Access and participation to outdoor wild spaces can often be deemed to be inaccessible to children with Special Educational Needs, but by increasing opportunities it can really break down barriers and perceptions of what’s possible and the huge benefits it can bring.
Helen at Little Puddle People is an early years professional and forest school leader with experience and expertise in SEN. Along with Rachel Briggs at Rock Tots, they wanted to organise a series of pilot sessions where they could head into the Peak District for bouldering, physical, mental and emotional well being and development, nature connection and environmental awareness.
“Being outdoors and connecting with nature and the world around us has an incredible effect on our well being, mood and immune system both for adult and child the benefits are limitless. Providing opportunities where we can encourage families to spend time outdoors, increase their confidence in risky environments and give them ideas on how to use the natural environment for play and learning is breaking down those access barriers and giving them the tools to go again."
Specifically directed at families of early years children with special educational needs, it looked to open up the space and opportunity to show their potential, whilst helping also to promote diversity and inclusion in climbing and the outdoors.
She ran through a bit about the project.
“For me being able to provide a place that feels respectful, nurturing and 'safe' in terms of being amongst others in similar situations where they won't feel judged or a need to explain themselves or their child is extremely important. As an SEN parent myself I've been in those situations so many times, explaining my child's entire medical history to a total stranger just because they asked and I felt I needed to explain, or that feeling of being watched at every group we attend. We intend for this to be the first event in a number of offerings, with the intention of making this an ongoing project as we believe that regular interaction with the outdoors is of great benefit to sustainability, well being and building confidence in accessing these wild spaces independently.”
For these sessions they were after financial support to ensure they were accessible to all, to eliminate any financial barriers the families my face. An award of £480 from the Alpkit Foundation meant they could run free, inclusive sessions for children under the age of 5 years old with a Special Educational Need, either diagnosed or on the pathway towards diagnosis.
"I really appreciated the opportunity to fully appreciate the outdoors and for Casper to show his potential.
We absolutely loved the session. As a family of 5 we do sometimes walk in the Peak District/countryside, but Casper tends to be in a carrier for the majority of the time while the big kids go off exploring a little more. When he does walk small sections we tend to stick to the main paths. Casper thoroughly enjoyed the climbing sessions and kept signing to go ‘again’. Taking part in the outdoor climbing session has given me the confidence to encourage all 3 kids to explore more and reach greater heights."
Rachel founded Rock Tots and has a wealth of experience developing climbing programmes for 1-6 year olds to build confidence, co-ordination, balance and fitness. Combining her skills with Helen’s meant that they could look to take children outdoors and capture the special benefits of being outdoors and with that To allow the children to benefit from enhanced physical development through the instructor led climbing and activities, along with social interaction in a small peer group, being outdoors, experiencing a new environment and connecting with nature. All of which helps towards strengthening their emotional and mental well-being.
The outside element was fundamental to the impact these sessions could have and what makes them so special, particularly for SEN children as Helen explains.
“Children with SEN often struggle with sensory inputs which inhibit their ability to learn and engage as they process what they actually need from the hustle and bustle often resulting in over stimulating environments. Indoors there may be background noise echoing around a room, background music, adults talking, the smell of coffee and toast, children playing, toys making noise, artificial lights flickering etc. Outside those sounds are usually more soothing and calming, the gentle rustle of the wind, the hum of bee's, birdsong, a flowing river, dappled sunlight and a fresh sweet smell in the air. Which learning environment sounds more productive? I know which one I'd choose!
The above is often why children with speech and language delays and impairments are more likely to talk outdoors, it's more relaxed, its easier to hear and be heard, there's exciting in the moment things going on that may make you want to talk or shout out in surprise as a butterfly flutters past or a buzzard spars above!”
Seeing any child grow and develop is an incredible adventure and wonderful learning curve, but for parents of children with SEN that curve and can be a particularly steep one, especially in the earlier developmental phases which often brings added burdens and emotional stresses. Unfortunately support is not always easy and readily available, being a bit of a lottery depending where you are. Whether speech and language, or more physical challenges, finding help can be a constant struggle and can cause further anxiety as well as financial worries.
By providing these types of sessions and opportunities the parents and carers also benefit from support and education from the experience, being in a small group of other families in similar situations to them. Heightening the bond and connection between themselves and their child through these shared experiences it will also help to build their confidence and knowledge to continue to access outdoor places.
"Me and George had a fantastic day climbing rocks, I had never thought of taking him rock climbing. I think sometimes he seems so tired so I’m quick to put him in the sling or buggy but the session made me realise he has a lot more stamina than I thought. It was lovely to chat to other mums in similar situations too and just enjoy the freedom of being outdoors. The day has inspired me to get out more often and encourage George to try more things. Thanks so much for giving me the extra confidence and positivity to do this!"
It was wonderful to be able to follow this first session and see the reactions and joy that came out of it. The positive and long term impact that giving time outdoors can have, no matter who you are, what age, what ability. It shone through these little ones.
“Exploring outdoors is open ended, there's no set way to play and engage, they find their own path, their own route, thinking critically and creatively, problem solving as they go. All of which are vital life long skills, all of which are pretty unique to outdoors learning.
You saw the children feeling the rock, stroking, hugging tracing over it with their fingers and getting up close to really check it out. Noticing the sparkle of the Gritstone in the sun, the eroded sand gathered in crevices and the crinkly lichen creeping over the surface. You wouldn't get that anywhere else!
Our children, especially those with SEN, need and deserve authentic, memorable experiences that evoke awe and wonder.
Thank you Alpkit for making such a special day possible.”