play is not made too easy for the children that they complete trails too quickly.
Equipment should provide a range of challenges without restrictions.
When peers of different abilities can play and learn together, they will devise ways of achieving success.
A Inclusive Roundabout and wheelchair swing can make it easy for peers to play side by side.
Playing outside can teach children the importance of making decisions and solving problems for themselves.
Simple activities such as making dens and creating their own recipes in the mud kitchen allow children the freedom to express their individuality.
For children who struggle to engage creatively, play is a great way to think and learn independently.
Outdoor spaces can encourage inclusive play by accommodating those children who are active, outgoing and adventurous and also those children who are more tentative and wish to observe.
Some pupils need to participate gradually before their confidence grows.
Having a range of equipment with a variety of height levels, speeds and volumes helps to cater to all children.
Offering spaces that are open or more enclosed and giving a variety of seating options for children to observe and communicate from can help all children to feel involved in play, regardless of physical ability.
Giving children a choice of where and what to play on in the playground is really important for inclusion.
Children with sensory impairment may prefer a sheltered area with contrasting light panels and a variety of instruments.
A range of different surfaces and heights supports those who need mobility assistance.
Some children may prefer quieter spots in the playground with face-to-face seating to aid communication.
Motivate learners with a gardening area
Gardening can be a motivational learning tool for children with additional needs.
Digging improves motor skills and hand dexterity and allows children to practise following instructions and safety rules.
Each visit to the garden will be a new experience as children observe changes across the seasons.
Patience will be taught and pupils will learn how to look after our planet.
Gardening provides a sense of purpose, confidence and achievement as learners watch their seeds grow into plants.
Focussing on the fresh air, the weather and the scenery can have a relaxing, therapeutic effect on those with special educational needs.
A therapeutic sensory garden, focussing on colour, texture and fragrance allows interaction with soothing elements of nature and can lead to a positive outdoor experience.
Movement and exercise
Children love to move! My own children are always on the go whether running, skipping, dancing or jumping right up to bedtime.
For some children, especially those with additional needs, a classroom environment can be a real challenge.
Sitting still can actually be very difficult for children with ADHD or other neurodiverse conditions.
Trying to stay seated and concentrate in lessons can lead to anxiety and poor progress.
Pupils may seem disinterested or begin displaying disruptive behaviours that impact those around them.
Physically moving can improve pupil’s ability to learn.
By taking a lesson into the natural environment, allowing pupils to run round a track or even wiggling fingers or doing some star jumps can improve pupil’s performance.
Physical activity can have a positive impact on SEN learners. Exercise strengthens bones, improves coordination, balance and flexibility.
A physically active curriculum can improve children’s behaviour and concentration.
Playing outside provides opportunities for children to experience the world with all of their senses.
In the outdoor environment children can shout, create large games, be creative, messy and try new experiences.
Pupils often learn best through different hands-on experiences and making new discoveries.
Children with special educational needs and disabilities face challenges daily.
They may tire faster than others, have limited mobility, find social skills difficult or communication a challenge.
Regardless of these difficulties it is important for children to enjoy some time outdoors which will have a positive impact on their development.
When provided with the right outdoor environment children with SEN are able to master situations and make connections with the world around them.
Access to the ‘great outdoors’ can play an integral part in children’s progress and helps to shape their bright futures.