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Low Demand and Outdoor Learning



A low demand approach to learning is frequently discussed in relation to Autism and PDA (Pathalogical Demand Avoidance) and other neuro-differences such as ADHD. In fact a low demand approach can work for others who for a variety of reasons may have high stress levels or feel overwhelmed and anxious. High stress levels can result in stress related behaviours or crisis if signs are missed or misunderstood.

A low demand approach can work for all children and young people however as it is essentially needs focused.


Outdoor learning environments are now becoming more commonly used to support individuals who may find that other environments place too many demands on them and therefore too much stress. Nature and being outdoors can support individuals who show signs of distress that can result in behaviours of concern. Common stress related behaviours that result in fight, flight, freeze, fawn or flop responses can be effectively supported in a low demand outdoor environment.


There are factors that can make outdoor learning an effective low demand environment but it is important too, to discuss some factors outdoors that can actually increase demands and stress and how we might adapt.


This blog discusses some of the experiences we have had when developing a low demand setting and shares some of what we have learned over the years.





Geographical Space

For many the anxiety of not having an escape route, being restrained or restricted is eased immediately with the offer of a large geographical area, with places that can be freely accessed and moved between. An outdoor area that is larger than a room, has no ceiling and invites autonomous exploration is often all that is needed for many to feel calmer and less stressed. For some, just the introduction of outdoor space as described above, will reduce or remove stress related behaviours of concern.


Having staff who are happy and confident outdoors will support this effect as opposed to staff who may find the outdoors stressful, dirty and feel as if they lack control. Any staff stress about the outdoors will quickly negate the benefits felt by a child or young person and could even accelerate rather than divert a crisis.


There are times when a large open space is what’s needed to feel safer and then there are times when the large space can be overwhelming. Finding ways to break up a larger area or provide smaller more contained areas such as a tarp shelter, a tent, a hammock some bean bags under a tree, may help an individual to select a more cosy or contained space within the wider open area.


Rather than have physical or verbal boundaries imposed by well-meaning adults nervous about certain spaces or large areas, plants can do much of the work for us in slowing down movement through spaces or making a route still available but less attractive. Active planting or allowing natural growth of plants can support how children and young people behave and move in an area. Plants are not a definitive stop sign but they can be used helpfully to slow a passage through a space, they are great friends to us in low demand outdoor learning environments. Plan and think carefully before you get the strimmer out.



Routine

When some young people arrive in our setting, their trauma can be so severe that even sitting in a circle around a fire feels like too much of a demand. It can be tempting to not bring everyone together or to make individuals sit when they don’t wish to. Many need the routine of coming together at the start or the end of a session, to touch base, get a vibe for the day and see who is in the session. We don’t make everyone sit in the circle if they don’t want to. We can offer it and remove barriers to joining us but some will hover around the edges, stand in hearing distance or check out what is happening and then join us when they are ready. Often some individuals can’t join a group in a circle on that day but they might at some point in the future.


From my drama teaching days I remember that using a circle to perform in, is less stressful for some than being on a big stage, as everyone is in a shared audience/performance space together. But the important factor here is a circle is still an audience/performance space, the demands of that circle will be keenly felt by many. Getting together as a group can be a useful part of a low demand routine to mark out parts of time in the day but any stress rising in a child will make this very difficult. We have a free flow entry into the session, with some time to settle, run, jump, play in the water, find a friend, or sit in a hammock before we ask the group to come together. How long this time lasts depends on how the group is that day. Some days we would not bring them together at the end of a session if many are tired and showing signs of stress. We try to get together for a sweet treat at the end of a session to close up. On a very good day we may be able to ask for thumbs up or down feedback on their day but often this would be a stretch too far and an unnecessary demand at the end of an already full day.


Food supports routine in a myriad of ways, but I will talk about the benefits and difficulties of food in a low demand outdoor setting under its own heading.


In a session we would always be ready with games, a specific learning activity, food cooking and sharing. These are present in each session to take part in but no one is made to do any of it. Sometimes the right day in a session for a child or young person who is stressed, dysregulated or overwhelmed is to have the opportunity to be in a hammock or on a bean bag with the sounds of the river, the birds, the crackle of fire, the clouds moving through a view in the trees or just the chatter of others around them. If behaviour is a communication then everyone is telling you how they are feeling all of the time via their behaviour, our job is to try to understand what their needs are and meet their needs for the short time they are with us. Some have a need for an activity and “something to do”, some need to listen to nature, some need to play big body games with others, some love to cook on the fire and chop veg. We will provide opportunity for all of these things in each session, it helps with routine, rhythm and predictability but a low demand approach means we do not need to control what is chosen or not chosen by an individual. Routine is good but must be flexible.


Tool Use

Tools and tool use can be a great way to learn about our skills and our confidence can be boosted when we learn we can make something useful or beautiful from raw materials. Tool work is a specific and valuable part of much work in outdoor practices such as Forest School and Bushcraft. In a low demand setting tool use needs more consideration. The safe use of any tool requires a certain amount of instruction. For any individual for whom a low demand approach is helpful, keeping instructions to a minimum is central. I imagine it like a person has a limited number of tokens and every instruction we give uses a token, some difficult instructions may use more tokens. Our aim is to finish a session with some tokens left for the rest of the day and evening, not to use them all up. If it will be difficult to work with tools without lots of instruction, I would question the value of tool use in this scenario. When the tokens are used up, no more instructions can be given and this is stressful for everyone if in the middle of using tools.


Positive relationships would support the possibility of a positive experience with tools, as any necessary instruction is more likely to be accepted coming from a trusted adult and might use fewer tokens.


Tool use often requires proximity for safe supervision yet the “blood bubble” rule of distance-from-person-plus-tool for safety, does not cover the unexpected or sudden intrusion by another into a focused tool session.


When a person is highly stressed and dysregulated being too close is felt as a threat. A well-meaning comforting touch can be misunderstood as a threat and result in a crisis. A person with a tool can also be felt as a threat for obvious reasons. Tool use should not be a given. It needs so much extra consideration and sensitivity. At times of natural high stress, change and transition in groups, I would not recommend tool use. When groups are more settled, tool use is a brilliant way to support flow activity and positive psychology.



Play

Play is the number one way to distract from difficulty, add to the list of positive experiences that can be drawn upon later, get physical exercise to regulate emotion and deal with stress hormones, make positive relationships with others, learn about social and relational nuances in a safe way and when we join in the play we can co-regulate.


There are many different types of play. There is no doubt that some types of play can become a demand and can lead to more stress if not sensitively supported. If we think about the circle as audience and performance space mentioned earlier, many classic outdoor/nature-based games, we may be taught in some outdoor training, can be provocative and a demand by virtue of needing to be in a circle to participate. However, in some settings, a circle may feel more free than the norm. Groups and individuals used to being taught from the front in a more formal instructional style, may in fact take very well to the more democratic approach afforded by the circle but in every class there is a person for whom the circle is a stressor.


It can be a sign of huge progress when games are led by the group not by the leaders. As children and young people learn how to communicate with each other, often support is needed if excessive instruction from peers becomes too much of a demand. Then non-compliance in peer created games can lead to serious stress, related to rejection sensitivity. Playing games with leaders and young people gives the opportunity to model basics of play success. It is important to remember that not everyone has learned how to play. After some time, we have noticed that individuals in our groups will now automatically check what the agreed boundaries for a game are or someone will suggest a new game when the current one has become tense, following lots of modelling from leaders but especially youth leaders.


Football can be difficult play to support in a low demand setting. The culture around football in schools and the wider world can mean that it has a very ingrained set of demands already present. There are heavy gender based demands, assumptions about skills, understanding rules, knowing teams etc. Play that is already set out heavily in popular culture is harder to influence, direct and sensitively support. It can however be exactly the right distraction for an individual with a special interest and as with all things low demand, flexibility is key and so it should not be discounted.


We do not endorse banning particular games or types of play, it is always open for discussion and consideration. This is an opportunity to work together and hand over some control and show trust. It can be nerve wracking allowing play that you fear may end badly but often we find this is them telling you what their needs are and so it’s important that you listen and act to meet their needs as far as possible.


The best thing about play is that it helps us form relationships with each other. The times when play goes well with others it helps us to form more positive memories and views of our world and each other. When play is more challenging it helps us to learn about ourselves and each other in a low demand form that we can opt out of at any time or remove ourselves to observe. Play is central to learning or re-learning the relational basics that are helpful to thrive.


Outside pressures

The most successful low demand setting will always face challenges not least because they can’t work in a perfect bubble. Partnership working with other settings, organisations, professionals, parents and neighbours will inevitably impact the demands placed on the group or individuals. The approach here would be to have minimum requests, minimum demand generally so that when a demand can’t be avoided for safety or psychological wellbeing, we have not already over stretched or over stressed ourselves, or used all of the tokens from individuals or the group. It is not uncommon for professionals to request a visit to a session, this is discouraged where possible as the minimal benefit is not usually worth the extra demands and stress put on everyone, including leaders. There are times when a site visit is necessary and then where possible we would be happy to meet outside of session times with less impact to the group. We have more recently considered that a way to measure the benefit is to think about what is being brought to the session vs what will be taken away. A stranger to the group, observing but not taking part, not teaching us anything nor playing with us is almost certainly taking more than they are giving.


There are also times when demands from home or school may impact children and young people in our sessions and again where possible unless there is a safety reason or clear benefit I would not generally recommend extending demands from other settings into our sessions.



Weather

The impact of the weather on the mood and wellbeing of our groups is phenomenal. This seems to have more impact when better weather has become the norm and then a random rainy day can be a shock many are not prepared for.


We have shelter and places to be in poor weather but these spaces inevitably involve some unwanted proximity to others. We have had rainy days where the rain happily and naturally directed everyone to more sedate and relaxed activity, unexpectedly allowing more reflection and observation of what was around us. On these days we would up the comfort levels where we can. Food and drink is comforting and simple, nature based board games may replace hide and seek or twister is a favourite for those who still need to use their body but in a restricted space. Options to be in the rain and experience the weather are offered but mostly only taken up by me! Getting wet can be a sensory nightmare for some people and will lead to stress that is hard to recover from without a warm dry space to regulate or dry clothes to change into. Waterproof clothing isn’t always an option and many won’t change into dry clothes even if they are on offer. We would be weighing up the stress of being wet vs the stress of having to change before we placed a demand to get into dry clothes.


There are times when the weather gives us an unexpected opportunity for play or exploration. If we know bad weather is coming it is possible to plan and prepare a site so that the fun in the rain has a much bigger pull than staying in the dry. In settings where the norm is high levels of control from adults, playing in the rain is in itself easily a bigger pull than staying inside and dry. For many with sensory sensitivities being allowed to get wet in the rain in your normal clothing is the ultimate in joyous freedom. The sensory issue may initially look like a problem with the rain but it may not be with the weather but with the clothing someone has insisted be worn in wet weather. This leads us nicely to clothing.



Clothing

Clothing is a demand. The fact we have to wear any clothes at all may be a demand for some! Certain clothing for certain situations, settings or weather can be a demand not worth worrying about if it is not a serious safety issue. It is not unusual for young people to not want to wear wellies, coats, waterproof trousers, hats or gloves, long trousers or long sleeves and sometimes pants or socks. We may provide spare clothing that is gratefully received by some but more often rejected by others for a variety of reasons. In some outdoor learning and education circles in the UK we have an obsession with what we believe is necessary and suitable clothing for the outdoors. This is problematic for many reasons, one being affordability and availability of resources another crucial one being sensory differences but a much less respected reason being social and personal identity. Most schools enforce uniform rules and this is frequently an area for conflict. Uniform can of course be positive if a person chooses to wear uniform because it enhances their feelings of belonging. Many young people that we work with are highly vigilant about their identity and clothing is central to this. Enforcing clothing rules or unwanted clothing demands is more often than not a short cut to stress and crisis for many young people. If what is important is that they are with you making positive relationships and connections then most of the time clothing is not important at all. There are other ways to ensure safety, comfort and wellbeing that don’t really need to us make clothing demands.



Food

Food is often the start of meeting a person’s basic needs. It can provide comfort and feelings of belonging to a group. In our work we prep and cook together so it is also used to share knowledge of the world and each other, it is a predictable activity to get involved with in every session. It can be a way to introduce tool work and support trusted relationships, it is also a way to communicate and give to others non-verbally.


Food can also be the site of tension and trauma for some. Sensory differences may mean that it is difficult to predict what foods will be accepted from day to day and some people have social eating anxieties. An increased awareness of differences in how we enjoy or experience food can support us to try new ways of doing things. We have recently trialled a graze board which is helpful in opening up trying new food in a low demand way. Often when prepping food, children will want to eat some of what they have cut and as long as it is safe and hygienic this is always allowed.


Food is sometimes so much of a comfort or regulator that we must be aware of what and how we share food with a group so as to not exacerbate overeating of particular foods, again without making this a demand. Some may bring a lunch with them but are always welcome to eat what we have made in the session, having known safe foods available can support trying new ones, particularly if this is inspired by peers.


It is possible to make foods that appeal to many by having a pasta bar or a noodle bar, pizzeria or toast mountain approach where there is choice and control over what you add or don't add as toppings or fillings. We can't make something everyday that will make everyone 100% happy but on these days it helps to remember that food education and learning happens even if we don't eat what is cooked.


Grouping by age

Most of our education system is organised by age. This in itself leads to many demands about where our development should be, who we should want to play with and many comparisons about our learning, our interests, our likes and dislikes, our maturity and our gender are made. This normative organisation of education is full of demand that will be particularly stressful and traumatising if you don’t fit the norm.


A common complaint about post pandemic education is that children can no longer play with others in different year groups due to age based segregation at play times and lunch times. In secondary schools, the opportunity to become a library monitor, practice your drama or music or draw in the art room all lunchtime with others-no matter what age but with similar needs to you-is also a thing of the past following the pandemic.


There are benefits to mixed aged working where younger children often inspire slightly older more self-conscious teens to still play and older teens can be invaluable support to younger children going through transitions say from primary to secondary school.


We also enjoy working alongside youth leaders, young people invested in supporting those younger than themselves but still close enough in youth that they naturally represent less of a demand. Adults by virtue of being an adult are an automatic demand as they represent authority. It can take a long time for trust to build with some children and adults but youth leaders or older participants may support integration into a group much quicker and with little stress.


Leader stress

The biggest thing we can do for those we work with is look after ourselves. If we are o.k. then we can be o.k. at work. As soon as we bring our stress or anxiety to work we impact the children, young people and also the other staff. Stress is like an airborne bacteria, it can reach and infect everyone. To continue with this metaphor, stress will also impact or infect those who are most vulnerable first and with greater consequences. We can learn to manage our own stress and also learn to manage our tone of voice, our posture and adapt what we think we need to change. The biggest learning from working in a low demand way is that we re-assess what is necessary and possible to change in ourselves and our setting rather than those we work with.


DISCLAIMER

This is true at the time of writing. The key to low demand working or creating a low demand setting is that change is inevitable and we must be ready to be flexible with routines and shift even larger structural restrictions. Creativity is crucial to finding ways to meet needs. Playfulness is crucial to finding ways to meet needs. Low demand does not mean low fun! I understand that how we operate continually adapts to each child, day and group dynamic. What I say today is true today but if meeting needs for a new child means we learn new things and change is required then I may disagree with myself in a month.

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