Online Shop
Shopping cart icon

What are you looking for today?

The Benefits of Outdoor Play and Learning for Children with SEN

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.”

3 pupils are sat in wheelchairs underneath a hexagonal gazebo which has been placed on a school field, next to the school playground. The gazebo has been installed onto the artificial grass with a blue sign saying the hub made with safeturf surfacing.

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.

One girl with brown hair playing with the sensory spinners that have been installed onto artificial grass in front of the school building. There are 3 photographs stuck onto the school building wall to show children how to play with the sensory spinners.

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.

4 children, 3 boys wearing navy blue school tops and one girl wearing a red summer dress are playing with lego and cars at a tuff spot table. The table has been placed next to another tuff spot table next to the school building. There are 3 teachers supervising.

Sensory Play 

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.

A sensory tunnel with blue, green, yellow and red panels has been installed onto a school field with a footpath going through it. There is a planter with some plants growing at the end of the tunnel.

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.

Two boys with brown hair wearing blue jumpers are stood playing with a large sensory panel with dowels and chains that has been installed onto the school building wall in the middle of two windows.

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.

Two boys with brown hair wearing black coats are stood in front of a large sensory panel with blue and yellow safeturf with a mirror in the middle. One boy is looking at his reflection in the mirror and the other boy is touching the blue safeturf.

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.

one child walking down the slop from the imagination station whilst 3 children walk away from the imagination station. There is one teacher talking to the children and pointing at a tree. The imagination station has been installed onto artificial grass.

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.

2 children, one wearing an orange coat and one wearing a black coat are playing on a timber square frame, one is sat on the top and one is hanging upside down whilst one teacher supervises.

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.

One boy stood in front of a square timber frame that has a green net on top of it, whilst one child wearing a red coat walks past. There is another child wearing a black coat in the background and one adult supervising.

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.

 A large sensory tunnel created with blue, green, yellow and red panels with planters in the middle of it. The tunnel has been installed onto the grass with a path going through the tunnel. There are 3 adults stood behind the tunnel.

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.

3 children playing in a large sandbox that has been installed onto the school playground whilst one teacher wearing a grey top sits on the side of the sandbox. There is a large outdoor classroom behind the sandbox where one child is walking past and touching a blue circle.

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.

Sand Box

Bring creative playtimes to life and improve children's physical literacy with our Sand Boxes

Find out more

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.

One child is playing with a rope and pulley in a sand area whilst two other children are playing with the sand and making sandcastles. The sand area has been installed onto artificial grass in between two trees and in front of the school building.

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.

6 eyfs children are playing on the moveable get, set go! blocks that have been placed onto artificial grass in the middle of a play roadway. One child is sliding down the slide and another child wearing a pink dress is walking up the stairs.

Being able to play on the same equipment as their friends boost self-esteem and gives children confidence in social situations.

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.

5 children are planting flowers and plants at a planter, the children are wearing blue and yellow school uniforms and green gardening gloves. The planter benches have been installed onto artificial grass next to the school building.

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.

3 children, 2 wearing yellow school tops and one wearing a purple jumper are planting at the 4 bench planter. The children are wearing green gardening gloves. There are yellow, purple, pink and green flowers and plants in the planter.

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.

5 children sat in a space station all sat on the benches and smiling at the camera. The space station has been installed onto artificial grass. There is a large tree with no leaves on in the background and a bench with two children stood on it.

Embracing challenge 

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.

An aerial view of a school playground that includes a large swing, a climbing frame, and climb through tunnel, a roadway and a performance stage. The playground equipment has been installed onto artificial grass.

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.

One girl with blonde hair wearing a blue summer dress is sat on a circle swing whilst one teacher stands at the side of the swing pushing her. The swing has been installed onto yellow and purple playground surfacing.

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.

Three children have sat underneath a den they have made using 5 den making poles, an orange, green and purple sheet and some rope. The den making posts have been installed onto artificial grass.

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.

2 children wearing blue school jumpers are playing on a climbing frame that has been installed onto the artificial grass with a climb through the tunnel behind it.

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.

3 children wearing white polo tops are playing with a water wall whilst 3 children are playing with a water table with buckets and jugs. The water package has been installed in front of the school building.

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.

one boy with blonde hair wearing a white top is looking through a transparent tube at the bugs and leaves which has been placed inside of a bug hotel.

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.

one boy with blonde hair and wearing a white top is looking through a magnifying glass at the bugs and leaves in the bug hotel which has been installed onto artificial grass.

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.

2 children, one boy and one girl are looking at the bugs and leaves that have been living in the tubes in the bug hotel. The bug hotel has been installed onto the artificial grass. There are 3 more children playing in the background near a large tree.

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.

2 pupils, one wearing a beige coat and one wearing a black coat are playing on the sensory outdoor equipment which has been installed onto the tarmac. There is another pupil wearing a blue coat playing on the outdoor gym equipment in the background.

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.

1 girl wearing a white top and has her hair in bunches with two bows is playing at the water table with one teacher who has a bright coloured top with flowers on. The water table has been installed in front of bow timber fencing.

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.

Aerial view of a school playground which includes artificial grass, moveable blocks, a wigwam, mud kitchen, water tables, a trim trail and a climbing frame. There are many children playing on the playground wearing purple school jumpers.

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.

a class of school children wearing blue tops and blue summer dresses are sat inside of an outdoor classroom with one teacher. They are writing on pieces of paper whilst they have a lesson from their teacher.

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.