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Nature is the best way to nurture pupils with special educational needs

Pupil reading a book in the forestSometimes, the best way to get the most out of the classroom is to leave it and take learning outside. Outdoor learning can make for happier, healthier, well-rounded students – particularly for those with special educational needs (SEN).

Sulivan primary school in Fulham, London, a maintained school where 30% of pupils have SEN, set up a “reading forest” for its youngest students.

“We are always looking at innovative ideas to engage all pupils and children with SEN sometimes need more active, out-of-the-box ideas,” says Emily Genochio, year 2 teacher and inclusion manager at the school. “Reading outdoors is enjoyable, stress-relieving and calming for pupils.”

Children can find books “growing” in the trees and tents beneath the branches, where they can read quietly and share books. Those with social, emotional and mental health SEN – some of whom don’t normally enjoy reading – are more eager to get outside into the reading forest, says Genochio, and for students on the autism spectrum, it provides a quiet, open space.

The outdoors also provides a new setting to take on challenges, and learn life skills without even realising it. “Our children with SEN benefit from how the outdoors relieves stress and anxiety, develops social skills, motivates learning across the curriculum (and beyond) and allows them to be practical, responsible and productive members of the community,” explains Genochio.

The school has a large outdoor space, which also includes a wildlife garden, vegetable plot, pond, insect hotel and meadow area. But activities don’t have to be over-engineered or contrived, says Genochio, who uses the example of her students rolling back a log to expose the creepy crawlies underneath. “There is a sense of achievement in meeting a challenge – and students take that confidence to succeed in other situations in the classroom and beyond.”