Outside spaces offer plenty of opportunities for all children to learn and play together, says Juno Hollyhock – especially with some thoughtful planning
Recently at Learning Through Landscapes we were challenged on the inclusivity of a natural primary school playground that we had designed and installed. The concern was that a particular four-year-old with special educational needs was not able to access every single piece of equipment unsupported.
Needless to say the playground facility had been designed with the involvement of children, parents/carers and staff, and a range of options had been considered and revised carefully and over time. Uncomfortable meetings ensued which involved a GP, an occupational therapist, a concerned parent – and a rambunctious four year old who managed to access more than 50% of the provision unaccompanied and with enormous delight. It was clear that in time, she will be able to scramble up most of the slopes, barrel roll down the hills, bury herself in the sandpit hide in the tunnels and fully enjoy the jumping and loose parts play.
When we consider designing inclusive play opportunities, we will get better value if we do not expect to come up with something that everyone will be able to access every single aspect of, immediately.
Four-year-olds (with or without SEND) are, generally speaking, shorter than 11-year-olds; they are less developed and their balance may be slightly more ‘off’. All children are individual and different and yes, we need to try and cater for all – eventually – to be inclusive. However, it is ok for children to aspire to different parts of the play area over time, to learn how to navigate more complex areas and to grow in their understanding of managing risk and challenge
What is not OK, ever, is for children to have to watch consistently from the sidelines as their peers enjoy facilities and activities that they can never access. All children have the right to learn and play out of doors as a part of their school day. True inclusion happens when they can do that together in a space that has been designed and built with everyone in mind.
It’s the law
Planning for learning and playing outside the classroom for all children needs to be considered at the very earliest stages. This is supported by current legislation. There are a number of key differences between the 2001 SEN Code of Practice and the revised Code of Practice published in 2014. Two of these are that:
> there is a clearer focus in the new Code on the participation of children and young people and parents in decisionmaking at individual and strategic levels, and
> there is a stronger focus on high aspirations and on improving outcomes for children and young people.
The Equality Act 2010 also states that schools must make reasonable adjustments, including the provision of auxiliary aids and services, to ensure that disabled children and young people are not at a substantial disadvantage compared with their peers. This duty is anticipatory: it requires thought to be given in advance as to what disabled children and young people might require and what adjustments might need to be made to prevent any disadvantage.
The natural environment
The benefits of having regular and repeated access to outdoor learning are well documented; children need to connect with nature in order to understand and protect it; nature, in turn, provides children with a stimulating, interesting, multi-sensory environment.
Generally speaking, the natural world is better suited to meeting the needs of all children than conventional playgrounds, which can be limited by play structures that tend to dictate which activities children can engage in. Even settings in inner city areas and densely populated urban conurbations can still offer natural spaces for their children to enjoy.
In order to ensure a space if fully inclusive it is essential that an understanding of the design requirements is brought on board at an early stage. The best place to start is through consultation with children and parents. Simple changes, such as setting appropriate distances between stepping stones and the creation of small sheltered safe areas, can help children feel safe in their outdoor environment, enabling them to play and learn effectively.
Risk and reward
The best outdoor spaces are as diverse as the children who use them. They can include spaces for reflection and story telling, running and hiding, interaction with nature and wildlife, planting and growing, climbing and swinging, loose materials and den building, water play and woodland play.
Planting can be designed to deliver a multi-sensory experience by including plants that are visually interesting, smell and taste good, have different textures and make a noise when rattled or when the wind blows.
The more complex and challenging an outdoor space, the more concerns there tend to be about risk management. The reality is, though, that if we do not allow all our children to experience a degree of risk within the safety of our schools and settings, they will not be able to identify, judge and manage risks when they are out and about in the adult world.
Getting out there
Once you have an environment that is as accessible as possible for all children, it is important to make as much use of that space as you can. here are a few tips and some useful information to help you differentiate:
- Physical activity can help stimulate play and communication skills as well as exercising the brain to process information more effectively.
- Add value to climbing structures by introducing ropes and pulleys, tubes to talk through, objects to roll down, slides and even water in summer.
- Try to provide a range of climbing activities, such as slopes with and without ropes, nets and ramps.
- Repetition and activities such as rotating, rocking, wobbling, swinging and bouncing can help some children with sensory processing issues or those who are feeling stressed.
- Some children may not be able to sit without support or may have a weak hand grip, so providing a choice of features offering large scale, whole body stimulation is important.
- Large cardboard boxes make great temporary retreats or play spaces; lining the boxes with fabric can offer a range of tactile experiences.
- Outdoor gems and prisms cast rainbow patterns and coloured shadows which can offer similar experiences to expensive indoor sensory equipment.
- Gutter runs placed along a ramp offer opportunities for children to roll noisy balls, marbles, toys or water to the bottom whilst developing dexterity, cognitive skills and understanding of cause and effect.
- The experience of water and wind can be very positive and stimulating to the senses; activities should be monitored, though, in case children find them distressing.
- Strong tonal contrast in conjunction with sensory olfactory cues such as scented plants, and sound cues (such as rustling grasses), can help children with visual impairments to be independent within a play space.
- There is no substitute for a positive approach to learning and playing outside. Even the blandest and most unpromising of playgrounds can be transformed by the enthusiasm and leadership of a lively and fun-filled member of staff.