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.

Staffing and Practice

High-quality settings have staff who are skilled and knowledgeable on the topic of child development, play and learning and whose practice is underpinned by reflective practice (Education Scotland, 2020: 84).

In addition to skills, qualifications, and experience, when employing staff take into account knowledge of the importance of the outdoors and of supporting children with additional support needs. You should also consider the following:

  • What opportunities will staff have to develop their knowledge, skills and understanding?
  • Even if certain staff have specific roles or skills in relation to supporting children with additional support needs, how will you ensure inclusion is everyone’s responsibility?
  • How will you develop and maintain a body of expertise in your team that allows your team to work collaboratively to support children including children with additional support needs?
  • Who can you go to for help with developing your practice? This could be parents, your local authority, third sector groups and organisations like RNIB, deafscotland or Capability Scotland. (See Sources of information)
  • Do you have a clear plan to ensure children with additional support needs and their families feel welcomed and able to share their views and expectations?

Supporting professional development and reflective practice in relation to supporting children with additional support needs can be done in many ways. Here are some examples.

  • Create opportunities to come together to discuss and critically reflect upon the outdoor setting and how it meets the needs of the children.
  • Ask the staff, parents or children to come up with discussion starters (written, verbal or visual) for reflective practice. These could be ideas, observations or mini-case studies. Discussion starters could include fears or concerns of staff to enable a problem-solving approach. Collectively looking for actions to address concerns and fears in relation to supporting children with additional support needs outdoors enables a problem-solving approach.
  • Use the skills and knowledge within your setting and your local community to inform your practice.
  • Make best use of staff with skills or roles which focus on additional support needs to develop the skills and confidence of their colleagues.
  • Undertake pedagogical enquiries within the setting to explore questions arising from the team.
  • Seek out training and support from local authorities and third sector groups and organisations.
  • Arrange visits to other outdoor spaces to see how they use their space and to learn about how they maximise opportunities and experiences in their settings for children with additional support needs.

Settling in

When children with additional support needs access your outdoor space, a child-focussed, supportive and sensitive welcome will help families feel more confident and at ease.

A well thought out settling in process will be useful for this. The settling in period is an important step in allowing you to get to know the child and will give you the opportunity to see how the child responds to the outdoor space. Each child may require a different settling in period. Flexibility between staff and families will be required to ensure each child’s needs are met during this process.

Here are some things that might help:

  • Discuss with the child’s family how your settling in process should be tailored to meet the needs of their child.
  • Ensure they have had the opportunity to share any concerns and provide all the information they would like to.
  • Ensure the family knows who they can get in touch with and what the roles of different members of staff are in your setting.
  • Offer several visits to the outdoor space and an extended settling in period.
  • Use these opportunities to observe how the child navigates the space, how they interact with others and the environment, their own ways of communicating and what interests them.
  • Consider the sensory dimensions of the environment, both difficulties it may present and how you might make use of the sensory environment to improve a child’s experience.
  • Ask families how they wish to be kept informed and agree how views and ideas will be shared.

Settling in: Bring a bag of familiar and well-loved play items or toys. Things like a favourite ball, bubbles or sensory materials can be pulled out to help make the outdoor space a bit more familiar. Packing this bag together is a chance to talk about where we are going and what we are going to do when we are there. It’s helpful for reducing anxiety.
(Play Midlothian)

Inclusive communication

Inclusive communication means sharing information in a way that everybody can understand. As a service provider, it means making sure that you recognise that people understand and express themselves in different ways. For people who use services, it means getting information and being able to express themselves in ways that meet their needs. The Inclusive Communication Hub identifies six key principles which will guide you to make the communication in your setting more inclusive.

The six principles of inclusive communication are:

  • Communication accessibility and physical accessibility are equally important
  • Every community or group will include people with different communication support needs
  • Communication is a two-way process of understanding others and expressing yourself
  • Be flexible in the way your service is provided
  • Effective user involvement will include the participation of people with different communication support needs
  • Keep trying.

(Inclusive Communication Hub, 2017)

A few things to keep in mind when working with children.

  • Expression of experience, views and ideas is rarely only verbal.
  • Communication is a two-way process and requires you to tune-in to children’s way of expressing themselves.
  • Children make their thoughts and feelings known in many ways, using their bodies or movement to express how they feel, using facial expressions, pushing things away, pointing and gestures. They might take your hand to an object or lead you to where they want to go.
  • Some children use signing, symbols, word boards, communication boards and books or other aids.
  • Some children get great pleasure from the repetition and sharing of sounds, words and gestures.
  • Some children can be overwhelmed by too much information, in which case keep sentences short, leave pauses and be aware of the surroundings – are there distractions and competing information?
  • Organisations such as the National Autistic Society and others provide useful advice about approaches to communication.

Supporting exploration of the outdoor space

Some children may come to your setting with limited experience of being outdoors. If a child feels fearful or unsure of a space, they will be less likely to explore and take full advantage of all the outdoor space has to offer. Additional support can help children feel comfortable and secure in their surroundings with the aim of encouraging them to explore the outdoor space more.

Here are some examples of how you could do this.

  • Create a social story illustrating what to expect at the setting. This could include pictures of both the setting and the staff who will be on site.
  • Create a tailored support plan for the child. This should include input from the child, parents or carers and other professionals (as appropriate). This plan could detail the support the child might require to use the environment to their advantage as well as any other additional information relevant to their care.
  • Give children time and space to explore the outdoor setting in the ways they feel most comfortable for example, in a very small group, with an adult, using their senses or bodies.
  • Learn to recognise behavioural cues to enable timely and appropriate interventions when needed. De-escalation, distraction and calming techniques can influence the outcome for many uncertain or challenging situations.
  • Practice the skills involved in understanding when to step in and when to step back when supporting children’s playing and learning. (The Loose Parts Play Toolkit has more information on this.)
  • Facilitate children’s play by allowing them to follow their own interests and in their own way. Some children need some encouragement or scaffolding to develop their play ideas or interests further.
  • Allow children to engage in repetition. Children might repeat activities many times or have a routine they like to repeat each time they enter a space. Children learn through repetition and it can provide a way to manage anxiety and gain a sense of control.

Things To Think About

How else might staff be supported to provide high-quality experiences in your setting?

When supporting children’s free play in the outdoor space, how would you define your role?


Email: outdoorelc@gov.scot

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