LOtC and Physical Exercise for Children with Autism

Blog Post written by Will Price, Curriculum Development Leader at a specialist autism provision school in Leicestershire.

In the last decade or so, the joint disciplines of health maintenance and fitness have become a huge part of modern life, and this movement has been firmly embraced within the education sector.

The government has invested heavily in School Sport Partnerships/Initiatives across the county, while thousands of schools nationwide partook in daily HIIT (High Intensity Impact Training) workouts in the Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach, Schools Fitness Week last September (2018). Visit any school in the UK, and you’ll be greeted by students participating in some form of sport or exercise.

Workouts at work
I’m incredibly fortunate to teach at a specialist autism provision, where staff are actively encouraged to bring their interests into their daily practice. This has resulted in the provision of equine therapy, mindfulness and gardening, among many other examples – all of which significantly enhance the student experience.

As a passionate exercise advocate, I wanted to prove to students that it wasn’t just a mandatory subject, but should be considered a key tool in the long-term pursuit of positive physical and mental health. I’ve found that the main thing when working with ASD students is to ensure they see the point and the relevance of what they are doing. And, like any other piece of gained knowledge, this needs to be taught.

Show, don’t tell
The majority of our students simply didn’t see the point in exercise; they just saw it as ‘PE’. Attempting to change perceptions is no mean feat, and this only becomes more difficult when students already have an incredibly negative perception of mainstream education. To many of the students I worked with, PE was a subject that created high levels of anxiety, when in fact it has the capacity to do the complete opposite.

Trying to change the fixed mindset and rigidity of thought that ASD often provides one of the toughest challenges when working with our pupils. Fortunately, there are multiple different types of sport and exercise, meaning that there’s always something to suit everyone. We’ve offered activities from rock climbing to dog walking, mountain biking to pony trekking. The first task is to unearth that interest, and the next step is to cultivate it.

Studies from organisations such as Autism Speaks and the Autism Research Institute have found that exercise provides a short-term reduction in stereotypical behaviours in children with ASD. Specifically, the studies found a decrease in aggression, off-task behaviour, and elopement. And, through my personal teaching experience, I agree wholeheartedly.

The studies went on to say that these outcomes weren’t because the physical activity tired the children out, but rather that their on-task behaviour, academic responding, and appropriate motor behaviour increased after the exercise. Quite simply, their bodies were enjoying the experience.

Regular exercise also helps ASD pupils to develop in the following areas:

  • Proprioception: ASD pupils can struggle with spatial awareness
  • The vestibular system: ASD pupils can have impaired balance
  • Fine and gross motor skills: ASD pupils are often poorly developed in these areas
  • Social communication: a key area in any sport and within society in general. It also happens to be one of the most challenging areas in life for ASD pupils.

Furthermore, the effect exercise and fresh air has on mental health is staggering. A combination of problems at home, teenage hormones, ASD-related frustrations, too much time spent playing computer games, minimal sleep, and various other issues can result in pupils arriving into school in a fragile mental state. Getting outside and active is one of our first tactics in changing that negative mindset and relieving the high levels of anxiety. It’s also undoubtedly one of our most successful, and one of the reasons we base our whole curriculum on Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC).

Considerations and observations
Certain aspects must be considered when working with an ASD pupil in any area, and perhaps the greatest of those is the environment you’ll be working in. Consider the sounds, visuals and smells in the surrounding area you’ve chosen; sensory overloads are a common cause of high anxiety, so keep this in mind at all times. A Channel 4 Documentary on ASD (Are You Autistic?) compared the sensory issues faced by ASD pupils with ‘watching forty television channels all at once’.

A good example of a poor environment is the first PE session I observed when arriving at my current school. In a huge sports hall, there would be around twenty pupils and twelve staff – already a huge overcrowding for the majority of our students, who found the size of mainstream classes overwhelming. Any sound made would echo around the hall, magnifying it hugely.

On occasion, a group of men would be playing football on the other side of the hall, which trebled the noise levels in the room. The lighting in the hall was incredibly bright and, in a room where sport occurs for more than twelve hours a day, the smell of sweat was often prominent. It was also difficult to find a sport that all students could enjoy and therefore partake in. It was a sensory nightmare, which caused high anxiety levels: PE had become the part of the week that staff and students began to dread. For some students, more worryingly, it negatively affected their general view of exercise.

Following this observation, the PE group was split into much smaller groups. This means pupils are given ownership over which forms of exercise they enjoy and would like to partake in. Not only that, but it makes the entire situation more personalised; they recognise that they are an integral part of the session, which ensures they don’t feel isolated or ignored.

A wider variety of environments (parks, woods, countryside, gyms climbing centres, swimming pools) are now provided. Potential sensory issues are discussed before and during sessions, as it’s important that pupils learn how manage their ASD in these scenarios. Staff leading sessions have been briefed on how to make the pupils see the relevance, both physically and mentally, of the exercise they’re undertaking.

As well as this, the use of exercise is encouraged across our curriculum and not just in PE, meaning it becomes an embedded part of daily school life. For example, in one maths session, I took a pupil to the outdoor gym at the local park. We measured how many repetitions he could do on each machine in thirty seconds. We did this three times, and then used the mean to work out his average reps.

For both teacher and pupil, this is considerably more interesting than a worksheet. The pupil also learned about each muscle group he worked for each machine, the endorphins released by the brain after regular exercise – and the subsequent effect on his mood. Equally as important as the academic learning, he has a free gym just yards from his home, and he now has both the confidence and the motivation to use it.

Transferable skills
While I recognise that this might not be feasible for mainstream education, it could easily be adapted to work within the school grounds with available PE equipment. However, if you were to switch from measuring the number of repetitions to helping pupils measure their pulse rate, you would require no equipment (pupils could do star jumps, running on the spot), and you would automatically have the simplest of cross curricular maths and science sessions. There are further examples of how to implement LOtC exercise across the curriculum here.

The simple changes we’ve made have resulted in students embracing a much more positive attitude towards exercise and adopting a healthy lifestyle. For the first time, our school is offering an ASDAN award in Sport and Nutrition, which several students have chosen to undertake. However, it is still our duty to encourage students to challenge their ASD and rigidity of thought by trying new exercise activities in new environments that may present sensory and social challenges. As previously stated, the social, mental and physical benefits of exercise and sport for ASD pupils are so great that to not constantly be looking to develop these areas would be a disservice, however challenging the process may be at times.

If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re already an advocate of LOtC. I’ve found exercise to be one of the strongest, and most effective, LOtC tools I’ve used during my time teaching in both mainstream education and specialist provisions – it’s educationally relevant across the curriculum, physically and mentally beneficial and, in my eyes, one of the most important points to consider when working with any child: it’s fun! Pupils in any educational setting engage more when learning is fun.

About the Author

Will Price is Curriculum Development Leader at a specialist autism provision school in Leicestershire and has also taught in several mainstream primary schools.

He has led CPD sessions (in both mainstream and specialist environment) on the use of sport and exercise across the curriculum at several schools, as well as sessions on promoting the importance of nutrition.

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6 Ways to Make your next School Trip the Best Yet

(Image by Kevin Nicholson, provided by Farms for City Children)

Blog Post written by Justine Lee, Communications and Fundraising Manager at the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom

Your next school trip could be the most impactful educational experience your students will take part in this term, but it’s easy to fall into old habits when planning a programme.

You had a great time last year, you know what to expect if you go back…and before you know it you have been going to the same venue for 10 years to do the exact same activity!

Here are six ways you can make a change to what you do for your next learning outside the classroom (LOtC) session or school visit – without an unreasonable impact on your own workload:

1 Let your students lead
At its simplest level this could be asking learners where they would like to go to find out more about the topic being studied. At the other end of the spectrum you could involve them in planning the whole experience.

Helping to plan and manage a school visit/LOtC session can have enormous and lasting benefits for young people. Taking responsibility for themselves and others provides pupils with a sense of ownership.

This approach has been found to improve engagement, confidence and attitude to working with others. It also empowers young people and allows them to take control of their learning experience. After the session or visit, encourage them to reflect and look at how they might do things differently next time.

2 Look for the badge
Breaking free from a regular annual trip means finding a new location or provider, checking insurance, risk assessments, health and safety and emergency policies, safeguarding… but don’t panic, because you can circumvent all this by choosing a LOtC Quality Badge holder.

This accreditation is the only national award which endorses good quality education provision and effective risk management. Providers with this accreditation have been assessed and meet all the appropriate safety standards and liability insurance.

3 Don’t reinvent the wheel
A new venue or location also means a new lesson plan, new activities to develop. Take the pressure off and make use of the wealth of material available online.

Many destinations offer resources for all ages and Key Stages, covering the whole curriculum. Packs usually include lesson plans, curriculum links, case studies, tips and recommendations, location/setting ideas and activities.

These will save you time and ensure your students enjoy an engaging and value-added LOtC session/visit.

If you are using an external provider to help deliver the session, talk to them too. They will have information sheets and activities along with examples of what they have done for other schools, and will know what works well. They will also work with you to ensure the experience meets your desired learning outcomes.

4 Cut the admin
There’s no need to waste time repeatedly sending out and chasing permission slips. As school visits are part of the curriculum, written consent is only needed if the trip

  • has a higher level of risk assessment and/or
  • is outside normal school hours.

It is however good practice to tell parents about a forthcoming trip, of course, and give them the opportunity to withdraw their child.

5 Embrace change
The world around us keeps evolving, new opportunities emerge and no two classes are ever the same. Making a alteration to your usual annual school visit can bring as many benefits for you as the experience itself does for your students.

Taking your learning outside the classroom more often can help engage and motivate your pupils as well as improving their behaviour back in school; while new venues or experiences can give you added insight into your subject, which you can build on in future lessons.

6 Get what you want
Start your planning by considering exactly what you want to achieve for this particular student group. Think about what learning locations and activities will help you to meet your objectives.

It is always helpful to remember what you are doing all this for. A bit of time spent reflecting on the learning objectives will ensure that you get the best value from your educational visit. It will also make it more interesting and enjoyable for you!

About the Author

Justine Lee is Communications and Fundraising Manager at the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom – a national charity which champions all forms of learning outside the classroom, across all ages and across the whole curriculum.

You can find guidance on planning, running and evaluating LOtC experiences at lotc.org.uk.

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The Lost Words aiming to reconnect children with the natural world

Blog post written by: Mike Edmondstone, Schools Communications Officer for the Edible Playgrounds programme from charity Trees for Cities.

It’s nothing new to hear that children are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world. We are living in an age where interacting with technology is often preferred to leaving the gadgets at home and heading outside. Around 90% of the UK population live in urban areas and, infamously, three quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, with only 10% of them regularly playing in natural spaces.

An outstanding RSPB report from 2013 found that ‘only 21% of 8-12 year olds in the UK have a level of connection to nature that the RSPB considers to be a realistic and achievable target for children’. It went on to explain the issues that this disconnection can cause, including lower achievement at school, poorer mental and physical health and underdeveloped social skills.

And it’s not just issues to the individual that a disconnect from nature can lead to. David Attenborough said in 2015 that:

“The interaction between humans and the natural world has been constrained, and that is a human loss, but ultimately it could be a loss to the natural world because people won’t understand it any more”.

At a time where climate change and species extinction are very tangible problems, it’s never been more important for people to understand and care for the non-human, non-technological world.

Many readers of this blog will already be familiar with Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ book The Lost Words, and how it is aiming to address the disconnect between children and nature. The idea behind the book came from the observation that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had dropped a number of common ‘nature words’ from its newest edition, including acorn, kingfisher and willow, and replaced them with words including broadband, celebrity and voice-mail.

This was seen to be indicative of the gap between childhood and the natural world in the UK. Macfarlane and Morris started the book with the aim of summoning these ‘lost words’ – and the creatures and plants they named – back into the minds of Britain’s children. The duo took twenty of the lost words and for each word Macfarlane wrote a summoning spell. Morris brought the spells to life with beautifully evocative illustrations of the plant or animal conjured back into its natural habitat.

The Lost Words was published in October last year and since then has become what Chris Packham has called ‘a revolution’. Thousands of schools in the country are now using the book in their playgrounds and classrooms, sparking classes – even whole schools – to do more outdoor learning, to improve the environments of their schools, and to undertake creative projects around nearby nature.

The revolution is spreading, and the book will soon be published in North America and European countries from Sweden to Germany. People are using it as a means to drive change in our relationship with the natural world; to help us see how vital – and how vulnerable – everyday nature is to us in Britain. We will not save what we do not love, and we rarely love what we cannot name.

To this point, however, no campaign has begun to bring The Lost Words to the whole of London. This is why Trees for Cities, with the backing of the Mayor of London’s office, has decided to place a copy of the book in every maintained and special primary school in London – more than 2500 of them – and in this way help re-green early years education in the capital. The charity, which runs the successful Edible Playgrounds programme have set a target of £15,000 to reach this goal. Their partners Bulb will match every £ donated up to a total of £15,000. You can learn more and support the crowd funder here.
For more information on Edible Playgrounds, and what they can do to help reconnect schoolchildren with the natural world, visit the Trees for Cities website. You can keep up to date with all Trees for Cities’ news via their Twitter feed @TreesforCities.

About the Author
Mike Edmondstone is the Schools Communications Officer for the Edible Playgrounds programme from charity Trees for Cities. Based in London’s Kennington Park, he promotes Edible Playgrounds to schools and coordinates enquiries at a national, regional and local level.

The Edible Playgrounds programme transforms school grounds into vibrant outdoor teaching gardens that inspire learning and get children excited about growing and eating healthy food. It is now in its ninth year and has to date completed projects in more than 80 primary and secondary schools across the country.

Thanks to Trees for Cities’ corporate partners Bulb, there is currently generous funding available to cover the majority of the programme cost.  Get in touch via the website, email, Twitter, or phone 020 7587 1320.

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Ensuring Curriculum relevancy – its more than just a catchphrase

Blog written by Ian Coyne, Commercial Director of Anglia Tours Ltd.

When seeking the LOtC Quality Badge, a provider must be able to demonstrate that they have the ability to tailor their products to fit in both with the current curriculum and the school’s specific requirements. All good Tour Operators will, I am sure, engage with their customers at the earliest possible opportunity to find out exactly what it is the school wants their pupils to get out of a field trip. They are also likely to ask about preferred travel options, potential dates and budget limitations. However if the operator is truly going to demonstrate it has the ability to tailor a tour and not simply offer their standard ‘off the shelf’ package, the first question should not be ‘where do you want to go?’ but ‘what is it that you are teaching?’

Anglia 1

This question was at the forefront of our thinking when we first began to design tours to support the new GCSE History specifications which were introduced in 2017. If we really wanted our tours to support modules like the new Thematic Studies, it meant we would not only have to reappraise the locations we felt groups should visit but also the very content of the tour itself. One of the six key criteria of the LOTC Quality Badge is to ‘meet the needs of users’, We therefore began our task by consulting with the very people who would be asked to teach these modules in class. We asked teachers:

What learning points did they feel the tour should cover?

What educational outcomes should the tour achieve?

What resources would they like to see the pupils have access to?

These were questions we did not ask solely in the planning phase but ones we have gone back to time and again both as the specifications were being taught and as we took on board the wealth of feedback we received.

It was a fantastic boost to get our tours validated by those teaching these specifications; the very people with years’ of experience in field trips. However the icing on the cake was achieving a first in educational travel – securing endorsement of a tour itinerary from an examination board. It was far from a simple paper exercise. This first endorsement, like those we have secured since, was only attained after the exam board’s subject specialist had accompanied a tour, talked with the teachers and pupils and seen, at first-hand, exactly what the tour delivered. It was wonderful to hear that not only did he thoroughly enjoy the experience but that he felt the tour would ‘bring the topic alive for students, helping them to visualise the more physical problems of the environment in a way which a text book cannot’ – a terrific affirmation and evidence that we really do have the ability and the desire to provide tours which have real academic value.

Anglia 3With the first cohort to study these specifications having sat their GCSEs this summer, we all now have a far clearer idea of the type of questions the exam board will pose and what skills they are looking for students to be able to demonstrate.

The framework provided by the LOTC Quality Badge ensures we continually review our experiences to ensure they meet learners’ needs and act upon feedback. Our desire for continuous improvement in what we offer and for ensuring that each of our tours remains wholly relevant means that the cycle will begin again, but that is the type of challenge we relish!Anglia 2

For more information on Anglia Tours, visit the Anglia Tours website: www.angliatours.co.uk. You can follow @AngliaTours  on Twitter. Anglia Tours is part of the NGT Travel group.

About the Author:

Ian CoyneIan Coyne first led his first Anglia battlefield tour in 1998, since which time he has guided in more than 400 groups on tours to the First World War battlefields, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands.

Having spent over 20 years in the Public Sector, in a number of different operational roles, Ian now combines his guiding commitments with the role of Commercial Director. This means he is responsible for Anglia’s Sales & Marketing activity and overseeing new tours and products. It is a role which includes the development programmes for endorsement by UK exam boards.


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