How Outdoor Play Can Be Beneficial for Children with Special Educational Needs


Emma Homan is an Educational Copywriter for Pentagon Play, who specialise in creating outdoor learning environments for schools and children with special educational needs. In this blog Emma shares some of the top reasons why access to outdoor play is important for children with special educational needs, and how it can be particularly beneficial for them.


Inclusive outdoor play environmentOutdoor play has a fundamental role in a child’s early development. And it has proven benefits in engaging children with Special Educational Needs. Freedom to move in a therapeutic, stimulating outdoor environment makes for healthier, happier children.

It teaches essential life skills, boosts confidence and improves behaviour. Early years providers that connect children with nature, and encourage outdoor play through creative outdoor play environments, truly support development and promote wellbeing for all of the children in their care, and especially for children with SEN.

Getting Enough Outdoor Play

No two children are the same in any walk of life, and children with Special Educational Needs face an entire range of different and specific challenges. Unfortunately, it’s a common theme that many children with SEN do not get the opportunity to play outside anywhere near as much as they should.

This could be for any number of reasons, social, cultural or familial. Children who attend specialist schools for children with SEN often rely on specialist transport, which presents logistical challenges in terms of time and access to outdoor play out of school hours. Some don’t play outside on their own because they need constant supervision or support, physical or emotional.

So it’s essential that providers offer children with SEN access to a good outdoor play provision as they should for all children at the setting, where they can widen their experiences, develop, and learn in an informal way. Getting outdoors for learning and playtime offers some excellent physical, mental, and social benefits.

Physical and Sensory Benefits

children playing, climbing outsideHaving space to play outside stimulates and encourages children with sensory sensitivities to explore all of their senses. Good play areas develop both gross and fine motor skills. They help children to improve mobility and coordination, the vestibular system (balance) and proprioception (body awareness and spatial skills).

Vestibular and proprioceptive training can be stressful for children who face difficulties with balance, spatial awareness or body awareness. Offering them a safe environment to climb, balance, move over different levels and surfaces in a fun and playful way, with friends, improves their development without it feeling like a chore.

Play spaces that allow them to explore where their body is in space, and how body parts move, are great. Playing inside dens that they have built themselves are a perfect example, and they offer children a sense of comfort.

Light and sound arbour for outdoor play Emphasis on playtime outdoors as opposed to indoors is particularly important for children with sensory sensitivities and some children with Autism.

Outdoor play can have a positive impact simply because it’s away from artificial, electric lighting and busy, noisy classrooms where sound echoes and bounces off the walls. Electric lights can create a buzz that may not be noticeable to some of us, but causes an upsetting distraction for some children with Special Educational Needs. A natural outdoor environment with natural light is always preferable.

Regular outdoor play is an essential part of keeping fit, healthy and fighting obesity. All children need to get outside and move their bodies. Otherwise it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once a child reaches a certain weight, it becomes an even greater barrier to access and restricts what activities they can enjoy, especially if they need physical support to move around.

Social Benefits, Mental Health and Wellbeing

Outdoor physical activities are well-known for helping to relieve stress, anxiety and depression. Children love being outside. It’s a naturally inclusive environment.

Nurseries and schools that offer outdoor play areas accessible to everyone ensure that children with SEN don’t have to feel excluded, and this can help combat problems such as bullying. Being able to play together in the same environment as their friends boosts self-esteem.

children enjoy playing in a sandboxIt’s about understanding and accepting others’ needs, and that everyone is different. All children should be encouraged to develop as a whole person and to respect one another, regardless of whether or not they have special needs.

Managing challenging behaviour is something that carers and teachers deal with daily. It can be difficult within the confines of an early years classroom, with little space to let off steam, to regain focus and settle.

Some children with SEN find themselves feeling particularly stressed and uncomfortable away from the home environment. Having regular access to outdoor play - a fun way to expend energy - can help reduce their tension and anxiety. When challenging behaviours arise, moving outside for a simple change of environment can often make a big difference.

Early years practitioners report how outdoor play leads to improved behavior, and makes it easier for children to build friendships. It provides opportunities to test and develop appropriate social interactions. Children learn how to communicate, share, deal with conflict, all the while having fun in a low-stress environment.

Exploring the world outdoors can help children with SEN to overcome challenges and learn new skills, building their resilience, and boosting their self-confidence. And this in turn has a hugely positive impact on their mental health. Having the chance to shine, to experience personal satisfaction, enjoyment and achievement is good for anyone. It increases motivation and general happiness in life. All children deserve to experience this.


Emma Homan is an Educational Copywriter for Pentagon Play who specialise in creating outdoor learning environments for schools and children with special educational needs.


Where next?

Happy children — taking care of young people's wellbeing

Managing early childhood conflicts and behaviours — free book extract