Many children with Special Education Needs (SEN) flourish and thrive in mainstream schooling. However, not all mainstream settings are able to adequately meet pupils’ additional needs, and sometimes parents are curious to explore other options.

Jack: A Case Study of a child with Special Educational Needs

We will begin this article with a story about a previous student of The SEN Experts. We first met Jack* when he was 12 years old. He was in a mainstream secondary school. Jack had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder and Global Delay and was supported by an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP). As often happens, his Local Authority had placed him in a mainstream school (to avoid a costly special school placement). This school could not meet his needs and as he quickly approached young adulthood, the school’s response was to have him taught alone, 1:1 by a teaching assistant. The only subjects he covered were Maths and English – to allow him to have these grades to get into college and help the school’s ranking on the league tables.

The SEN Expert worked with school, parents and Jack to reimagine his school experience. Clearly, forcing him to only do two subjects which he could not access cognitively was not going to prepare him for adulthood. So, we turned to nature!

Spending quality time outdoors can help reduce pain, focus attention, reduce anxiety and compulsive behaviour, enhance appetite and good sleeping patterns and even help build a stronger immune system. Jack had an interest in machinery and wanted to work with machines when he was older, so we factored that in too.

How did nature allow Jack to thrive?

Jack began his new timetable – all of which was outside, in nature. He developed his language skills by devising instructions for his classmates when they were helping maintain the school garden. He worked at a local garden centre and was able to develop basic numeracy skills. He spent his afternoons at a local wildlife centre and was able to develop social skills working with the staff there. He also, and most importantly, was encouraged to use nature to help him manage his emotions.

If Jack felt overwhelmed, he would take a walk amongst the trees. He would try to focus himself by using the sensory aspect of natural forms to calm himself, such as holding cool leaves or by having the wind on his face.

This may sound alien to many of us. School is about lessons and sitting behind a desk, right? Wrong! Jack learnt the skills he needed to get to college, just using the natural world as his desk and chair.

Jack left school with his Maths and English GCSE – which was remarkable based on his cognitive profile. He also left school with numerous other qualifications that he secured whilst on his work placements. Jack now works at an agricultural college – caring for the animals and groundskeeping. He is an independent young man and is ready for adulthood. Without us using the natural world to change his school experience – he would have probably left school with no grades and be at home.

The benefits of nature as an educational tool

  • Nature is restorative. Horticulture therapists may be the first to tell you that the natural world provides a reduction in stress and an overall healing environment.
  • Nature is strengthening. Exercising outdoors can be more physically and visually stimulating than doing so indoors. There is a growing amount of research that shows getting fit outdoors is better for us mentally.
  • Nature is the perfect classroom. Activities in the outdoors lead to better focus and concentration for a student. Moving reading time and other traditional class activities outdoors can make a big difference in learning and behaviour.
  • Nature is one big sensory extravaganza. Angela Hanscom, a paediatric occupational therapist, sees nature as not only the ideal sensory experience, but also prevention for sensory dysfunction. Think: walking barefoot, playing in the mud, outdoor swings and climbing across logs.
  • Nature is a powerful teacher. Nature teaches us patience through waiting for a bud to bloom into a flower. Nature shows us compassion when we help a small creature cross a sidewalk. And nature gives us understanding that something, or someone, doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

So, if your child is struggling, even if their experience isn’t as ‘extreme’ as Jack’s, it is worthwhile looking outdoors for answers.


*Not child’s real name.