Study finds benefits of outdoor learning on children with autism

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Research into learning methods immersing children with autism in nature has shown great benefits to their education and development. 

The study was produced by the City of London Corporation which analysed its “Nature Learning Programme” run during the pandemic at Odessa Infant School in Newham, East London. 

The City Corporation, who had the work evaluated independently, has looked at the impact of the ‘Nature Learning Programme’ by studying the experience of eight children with autism and analysing how such learning methods have affected their development and skills. 

The outdoor activities aimed to encourage the children to interact with the natural world through natural materials and resources, such as wooden beads and discs, tall willow withies fixed into the ground, a tarpaulin hanging from a tree to make a tunnel, pine cones in a tray, slices of tree trunk to create stepping stones. 

Activities alongside this work included mud painting, planting seeds, looking for worms and bashing fibres from flax. Familiar routines, structures and visuals including songs, photos and written texts were used to support smooth transition between activities. 

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The study has shown, the key impacts on the children have been: increased happiness and wellbeing; helping to balance their emotions and energy; enabling them to connect with nature; prompting children to demonstrate knowledge; improving communication and social interaction with adults and their peers; enhancing their ability to do tasks independently and increasing their confidence to try new things.

The report highlights key strengths of the programme, including a child-centred teaching approach, creative, playful and purposeful activities, and providing supported risks and appropriate challenges. The report findings will be used to inform future practice and will be shared with the environmental education community. 

It concluded that the natural environment appears to play an important role in contributing to children’s emotional wellbeing and provides an escape from the over-stimulation of the artificial classroom environment, instead immersing the children in non-intrusive, sensory experiences of the natural world. 

Oliver Sells, Chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Open Spaces and City Gardens Committee, said: This programme has clearly been a huge success and given us some excellent insight into different learning methods to support children with autism.

“Being outdoors has huge benefits to our mental and physical health, and this work shows how it can also benefit the skills development of children–particularly children with autism, providing different learning mechanisms to improve different skill sets.

“I hope our work will support the development of other similar initiatives and drive further studies into best practice to support the education of all children.

Chair of the City Corporation’s Education Board and Deputy Chair of the City Corporation’s Open Spaces Committee, Caroline Haines, said: “This programme is providing really stimulating learning experiences for children at every stage of the neurological spectrum. 

“I hope we can go forward and help progress other nature-based education programmes to effectively support the needs of autistic children. 

“It’s exciting to see such innovative, creative work being done to support the needs of all children.” 

The ‘Nature Learning’ programme was developed by the City of London Corporation’s Open Spaces Learning Team and the Class Teacher of a SEND Bubble of eight infant children with autism to create a Forest School style experience in the school’s grounds.

The teacher wanted the children to be able to benefit from learning in the natural environment despite not being able to attend the outdoor learning programme in local West Ham Park due to the pandemic. 

Each week, the Learning Officer created a range of activities in the school’s Hill area which enriched the space and provided opportunities for engaging with the natural world. 

This study hopes to inform the development of future learning from natural environments programmes for autistic children, possibly expanding to other City of London Corporation sites and communities.

Shahin Paevez, teacher at Odessa Infant School in Newham, said:

“Teaching does not happen only in the classroom through the medium of instructions, rather teaching also occurs when students are allowed to use their own initiative.

“Nature school has given language to the understanding of how teaching and learning happens especially when children have to cope with their emotional wellbeing, sensory processing differences and communication needs.

“I hope (we can) bring Nature School into our mainstream pedagogy at Odessa.”

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