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Making the most of playtime: How to engage SEND children in outdoor play

Making the most of playtime: How to engage SEND children in outdoor play

Active play doesn’t always mean tearing around the playground in a ferocious game of tag. There are so many ways children can join in with outdoor play. As teachers and school leaders, you have the job of being creative when it comes to inclusive play. In this article, we unpick how you can help your SEND children make the most of playtime.

Outdoor play gives children the chance to develop social skills and increase their understanding of self and physical strength; there really is no limit to the learning opportunities when children get active outdoors.

What is inclusive play?

Playtime is one of the most favoured times in the school day, second only to lunch! Inclusive play is where children can all engage in tactical, competitive, imaginative or sensory play regardless of the learning or accessibility barriers they may face. For your playground to be fully inclusive, there has to be a little bit for everyone.

Now, with school budgets tight, how do we recommend you offer something for everyone?

The secret is two-pronged: first, you must understand the challenges commonly associated with each SEND need. Then, know the capacity of each piece of outdoor play equipment- this will help you get the most from your playground equipment.

Not an expert on how outdoor playground equipment can be flexible? Don’t worry, you don’t need to be… but we are. Get in touch today for a no-strings discussion, or order your free brochure.

How can schools promote inclusive play?

You may be a mainstream school wanting to improve your SEND provision or are a specialist setting wishing to transform an unloved corner of the playground. Whatever your motivation, you will need to start somewhere.

How to promote inclusive play: The steps to take.

  • Evaluate your current inclusive play provision
  • Know the reason why (to meet changing SEND dynamics, SLCN boost, SEMH support)
  • Book a free design consultation
  • Talk shop with the experts (they’ll give you advice and suggestions in line with your budget)
  • Book in your installation
  • Enjoy your inclusive playground
  • Get free ideas on how to make the most of your equipment from our blog

What are the common play challenges for SEND children?

We like to think of playtime as a reward for working hard in the classroom. The chance to blow off some steam and burn off some energy. For some children, this is absolutely the case- but not for all.

Some children may dread playtimes and unstructured times due to the lack of rules and social demands placed on them to join in. When children haven’t mastered the necessary skills for a game or activity, it can cause conflict. This may be physical or verbal conflict or can be internalised by the child, fuelling negative beliefs of inadequacy.

Speech Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) can be a significant barrier to outdoor play. Imagine joining a fast-paced game; you don’t really understand the rules, and everyone else seems to know what they’re doing. Stressful! Some children may withdraw from social games to avoid confusion and stress, limiting their playground game opportunities.

Physical disability or mobility differences can impact a child’s willingness and motivation to participate in active play. Children with Spina Bifida or Hydrocephalus may find active play challenging and daunting. School leaders, this is where you need to become creative with your play provision.

Around 5-16.5% of the general population is thought to have symptoms associated with sensory integration difficulties. In play terms, this could be linked to any of the eight sensory systems- including the vestibular sensory system (which controls our feeling of safety when off balance). Unmet sensory needs can cause children to become dysregulated and hinder their participation in outdoor play with their friends.

What are the most common SEND needs in schools?

SEND children fall into one of two categories for school support: they are under SEN Support or have an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP). Specialist settings cater for children who often have (or are in the process of receiving) an EHCP, although many children with an EHCP are taught in mainstream settings, too.

SEN Support is for those identified as having a special educational need that significantly impacts access to school life, educational content and experiences other peers of the same age can access.

The top 3 SEN Support needs found in the UK are Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN), Social, Emotional Mental Health (SEMH) and Moderate Learning Difficulties. In contrast, the top 3 EHCP diagnoses are Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), SLCN and SEMH.

These top 4 needs across UK schools can hinder children from engaging in active outdoor play. This can be due to the requirement for social understanding, self-esteem and language application.

Let’s unpick how you can help children who display traits of these top SEND needs in schools with outdoor play.

How to support children with SLCN to engage in outdoor play

SLCN can be a tricky SEND need to diagnose in children, such a complex need can be intertwined with other possibilities. Making the primary SEND need challenging to pinpoint. SLCN can be masked as challenging behaviours and other symptoms.

To support children with SLCN in engaging in outdoor play, your school must first be aware of the communication and language opportunities that are already available. Having an understanding of the intentionality behind choosing outdoor play equipment is what often sets outstanding SEND provisions apart from the rest.

To improve SLCN opportuntiies in your playground, consider offering equipment that encourages different levels of communication. For example, the bird’s nest swing allows children to experience sensory feedback whilst building simple instructions to follow and give.

Meanwhile, bubbles can help children strengthen their mouth control and prompt speech production. Ensure your playground has several options to encourage children with SLCN to participate in active outdoor play.

How to engage children with SEMH in outdoor play

Children with SEMH may display challenging behaviours when working with others or on unfamiliar activities. When supporting these children, it is vital to recognise that all behaviour communicates an unmet need. These needs may be deep-rooted due to previous trauma, neurodiversity or other complex conditions.

The aim of promoting outdoor play to children with SEMH is to create opportunities for children to win. Setting and achieving a goal, including active play, can increase self-esteem and goal setting and build small levels of frustration tolerance.

Well-chosen trim trails can help build frustration tolerance levels whilst supporting sensory needs. Our expert design team can recommend suggested trim trail modules to build physical challenges, beginning with the most accessible section of the trim trails.

Children with SEMH often find making and maintaining friends tricky; this can be due to impulsive behaviour or a lack of confidence and conflict resolution strategies to draw upon during social games. Giving children the option of active games that can be enjoyed in a pair and small groups can help them build their social skills incrementally.

How to support children with sensory processing disorders to access outdoor play

Sensory interaction needs impact far more of us than you may initially expect. Sensory difficulties can be linked with other well-known SEND needs like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or maybe the primary SEND need often known as sensory processing disorder.

Children with hyper or hyposensitive sensory systems may actively seek sensory feedback, this may be in the form of wanting physical pressure or enjoying challenging their vestibular system (balance). Supporting children with sensory needs to engage in outdoor play should be caveated with the additional risk of injury, especially for children with hyposensitivity to touch as they may not hurt themselves easily (or register the physical pain with an injury).

Be aware of the social demand needed to join in with large active games such as tag or stuck in the mud. Using sensory play equipment like water play and low-level trim trails can help offer the sensory feedback many of the children are searching for.

Sensory gardens may be an area your school is looking to expand its provision; they can be a great way to introduce sharing and turn-taking activities whilst offering tactile and sensory input from messy play.

Check out more of our sensory range on our website; you can also download a free brochure for your school today.

How to encourage outdoor play for children with MLD

Supporting children with Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD) to enjoy outdoor play relies on understanding the learning and participation barriers each child may face. As with any SEND, there is not a one-size-fits-all signs and symptoms list for children with MLD, but there are common traits.

  • Processing information and instructions may take a little longer; factor this in when using outdoor play equipment for a task (like timed races or a game with rules).
  • Following the structure of unknown activities can cause confusion and frustration for some children with MLD; trim trails and organised, sequential activities can help to remind students what is coming next.
  • Connecting learned information and practical applications can be challenging for some children with MLD, but choosing outdoor activity panels linked to curriculum topics can help bridge the gap.

Choosing inclusive outdoor play equipment for your school

Inclusive outdoor play equipment should be just that, inclusive. This means children are supported to have the same opportunities where possible through active play. Your setting will have its own definition of what inclusive play looks like.

Schools and community projects don’t have endless budgets (but wouldn’t it be nice if money was no object!) Therefore, being savvy with the choices behind your outdoor play equipment can help motivate many different SEND needs to join in with active play.

Consider looking through the top 10 most flexible pieces of equipment to decide what is a good fit for your school. Or, if you want more personalised advice to fit the playground shape, budget or SEND need, contact one of our SEND-trained Fawns team.

More articles you may like:

Sensory circuit ideas for schools: outdoor edition

How to create a sensory garden in your school

How effective is your free flow provision in the early years?