SEN and the great outdoors: learning outside the classroom
Author Maria Buttuller
Date 3rd Feb 2022
Outdoor learning for schools has boomed in popularity, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 with many schools, including city schools, investing in more outdoor space where possible or connecting with businesses that can provide the environment for such experiences.
Researchers have also found that spending time outdoors can greatly improve a child’s ability to learn, provide positive health benefits (both physically and mentally) and even reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
The Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) Manifesto, launched by the government in 2006, provided a breath of fresh air for the educational agenda. With the aim of persuading teachers to make the most of outdoor learning opportunities, the Manifesto states that “every young person should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development whatever their age, ability and circumstances.”
The Manifesto encourages education professionals, local authorities and voluntary organisations to make learning more engaging and relevant to young people of all abilities by getting them into more hands-on environments, such as museums, farms, adventure centres or simply their school grounds.
So what does this mean for children with SEN? With our latest blog Brenda Leonard, an animal-assisted therapist and owner of Apple Tree Farm talks about the benefits of animal assisted therapy sessions and outdoor learning for children with SEND.
Apple Tree farm: learning outside the classroom
“At Apple Tree Farm in North Devon, we combine the open, level space of our land with the healing benefits of animal interaction. All the school groups that have reached out to us and used our services have been for children with ASD, mental health conditions and learning difficulties. We also provide sessions for groups and individuals with a variety of differing abilities including children with SEND. We set up our care farm based on my deep-set belief that animals have the most fascinating abilities to make things seem and feel better, even at their darkest.
Animal assisted therapy
The practice of animal assisted interventions can be identified back to long before Sigmund Freud was known to be using his dogs during his psychoanalysis sessions with his patients. Today, the positive effects on blood pressure levels and mood is well documented and here at Apple Tree Farm we have and witnessed the amazing effects of animal interactions with our children first hand. It’s wonderful to witness a child’s confidence growing through interaction with our sheep, alpacas, dogs, chickens and pigs.
It comes as no surprise that the children relate so easily to our outdoor environment and relax and engage better around our animals and through introducing the children to our animals we have seen some inspiring results. Examples include seeing nonverbal autistic children developing speech and stimming (the self-stimulating behaviour associated with autism) reduced. Children also show an increased ability to engage, listen and follow instruction. Above all, we have seen children flourish and have fun at the same time! They learn and develop without the restriction that comes with the regimented approach sometimes used by other educational settings.
Opportunities for learning
With our SEN school groups we have found that the children have a minimal attention span, something that can be advantageous when working in an environment like a farm, where there is so much available and we can switch from one activity to another seamlessly and with little detriment to anyone or anything. The flexibility of outdoor learning is a fantastic tool for our group leaders because we can work to a specific child’s need, therefore harbouring feelings of satisfaction and understanding in the children. The ability to work to the needs of our children also means we can work on boosting self-belief and confidence, something that is hugely lacking in most of our groups.
At Appletree we work with the following belief in mind: that the children who come to our farm work so incredibly hard just to exist in other environments where 99% of other children can engage and participate effortlessly and happily. Here we want them to be that majority, we want them to be able to engage and participate effortlessly and happily. We want to encourage physical health alongside intellectual development.
The great outdoors is one of the best resources available to teachers and outdoor learning and can provide a great sensory break for children who struggle to focus in class. It’s a perfect way to encourage individuals to show their full potential and reach it!
Being outdoors, in all its vast expanse, can be very inclusive. There are no judgements from the environment or its inhabitants. There is no pressure and no need to conform. That is what makes outdoor learning so effective, special and beneficial for children with special educational needs. “
About the author
Brenda Leonard is an animal-assisted therapist and owner of Apple Tree Farm in North Devon, offering animal-assisted therapy sessions to children with SEND.
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