An extract from an article written by Kathryn Solly, early years trainer and cosultant. Her latest book, 'Leading Children's Learning Outdoors' is due to be published later in 2023. To find out more, go to www.solly.biz. 
Check out related Turning Little Stones podcasts. (Series 1; episodes 4, 6, 12, 20 & 21)  
OUTDOOR ENCOUNTERS 
A child with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) often have difficulties that affect their ability to behave, learn and socialise in a range of ways. We have a legal duty to appropriately support them. All children are unique and develop at different rates, but all children need: 
• Time – to develop at their own pace and explore their own interests. 
• Agency – some influence over what they do and have some choices. 
• Belonging - being cared for and respected as part of a community. 
• Competence – the feeling of being successful and having some independence. 
All children need to be themselves and play both indoors and out. Having SEND may affect children’s ability to behave, learn and socialise, but their needs are remarkably similar to most children. 
• They are curious, want to explore and investigate with all their senses in their unique ways. 
• They can be deeply involved and concentrate for long periods of time. 
• They need to visit the same concept in a range of different ways over time. 
• They can develop unique, creative and imaginative ways of using different environments and resources. 
Thus, experience of and in nature and all its richness is ideal if provided in appropriate ways for children with SEND. 
Experiences in nature 
Outdoor play has proven additional benefits in engaging children with SEND. Outdoor play in nature can provide them with rich opportunities to enhance their confidence, gain life skills and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of an outdoor learning environment. In my experience, with a little creative thinking, children with both complex and less complex needs can all benefit from inclusion, sharing experiences outside. Care givers must share a desire to include children with SEND. They also need a clear understanding their unique needs. 
Sadly, the levels of support and supervision needed in schools and settings often translate into children with SEND having particularly poor access to outdoor environments. Despite this, these are the children who have most to gain from time spent outside. 
My experience over 30 years plus is that young children with a wide range of complex and unique SEND, if given the appropriate time, adjustments and transition will flourish and benefit much from being in nature. As they do, family members, teachers and practitioners recognise how beneficial being outside in nature is for their whole development. Trust develops as the benefits emerge, but it takes time and patience. 
Types of opportunities in nature 
The new experiences evolving from time outdoors should include: 
weather, loose parts, gardening, and animal care. 
Loose parts are resources (wood blocks, pebbles, shells, cones, sticks etc.) that can be selected for open-ended exploration, creative and imaginative play by all children. Loose parts maximise sensory possibilities and benefits. They are often found as heuristic play activities, such as ‘Treasure Baskets’. 
Being outdoors provides a great basis for building relationships, developing communication and language as the atmosphere is more relaxed. Trust builds quickly within a calm outdoor environment, where the novelty of new experiences is embedded within physicality, fresh air, greater space and freedom. 
Jumping in muddy puddles, throwing fallen leaves, watching a spider on a web, planting a tree, watching birds from a hide, feeding rabbits, and building a bug hotel are all rich possibilities. They provide real opportunities and meaningful outcomes. Giving responsibility to children who are not often trusted to do anything is critical as they rise to the responsibility and a definite sense of purpose. 
Movement is essential for young bodies and minds. Froebel recognised the connection between movement, thoughts, and feelings. Connections between action and thought is corroborated through more recent neuroscience and movement research. Nature provides for breadth and balance in the curriculum. Developmentally appropriate challenges and resources add to the experience of risk, challenge, and adventure for all young children. It is the attitude of adults that make the greatest impact on how children with SEND maximise their play and learning in nature. 
Learning in nature gives children first-hand experience and can extend what is provided indoors - learning by doing and discovery. These build confidence and help children to focus through genuine involvement. In turn these opportunities build life skills and independence. From learning how to put on boots to collecting conkers, planting seedlings, cooking what you’ve grown, they are all about learning and achieving. 
The Adult Role 
The simplicity of being in nature helps to facilitate all sorts of learning. Adults who enjoy being outdoors in all weathers and who provide attentive, engaged support for children have great impact. They may need to adapt processes or equipment, find suitable tools, adapt clothing or pace to include everyone properly. Being flexible is crucial whether making mud pies or labels. Being in nature is distinctive because children can follow through processes from beginning to end within a relaxed environment whilst building their understanding of boundaries and self-discipline. The adult role is about being positive and encouraging whilst maximising opportunities as they occur. 
Other benefits 
Teaching young children about nature is transforming and enduring. Ongoing research confirms how much it benefits young minds and bodies. Being in nature provides space for exploration and new movement opportunities. This is particularly important for those with sensory sensitivities and autism. It removes children from noisy classrooms full of artificial lighting, technology, and electric noise. The physical opportunities afforded in the outdoor environment provide ways to keep fit and healthy in the fight against obesity, improving immunity etc. 
Psychologically, time in nature is recognised as a means to relieve stress and anxiety. Being included and playing together can only occur in an environment where there is an acceptance that everyone is different and has unique needs. 
Each child needs time to grow as a whole person and this can occur in nature where there is more space to expend excess energy, reduce tension, restore concentration and settle into learning. Challenging behaviour often reduces outside simply because of the natural possibilities and the opportunities to challenge, explore, test and create natural interactions in a low stress environment. 
Some children find nature more challenging, and they need smaller stepping stones to engaging successfully outdoors. These might include heuristic play activities, treasure baskets and open-ended loose parts giving children the opportunity to experience natural objects before they are exposed to the wider range of options in nature. 
It’s well worth the effort! 
Whilst taking children with SEND out into nature represents a significant challenge due to their wide range of unique needs and behaviours, it is well worth the effort as access to nature has innumerable and life changing benefits for everyone (including children with SEND) in our fast, ever-changing world. Staff members too are unique. Some will be enthusiastic and share particular skills, knowledge and interests, but all will need some support, encouragement and training. Especially those who have less experience working with children with SEND. 
Each setting and school is unique, and any natural environment will need careful audit, some adaptation and consideration too in order to enable the children to enjoy and achieve within it. 
It is a journey like learning and takes time. 
 
 
Kathryn Solly B.Ed., M.A., PGCE (SEN), NPQICL. 
Kathryn is a specialist Early Year ones Speaker, Consultant, Trainer and Author, Early Education Associate & KEYU presenter. 
www.solly.biz for educational training, research and marketing 
 
 
Catherine’s first book ‘Adventure, Risk and Challenge in the Early Years’ is available is from Routledge: www.routledge.com. (Also translated into Chinese) 
She has contributed to 'Achieving Excellence in the Early Years: a guide for headteachers’ available from www.early-education.org.uk 
Catherine’s latest book ‘Leading Children’s Learning Outdoors from Birth to Seven’ is due to be published later this year. 
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