Early learning and childcare - Out to Play: guidance for practitioners supporting children with additional support needs - section 11

Supplementary guidance (section 11) should be used alongside the main Out to Play document to support the delivery of outdoor experiences for children in early learning and childcare (ELC) with additional support needs.

Using Your Space

An outdoor setting should provide positive, fun, challenging, playful and enjoyable experiences for children, rooted in the interactions with people and place.

Opportunities for risk and challenge

All children, including children with additional support needs, benefit from engaging in risk and challenge in their play.

Various factors contribute to the choices children make about the level of risk and challenge they wish to engage in, such as prior experience, natural disposition, the behaviour of other children and the conscious or unconscious signals from adults. It can be tempting to over-protect children with additional support needs however they have the same need as their peers to learn through trial and error, make mistakes and have the occasional mishap when they play.

The principles of risk-benefit apply – balance the risks against the benefits and make children the main focus of the risk/benefit assessment process (Care Inspectorate, 2016). You can support children with additional needs in the same way, by recognising children’s patterns of play behaviour and preferences in play.

Things To Think About

Use thoughtful observation to help you assess and manage access to risks and challenge suited to the abilities of the children.

Individualise your response in supporting children to recognise and weigh up possible risks, so that you can help both those who are hesitant and those who are drawn to risk and challenge.

  • Use your knowledge of the child, knowledge of the site and conversations with parents/carers and key workers (who have experience of how the child behaves in different settings) to plan and respond to children who are inclined to seek out and take risks, sometimes impulsively or without warning.
  • Find ways to provide opportunities that challenge those children, including children with additional support needs, who seek thrills and challenge.
  • Remember that risk and challenge can be emotional, intellectual and social in nature as well as physical.
  • Examine your own attitude to, and experience of risk and challenge to understand how it influences your practice. (Also a useful exercise for teams.)

Interaction with outdoors space, living things and the elements

Outdoor space provides abundant opportunities for children to immerse themselves in playful interactions, learning about cycles of growth, life and death, understanding that not all living things experience feelings and sensations in the same way. They also discover that while nature holds great beauty, there can be some unpleasant things too.

Not all children feel comfortable encountering insects and animals, being in the dark or hearing the wind whistling through the trees and some children are particularly sensitive to their surroundings.

Encountering new or unfamiliar experiences can result in some children feeling unable to cope, anxious or overwhelmed. This in turn can manifest as distressed behaviour. Supporting children through this process can help to develop resilience.

  • Speak with the child and their parent or carer to build up a picture of any fears, phobias or aversions; find out if there are triggers and how they usually manage them.
  • Build up a bank of approaches you can use to support children when they are afraid, anxious or overwhelmed, for example minimising verbal communication and maintaining a calm, open and positive demeanour.
  • Remember that all behaviour is a form of communication.
  • Work with children to find ways they can communicate their feelings with you. This could include picture symbols, signing, body language and facial expressions as well as verbal communication.
  • Consider whether a child’s needs are best met with fact-based information (for example, looking things up in a nature book) or imaginative, creative approaches (for example, art and storytelling).
  • Try to avoid confusing mixed messages, especially for children who take verbal communication very literally.
  • Make time to talk to parents or carers about their experience outside the setting regarding changes and progress in how their child is coping and what they enjoy.

Food and drink

  • Some children are quite specific about how they like their food to be presented, the containers in which their food and drink are provided or eat a relatively limited range of items. Work closely with parents and carers to discuss how this should be approached and respect the wishes of the child.
  • If providing an open snack time, allow the child to explore the different snacks on offer. Children might use their different senses to investigate what is available by touching, smelling or mouthing the food. Allow children to try new foods at their own pace.

Things To Think About

How else might you support risk and challenge for children with additional support needs in your setting?

What other dimensions of interaction with the outdoors have you noticed creates playing and learning opportunities for children?


Email: outdoorelc@gov.scot

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