The Last of the Leaves Fall at Langlands School.. A Creative Learning Outdoor project for pupils with complex learning needs

I approached my time at Langlands School for Pupils with Complex Learning Needs with a wealth of ideas, knowledge and inspiration having begun the Out to Play journey at Hampden School for Complex Needs, the prior term.  I also knew that pupils were so unique and individual that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to use exactly the same content as before, but I had some good ideas to start with.  Langlands School has access to a small but fantastic sensory garden, with herbs growing, bug hotels, a willow tunnel, planters, trees, grass, benches and picnic tables.  Taking pupils to this inspiring space alone was an excitement for all the senses, not to mention with the beauty of the autumn leaves falling around us or frosted leaves as time went on.

Week one was a chance to get to know the pupils’ personalities, needs and learning styles, while everyone got back into the swing of things after October break.  I was working with a broad range of classes, with a range of ages and learning needs to consider.  As noted by one of the teachers, child-centred and responsive planning is much more appropriate than a one-size-fits-all workshop template when working with additional and complex learning needs, so taking time to observe and meet pupils properly in week one was important.

I decided this time not to over-complicate things by playing a ‘teacher in role’ character, as for some pupils on the Autism spectrum, getting to know me ‘as myself’, a new face around the school,  on top of our outdoor sessions being a change to routine, might take some adjustment. Having made a ‘feely’ explorers map as a prop at the previous ASN school, I wanted to try something a bit different as my excitement or ‘lure’, and so settled on ‘Sophie’s Sensory Suitcase’ as a way to frame the content of each week.

The Sensory Suitcase full of ocean themed sensory props

Similar to the ‘Treasure Box’ idea which myself and other drama artists have often used on Out to Play, I wanted to let the pupils open the suitcase each week to discover clues of where we were travelling in our imaginations.   First, we were going to explore a local autumnal forest, then meet animals who live (mainly!) in the Rain Forest, then we fell from the sky ‘like a little raindrop’ into the ocean, and finally, explored a snowy, icy winter wonderland (as the real life Scottish frost crept in rather unsubtly around our ears!).

I used the themes I felt had worked best during my last residency, and then tailored sessions to class groups. Some of the schools’ more sensory learners would come out in smaller groups for a shorter session where they would experience different sensory and creative play activities, while some more verbal or physically active groups would take part in more drama, movement and storytelling exercises to explore the themes.

I took on as much feedback from my previous CLN school as possible, using things like repeated songs (The Explorer Song’, which I’d made up, or well known songs the children could sing / move along with), creating a bit of a repeated format. For example, starting sessions with a ‘treasure hunt’ collecting things from the garden each week for classes who were more physically independent), and using well-known stories, often using the actual book as a visual and a way of drawing in children’s attention and focus.  We also had flexibility about things like session time and numbers in groups to maximise the children’s experience.

In week one, the suitcase was a mini forest floor and there was a lot of fun to be had with Autumn conkers, crunchy leaves, twigs and soil, and making ‘mud cakes’ inspired by one of the teachers sessions at Hampden school.

Week two saw pupils searching for tiny animal finger puppets around the garden and creating creatures from conkers (plus home made play doh and natural materials), doing animal drama and meeting our friend ‘Skwawkey’ and a very feathery sensory suitcase.

Week three saw us hunting for beautiful sea shells, feeling the spray of water on our faces, catching bubbles and bringing alive the senses of the ocean with fabrics, sounds, song and movement.

Week four was a delightfully messy exploration into winter, with sensory ice and snow,  frozen items melting in our hands,  playing games of ‘freeze’ and crunching the foil blanket in the wind like an icy wonderland.

Teacher week was a chance for the school’s staff to try out some new nature based creative ideas for their pupils. Unfortunately being the start of actual winter meant this week there was a lot of pupil and staff sickness going around, so only half of my allocated teachers were able to run their session while I was still in the school, but I hope those who were off sick might try out their planned ideas after the project’s official end. Those who did run sessions led a great variety of activities.

Cat’s class had fun exploring an indoor nature adventure. With the sound of relaxing birdsong playing, the class loved the freedom to explore sensory trays of autumn foliage and the texture of soil, collecting, decanting, pouring and mixing.  It was great to see a teacher allowing the class to get their hands ‘dirty’ and have some messy play with soil and plants.

Gill’s class enjoyed an outdoor immersive telling of Julia Donaldson’s ‘The Stick Man’ which took pupils around the garden, opening up Gill’s own sensory suitcase to find props, visuals and finally a craft task to match the memorable story.

This was a really fun interactive storytelling method that made great use of different garden areas and engaged pupils in the well known story.

Julie’s class explored an outdoor activity using natural materials with musical rhythms and volumes. Pupils used different items to experiment with making their own sounds and music and explored the textures of the plants. This was a great idea to engage younger pupils in the fun of sound, music and nature in the freedom of the outdoor environment.

I really appreciated the teachers having spent time planning these sessions when so busy, and was glad to hear that some of my sessions had sparked ideas for future outdoor / nature-based creative learning in future.

Although it was a short residency at a busy time of year, the project seemed to be well received as a positive addition to an already active school who were very much behind play-based learning and creative learning for their pupils. I really enjoyed my time learning from and working alongside the brilliant staff team at Langlands, and will miss our adventures !

I hope in future that the classes might be able to adventure outdoors more, and that solutions can be found for the practical barriers which staff discussed, like keeping safe outdoors and having correct staff to pupil ratios. The idea of ‘bringing sensory nature experiences indoors’ was discussed and seemed to be a good idea for classes who might feel overwhelmed at times in going outdoors, and so this way they are still connecting with nature and the outdoors in some way, even if they can’t physically go outdoors at times, for whatever reason. It feels like the ethos of Out to Play can hopefully integrate well into the school going forward, complementing the wonderful creative and responsive work the school are already doing.

I think it’s safe to say that we enjoyed our outdoor play, but as the frost crept in, we were all ready to get cozied up for Christmas time….!