University of Edinburgh

Newsletter 29 Spring 2010

V.I.Scotland's Focus on Outdoor Environments


Since our inception more than a decade ago, medical aspects of V.I.Scotland's service provision have arguably taken precedence over other aspects. While maintaining this crucial emphasis on medical aspects of vision-impairing conditions, our future plans include the development of our relationships with schools and education authorities across the country in order to help engage visually impaired pupils in a variety of outdoor and creative activities. Having spoken with VI teachers at a variety of recent events, it has become clear that there is lots of scope for V.I.Scotland to work together with schools attended by the children on our database to secure the collective fulfilment of this objective. V.I.Scotland began investigating more involvement with these types of activities and last year joined Margaret Ferguson Burns, Outdoor Education teacher at the Royal Blind School, and Jenny Watters of the Edinburgh Countryside Ranger Service as they developed a series of Forest School sessions, adapting activities and approaches, for a group of pupils from Edinburgh's Royal Blind School. This experience highlighted the importance of ensuring that a qualified Forest School Leader with particular experience of working with visually impaired people can be put at the disposal of Scottish schools eager to meet the challenge of ensuring that visually impaired pupils are not precluded from full participation in outdoor education initiatives.

The importance of play and outdoor education for visually impaired children
Although many people believe that children are naturally active, increasing numbers do not engage in levels of activity sufficient to maintain adequate fitness, and it is no secret that percentages of overweight children are on the increase. Children who are visually impaired are of particular concern as they consistently exhibit lower levels of fitness than sighted peers. They tend to have poorer muscle tone, to be overweight, more sedentary and physically weaker, finding sustained exercise difficult to maintain. Furthermore, because the daily activities of these children demand increased energy, their need to be fit has been shown to be even greater. Other research has shown that children with visual impairments are often neither fully socialised nor expected to pursue a full range of life options. It is not uncommon for visually impaired children to receive a skeleton selection of the range of physical activities to which their sighted friends are exposed. These considerations have prompted V.I.Scotland to undertake measures to encourage greater levels of participation in physical activities among visually impaired young people around Scotland.

children in the forest

Educationalist Preben Friis has argued that a reluctance among teachers and pupils to deviate from classroom routine can result in lethargy and 'a lack of energy or involvement'. Similarly, Adam Blatner describes play as an essential "channel of ... vitality," which serves as "a vehicle for the enhancement of ... creativity and social involvement". Many other educationalists concur with the opinion that spontaneous play and physical aspects of outdoor education have crucial consequences for levels of self-confidence and social integration and serve as vital channels of motivation, self expression, skill-development and socialisation. The celebrated educationalist Vygotsky, for example, was adamant that spontaneous play and the degree of risk-taking it inevitably entails, allow children to develop "at the edge of their capabilities" by encouraging them to push boundaries, test limits and increase opportunities. Pattie Rouse has also advocated spontaneity and outdoor activity in education for the sake of the fun it affords, arguing that when play for students is based on measurable outcomes, educators often lose sight of the other important aspects of play. Rouse is adamant that what she terms the affective components of physical and playful activity, such as the promotion of excitement and the facilitation of spontaneous reactions, should also be considered when assessing a child’s abilities and quality of life (Rouse (2004), p2).

building a fire

David (Ray Mears) in action

It is also widely acknowledged that approaches to education which recognise the importance of outdoor environments are considerably more likely to instill and foster livelier, more positive and interested attitudes towards learning among pupils. As far back as 1972, the Vernon Report underlined the importance of visually impaired people being as physically independent as possible if they are to "play the fullest possible part in the community at large". For a variety of reasons, however, children with visual impairments do not experience as many opportunities for spontaneous activity as their sighted peers. Opportunities for greater participation in outdoor physical activities are limited by the fact that mainstream schools attended by visually impaired pupils tend to have been designed with only the needs, abilities and learning styles of non-visually impaired pupils in mind. Teachers in mainstream schools without modified outdoor space are often reluctant to expose visually impaired pupils to what they perceive to be the potential hazards of outdoor activity. Teachers are also sometimes inadvertently complicit in their VI pupil's delayed development by indulging the instincts of these pupils to shy away from challenging or unfamiliar tasks (Hayhoe 2008). The UK Mental Health Foundation has stated that increasing tendency to deprive children of risk-taking opportunities results in corresponding increase in development of mental health issues, adding that children with disabilities have an equal if not greater need for opportunities to take risks, since they may be denied the freedom of choice enjoyed by their non-disabled peers (Play Safety Forum, 2002). The challenge facing educators is how to safely ensure that visually impaired pupils are not marginalised from the considerable developmental benefits of outdoor activity. It is a challenge which V.I Scotland are keen to help schools around Scotland meet.

Outdoor Environments as a Multi-Sensory Educational Resource
The estimation that 70% of classroom learning tends to be based on vision serves to highlight the importance of exposing visually impaired children to multi-sensory outdoor learning environments. Sighted children are abundantly and readily stimulated by their visual surroundings. Reservations about the effectiveness of predominantly visual approaches to classroom learning are beginning to emerge, however. Hostility to primacy of vision in education generally takes two forms: 1) criticism of the consequent allocation to pupils of a predominately passive role within their own learning process; and 2) criticism of the inevitable redundancy of non-visual modalities. These criticisms, while relevant to all classroom learners, are particularly pertinent in the case of visually impaired learners. Dr Lilli Nielsen, who developed the Active Learning approach, found that children who are visually impaired would also learn if allowed to explore and experiment. The motivation to explore their environment through an integrated use of the other senses is therefore vital to the early development of a visually impaired child, and the outdoors is an ideal learning environment with this objective in mind. In the outdoors, for example, young visually impaired learners can experience the perceptual discrimination of textures as well as colours; the somatic consciousness of masses and volumes; the depth and directionality of sounds; the feel of the wind, sun and moisture on the skin; the kinaesthetic awareness of the different surfaces under their feet; awareness of their movement as they ascend, descend or move unevenly along level, sloping, straight or curving surfaces.

The outdoors is also a unique, expansive environment which affords a freedom of movement and exploration. Part of the novel element of the challenge provided by a dynamic outdoor environment stems from the fact that materials – air quality, temperature, cloud cover, terrain, weather conditions, length of day and other seasonal variables are in a perennial state of transformation. This changeability naturally maintains the interest of participants in outdoor education more familiar with static environments. Many pupils find encounters with the fluidity, changeability and unpredictability of the challenges provided by the natural elements more engaging and compelling than being faced with paper-based challenges within a relatively change-resistant classroom environment. In nature, teacher and pupils can take advantage of a resource that can be depended on to excite curiosity and reward active exploration. Visually impaired pupils are particularly likely to revel amid dynamic natural surroundings which afford opportunities for splashing, handling, crunching, building, clearing and creating. An additional benefit of bringing visually impaired pupils outside is that it grants them direct experience of multi-sensory stimulants. The benefits of these hands-on, multi-sensory learning experiences are supplemented by those derived from the energising and liberating burst of energy that most children instinctively experience upon removing themselves from the fixed confines of the indoors.

forest working

V.I.Scotland's Future Plans
The conviction that challenging tasks are unachievable is very difficult to dislodge from an adult's mindset. If confidence and an enthusiasm for surmounting these challenges can be instilled into visually impaired children from an early age and in a controlled and regulated manner, the likelihood is that they will reach adulthood with a greater number of accomplishments, a greater level of confidence and self-esteem, a greater capacity for independent and spontaneous undertaking and a greater level of readiness for unforeseeable events. In this way, participation in outdoor tasks is also favourably connected to the development of emotional, attitudinal and mental health. The cultivation of a 'can-do attitude,' a disposition that relishes rather than avoids challenges, and a personal sense of mastery, conquest and triumph, are all conducive to constructive development and a positive attitude toward the learning process. David Bell, a former Head of Ofsted, acknowledges that the benefits of outdoor pursuits are under threat because of perceived risk. He also observes that one of the best ways to help children learn about risk is to teach them how to deal with difficult and tricky situations by letting them experience them in controlled situations. V.I.Scotland’s decision for one of our members to undertake Forest Leader training was prompted in part by Bell's suggestion that appropriate training will give teachers the confidence to present their pupils with appropriate challenges. V.I.Scotland would like to take this opportunity, therefore, to invite schools across the country interested in making their approaches to outdoor education more engaging for visually impaired participants to contact us at the email address given below. V.I.Scotland also intend to incorporate an increasing amount of outdoor activities at our regional Family Fun Days, the next of which is happening in Lochore Meadows Country Park, Fife on 22nd May 2010. Families living in this area will receive an invitation shortly. V.I.Scotland has also recently devised an activity questionnaire which is currently being distributed to large numbers of young people on our database. The feedback received will help us to tailor outdoor elements of our future service provision and to appeal for funding for other future undertakings. V.I.Scotland is entirely convinced of the developmental importance of outdoor activity for the children on our database. We are also very much aware that the success of this proposed departure from more traditional aspects of our service provision is largely dependent on the co-operation of schools across Scotland, so we look forward to hearing from interested parties in the near future.

A more detailed account of V.I.Scotland's approach to outdoor education and play activities will be published later this year as part of the proceedings of a recent European conference on effective educational strategies