Improving learner outcomes

Learning outside the classroom. SEND and the great outdoors

Author Brenda Leonard

Date 14th May 2019


Outdoor learning for schools has boomed in popularity in recent years, with city schools investing in more outdoor space where possible or connecting with businesses that can provide the environment for such experiences.

Researchers have also found that
spending time outdoors can greatly improve a child’s ability to learn, providing positive health benefits (both physically and mentally) and even reduce the symptoms of ADHD.

At Apple Tree Farm, we combine the open, level space of our land with the healing benefits of animal interaction. All the school groups that have reached out to us and used our services have done so for children with ASD, mental health conditions and learning difficulties. We also provide sessions for groups and individuals with a variety of differing abilities, including children with SEND. We set up our care farm based on my deep-set belief that animals have the most fascinating abilities to make things seem and feel better, even at their darkest.

Animal assisted therapy

The practice of animal assisted interventions goes back to long before Sigmund Freud used his dogs during psychoanalysis sessions with his patients. Today, the positive effects on blood pressure levels and mood is well documented and, here at Apple Tree Farm, we have witnessed the amazing effects of animal interactions with our children first hand. It’s wonderful to witness a child’s confidence growing through interaction with our sheep, alpacas, dogs, chickens and pigs.

It comes as no surprise that the children relate so easily to our outdoor environment, and relax and engage better around our animals. Through introducing the children to our animals we have seen some inspiring results, including nonverbal autistic children developing speech, and a reduction in stimming (the self-stimulating behaviour associated with autism). Children also show an increased ability to engage, listen and follow instruction. Above all, we have seen children flourish and have fun at the same time! They learn and develop without the restrictions that can exist in other educational settings.

Opportunities for learning

With our SEN school groups, we have found that the children have a minimal attention span, something that can be advantageous when working in an environment like a farm, where there is so much available and we can switch from one activity to another seamlessly and with little detriment to anyone or anything. The flexibility of outdoor learning is a fantastic tool for our group leaders, because we can work to a specific child’s need, which fosters feelings of satisfaction and understanding in the children. The ability to work to the needs of our children also means we can work on boosting self-belief and confidence, something that is hugely lacking in most of our groups.

Simple pleasures

At Appletree we work with the following belief in mind: children who come to our farm work so incredibly hard just to exist in other environments where 99% of their peers can engage and participate effortlessly and happily. Here we want them to be that majority, we want them to be able to engage and participate effortlessly and happily. We want to encourage physical and mental health alongside intellectual development.

The great outdoors is one of the best resources available to teachers, and outdoor learning can provide a great sensory break for children who struggle to focus in class. It’s a perfect way to encourage individuals to show their full potential and reach it!

Being outdoors, in all its vast expanse, can be very inclusive. There are no judgements from the environment or its inhabitants. There is no pressure and no need to conform. That is what makes outdoor learning so effective, special and beneficial for children with special educational needs. 

About the author

Brenda Leonard is an animal-assisted therapist and owner of Apple Tree Farm in North Devon offering animal-assisted therapy sessions to children with SEND.  



Further learning 

Learn how to implement approaches to support wellbeing and mental health in your school with our new course Supporting Wellbeing and Mental Health in Schools.  


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