Level 3 Early Years Outdoor Practice

and my experience of working with children with SEND

Press play on the photo above, or click this link: https://youtu.be/9jYUZj4Ba_8 to watch the slide show interview. Alternatively, read the transcript below:

Why did I choose to do this course?…

•My outdoor provision was a little uninspiring for everyone, despite my best efforts.

•Also, because I only work with children with significant SEND, I was finding it difficult to engage them in purposeful outdoor play.

•I didn’t want to just do a one off, or a two day course, because I felt that I needed greater understanding and more professional development. 

•This Level 3 course that lasted a whole calendar year seemed very promising.

•However, I was anxious about whether it would be relevant and practical for my SEND provision.

•But I needn’t have worried.

•The course has made me reflect and think very deeply about the needs, strengths, interests and learning schemas of my children with SEND… all the things that make them tick. It’s taught me to slow down and not be in a hurry to move the children on with their next steps.

•What follows is mine and my children’s journey over the space of a year.

It has to start with the children…

Start by getting to know your children with special needs.

What makes them tick?

What do they do?

Where do they like to be?

This little one loves nature… touching it, being in it, experiencing it with all his senses.

He also loves to climb and gravitates towards the ceiling when indoors.

His schemas are strong… particularly the deconstructing one. He also likes to position and line things up, or make collections.

When he plays, he tends to do so in a rigid repetitive fashion, examining the intricate details of favourite objects, happy in his own world.

But to get some children outside, takes some thought…

Are they adequately clothed?

Do the clothes meet their sensory needs?

Will they wear them?

Has the idea of going outside been communicated successfully? 

Have they been given enough time to adjust to the idea of going outside?

Can they take their transition toys out with them?

For some children, transitions can be particularly anxiety inducing.

Once they’re settled somewhere, then they’re happy, but getting there can be tricky.

Accommodating their needs may mean deviating from your previous ‘house rules’

Such as allowing them to acclimatise and play in the doorway, until they feel safe enough to venture further afield. 

Make sure they have familiar, appealing activities to get them going.

Water play and sea creatures works for this little man.

This little chap likes sticks, and as long as he’s got some sticks to fiddle with, the rest of the world passes him by.

Having lots of similar resources available means that he can become absorbed in studying the finer details of them.

He can group them, position them, collect them, tip them out, examine them, etc.

It means that he is unlikely to get stressed if another child has sticks elsewhere in the outdoor area.

Trees are a special interest.

He loves examining them, hugging them, patting them, spinning around them.

Sticks go with us, or are found and carried around, when we go out and about.

We do love a tree!

A tree can offer so much interest.

And trees come in all sorts of different sorts and sizes.

Instead of gravitating towards the ceiling indoors, the sky poses a much greater challenge.

Here he’s demonstrating all the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

Venturing beyond the Nursery gate gives children chances and challenges that they might not be able to experience within the setting.

For children who tend to get stuck in their rigid repetitive play, going out and about can have huge benefits.

This little man can cautiously test his limits and capabilities in a new environment.

And soon (with a lot of adult support and guidance) he can do it for himself.

Study your children’s schemas.

What might appear to an outsider as unwanted behaviours, could just be patterns of learning that the child needs to fulfil.

This little one has a strong deconstruction schema and is fascinated with the concepts of ‘up’ and gravity.

For example, he likes to empty out boxes and drawers from a height.

Unless the adults around him give him ample and varied opportunities to learn from these schemas, they will dominate the day!

Recognise that the child has ‘an itch he needs to scratch’ and go with it.

Find alternative activities…

Dandelion clocks tick all the right boxes for him.

As does pulling apart and crumbling dried Eucalyptus bark.

His little friend has a strong positioning schema and so he is intrigued with where he can wrap the curved bark around, such as his knee, foot, arm, me!

Getting to know your children’s interests is important.

All my children love to watch the ducks.

But this little one absolutely loves them. 

I take the opportunity whilst he is safe in the buggy, to use Attention Autism Strategies to encourage him to focus on me throwing the grain and the ducks running around to eat it.

He gets very excited.

I have purposefully planned trips and visits to include seeing all manner of birds… the pond, petting farm, zoo, wildlife parks, nature reserves, etc.

And I’m able to use Attention Autism Strategies again to engage him.

The parrots really tested him.

He was fascinated and delighted by them but every time they squawked loudly, he ran and hid behind me.

Feeling scared but finding comfort with a trusted adult forms resilience. 

Watch out for the children interacting with each other and build on it.

Sometimes these two noticed one of them was on the slide, so it encouraged the other to have a go too.

Also, notice what each child finds easy and what they find difficult.

One of these boys is a confident and capable climber and has put in hours of practice, honing his skills and improving his stamina. 

The other is still in the early stages of his physical development.

However, even though the two children rarely seem to interact or notice each other, they do still occasionally inspire each other.

Give children achievable challenges…

This little chap was very unsteady on his feet.

But with my supportive hand on extremely uneven ground, weeks of practice, and lots of encouragement to get back up when he did fall over, he became much more confident and capable.

Find environments that inspire your children.

East Ruston Vicarage Gardens is one of our favourite places to go.

It offers my particular children so much that meets their interests and schemas.

The child who is a confident climber loves this statue; he knows where it is and makes a bee-line for it.

The child who is still learning has chosen to watch from the safety of the buggy.

Even though the children choose to ignore each other most of the time, and don’t socially interact, they do still notice.

Very soon the little one is copying the older one and after several visits with some solid practice, he can climb confidently and carefully.

And then all of a sudden we get a Wow! moment.

Both children doing the same thing at the same time.

We spend well over half an hour each time we visit this statue.

The children climb, model, copy and then just sit and gaze at the same view together. Magic.

They are meeting all the aspects of SPICE…

Social interactions

Physically challenging themselves

Intellectual stimulation


Emotional fulfilment 

Something as simple as splashing in roadside puddles has so much learning for children with SEND.

There’s lots to consider…

Do they normally stop and drop to the ground?

Do they run off?

Safety has to come first, but with a bit of thought, things can progress.

This little one used to be tricky to keep safe on the roadside.

So he always wears a backpack with reins attached.

However, with lots of practice and persuasion, literally just outside the Nursery gate, he began to be able to walk a few metres each session. 

After months of practice, and as long as I had the buggy at hand for when he got fed up with walking, he could walk nearly a mile.

He now gets so much enjoyment from walking through the puddles.

And as for thunder storms…

The best way to experience them is to be out in them, with the rain falling on your head, and if you can stand on something to make you nearer the rain, all the better.

This is the real joy of childhood.

We regularly go and visit our local farms.

The children experience the planting and harvesting of various crops.

This means getting hands on with the earth, the creatures that live in it, and the crops that grow there.

Real life experiences mean so much more than just handling a bucket of potatoes in the setting.

They also cover all aspects of the EYFS

For children that struggle with their gross motor skills, 

find opportunities for them to move around on uneven ground.

This little chap delighted in holding my hand as he tried to stride across the ridges and furrows.

When he’d had lots of practice, he found it hilarious having a go by himself.

Fruit picking is great for developing gross motor skills.

Lots of stretching, reaching, crossing the mid-line and hand eye coordination.

Figuring out how to handle a prickly Conker shell often meets a child’s interests, develops their coordination and fulfils their sensory needs too.

For the children with SEND who gain little from social interactions, finding things that spark their interest and that also need you to be a useful tool or resource are helpful.

This little chap absolutely loves Pumpkins and finding so many of them delighted him. But he struggled to pick the biggest one up, so he turned to me for help… social interaction, yay!

This little man used to hate getting sticky, but after months of practice with baking activities and sand play, he enjoys all sorts of messy play.

As long as he has free access to water for washing

Cause and effect activities can intrigue children with SEND.

It took months of practice, but this little chap now enjoys pressing the button to get water from the water butt, watching the water go down the guttering, and into a container at the bottom. He now knows precisely where he has to put the container to catch the water.

Then he feels the satisfaction of the sensory experience of tipping the water down his front, over and over again.

I’ve successfully used Attention Autism strategies to engage my children with SEND with activities outdoors.

This one loves paint, so I’ve combined it with his water play and his beloved Pumpkins.

Anticipating the paint drips really held his attention.

He loved closely examining the way the paint blobs moved around in the water.

And coped well with investigating the slimy insides of the Pumpkin.

And trying to catch the slippery seeds kept him occupied for several minutes.

I took the Attention Autism paint blob activity beyond the Nursery gate, to some giant puddles down the road.

This little man has progressed so far this year…

He is able to walk a distance up the road, holding my hand, without dropping to the floor or running off.

He is able to sometimes stay close, so that he doesn’t need to be attached to me with reins all the time.

This means that he gets to enjoy activities at another level.

What could be more fulfilling for a child than spending half an hour splashing in puddles!

He’s practicing his gross motor skills and coordination.

He’s demonstrating all the Characteristics of Effective Learning

Environmental water play offers so much intrigue for the child and for myself as an observer.

When children with SEND display what might be viewed as unwanted behaviours, such as throwing sand, try to take another look at it, from a different perspective.

What’s in it for the child?

This child is definitely not interested in anyone’s reaction, because social interactions aren’t particularly meaningful for him.

He has begun to develop a trajectory schema. He now has an interest in throwing things. But he is also intrigued with the way that the damp sand splats and sticks to things; he is developing a creative and expressive streak. 

Find an area in the setting where sand can be thrown about reasonably safely.

Both children were able to develop this interest separately and together, with very few incidents of sand in faces, because I was able to physically support them to do it reasonably safely. 

Sand went everywhere for months but the children got so much learning from it.

The sand began to be deposited in the same spot, making little piles that were patted and shaped.

With the addition of some basic baking / mud kitchen equipment, and lots of adult demonstration, sand cakes were made.

Sometimes very precisely.

This is a big achievement in pretend play for some children with SEND.

Dispersing mud kitchen resources is a stage that some children with SEND need to fulfil

Before they are able to progress on to using a mud kitchen for pretend play or creativity.

Each person on the Outdoor Practice course has had their own unique challenges and triumphs.

And I have learnt an incredible amount.

The most significant learning I have gained from this course includes:

Understanding the importance of 

Space and scale


Fresh air and being active


Embodied learning

Real experiences

Stimulus and possibilities

Sensorial richness

Variety, change and spontaneity

Nature and natural elements

Play materials

Following children’s own interests

Relationships and valuing the subtle interactions that my children with SEND demonstrate.

I am now much more able to think flexibly about how I can bring the children’s interests and fascinations into activities beyond the Nursery gate, particularly using the Attention Autism strategies to encourage engagement. 

Repetition is key, as is being able to enjoy the joyful dance of childhood.

This course has made me think very deeply about my children with SEND and I have absolutely loved it!