Out to Play at Hampden School – a creative outdoor adventure for pupils with complex learning needs

Out to Play begins again! This year embarking on a brand new adventure…

During Out to Play 2019 Eco Drama are developing the project to deliver a tailored and adapted version in schools for pupils with additional and complex learning needs. My name is Sophie  McCabe, and I am the Drama Artist delivering this strand of the project. My first 5 week Out to Play residency was in Hampden School for Complex Learning Needs and it was a fantastic experience that I will never forget. I was genuinely sad to leave both the pupils and the superb staff team there, so here are a few brief thoughts, highlights and learning points which I’ve taken from my time at this wonderful school.

Having been a Drama Artist on the Out to Play project for the last 3 years, delivering residencies in four mainstream primary schools, I have learnt a lot about how drama, storytelling and nature connection can be combined to deliver outdoor learning in a school playground. Having just returned to work after maternity break, I was keen to take on a new challenge of taking the project to two schools who specialize in supporting pupils with additional support needs and / or complex learning needs.   Why? Mainly because I had already enjoyed some experience of working creatively with young people with ASN/ CSN, and felt it was an area I wanted to keep developing. However, my relevant experience was in quite different settings and so I didn’t know quite what to expect. The Out to Play experiences would need to be tailored to the needs, ages and stages of these particular pupils.  I wondered how we could keep the main essence of Out to Play – essentially an outdoor drama, storytelling and nature connection project , but adapt and develop the sessions for these pupils.

Outdoor sensory play with the foil blanket

Working at a school geared towards complex needs has been a highly beneficial learning experience for myself as a Drama Artist, and Eco Drama as an organisation. With this being a new aspect to an existing project, we have been open minded and ready to learn.  Although Out to Play does already work with many pupils who have additional support needs within Out to Play’s mainstream partner schools, working in this context has been very different. I was continually learning from Hampden’s teaching and support staff who work with the pupils day to day, and in my opinion, were some of the most creative, empathetic, patient and resourceful staff I have had the pleasure of working alongside.

As a Drama Artist, my interpretation of Out to Play for these pupils was that where possible, we were still going to be heading outdoors into areas of the playground and connecting with and exploring a variety of nature themes and stories that could then be translated into sensory play and creative activities such as art and crafts.

Sensory Play-doh animal creations

I already knew that traditional drama games might not always be accessible to everyone, and so I focused on finding some early level drama activities such as interactive storytelling with puppets, using props and creative movement that could work outdoors.  I also kept in a strong element of nature connection, and so looked for interesting ways that natural materials could be part of a unique sensory experience.

Ocean sensory play in the ‘Under the Sea’ gazebo

Each class had a range of learners and learning styles to take into account.  The more structured Out to Play session format which I’d used in mainstream schools needed to be much more flexible and free flowing to allow pupils to get the most out of the sessions.  Being ready for pupils to explore activities at their own pace and having a range of options available really helped to include the different learners in each group.

Outdoor stick painting

Working outdoors with these learners, while keeping everyone safe and happy, involved a greater degree of risk and accessibility assessment, and an understanding that sometimes going outside in all weathers for the full session time wouldn’t be appropriate. The outdoors is generally a stimulating environment for children, and bringing in the added element of focusing on a story or activity in the already exciting garden or water and sand play areas of the playground brought both challenges and fun.

Bug Hunt during teacher week

Hampden School had a great range of outdoor areas, such as a herb garden, willow den, sensory garden, sand and water play areas and more.  It was great to hear that at the end of the project it seemed that the staff were keen to look at ways to fund the upkeep of their planted and garden areas, so that these could be fully usable for the pupils all year round, and especially if they were going to continue delivering more outdoor learning. I really hope some of these ideas are able to become a reality.

So what did we actually do? Too much to describe here, but we had a lot of fun outdoors. I chose a weekly theme and then adapted the activities to each class, such as Plants (and the Sun Mother Story), Animals, Water (and the Little Raindrop Story) and Winter / Snow (and the Stick Man story).

We also had an overall theme of being in role as ‘outdoor explorers’ and I had made a ‘feely map’ of the school to go with this.

Originally I had planned one story, my version of  ‘The Sun Mother’, to be told in sections over the five weeks. However, after the first week, I adapted this as it felt that having a selection of different stories, with the visual aid of picture books, props, actions and sensory items, really helped to make storytelling more accessible.

During the plants themed week, we explored the sensations of soil, planted sunflowers and hunted for conkers, acorns, fallen leaves and twigs in the playground, and used some of them to make potions.

Digging, watering, planting & exploring seeds, leaves & soil

We also drew with chalk on the ground, smelled herbs from the garden – mint and rosemary, and even made some bug hotels using plant pots, twigs and recycled loo roll tubes.

Bug and small animal hotel made by a pupil hidden in the school garden

We also had sensory storytelling of ‘The Sun Mother’ using props such as shimmery fabric to represent the sunbeams, a fan to feel the wind, and we added in actions and songs along the way.

Animal week included hunting for animal finger puppets around the schools’ sensory garden, animal drama (movements, gestures, sounds and songs), creating creatures with home-made ‘taste safe’ play-doh and natural items, and finding homes for them in nature. For some classes we also did an interactive storytelling of the second half of the Sun Mother story where animals were created.

Water / Oceans week was wet, wet, wet! We had fun with some real water play and I created an ocean sensory den, made by hanging some blue sensory fabrics around the schools outdoor gazebo. We also collected shells and explored sand,  and used sensory props and drama to explore the water cycle. We brought to life the story of ‘The Little Raindrop’.

The Little Raindrop Water Play Sensory toys to match the story

The teachers took over in week four, with the expert knowledge in their classes, designing great nature activity ideas such as nature collage, animal treasure hunts, making ‘forest floor’ cakes, outdoor nature painting and even dinosaurs frozen in mini glaciers! There was also some fantastic sensory storytelling, singing, movement and play.

Bringing the outside in with frozen leaves in ice and edible ‘snow’ sensory play

My final session was themed around ‘The Stick Man’ by Julia Donaldson, winter and cold weather. We explored the cold texture of leaves and twigs frozen into ice and made our own stick men with twigs.

I also facilitated a staff meeting where I mentioned a few of my own learning points and where the project is coming from / heading, we did some imagination exercises using natural objects and drama props, and the staff discussed what ideas they had for creative outdoor learning at their school in the future.  It was fantastic to hear such passion from the staff on creating new experiences for their pupils and I really hope they’ve taken some ideas away for the future, as much as I have.

We will be taking Out to Play to another ASN / CLN school, Langlands, next term, and I am very much looking forward to developing the project in collaboration with this school over the 5 week residency. I gained so much learning, inspiration and enjoyment from working at Hampden School and would like to thank the staff and pupils again for having me and wish them all the best in their future creative outdoor adventures.

Sophie McCabe
Out to Play residency at Hampden School, September – October 2019