For those of us who have no issues with our language and motor skills, the idea of going without them, and the knock on effects of having impaired speech and movement, can feel like an unfathomable idea. For children with severe learning disabilities not being able to speak and carry out tasks on their own can be a fact of life. That is unless, great Teachers like Mike Baldwin are involved in their learning.
Mike Baldwin teaches at a special school in Northolt handling students with severe and moderate learning disabilities. After the school acquired a two-acre plot of woodland from the local council, Mike started the Finding My Voice project. The idea for the project came from one of his students. When Mike and his colleagues took one of the 13-year-old children from his school into the forest, she instantly ran into the trees. Rather than restrict her play to one area, they let her explore. And that was the moment she spoke for the first time.
Five years later and this student is doing well. Whilst she may never be entirely self-sufficient, her legacy is the Finding My Voice project, which won a grant from the Let Teachers SHINE competition this year.
SHINE are partnering with Mike to carry out a research project on Finding My Voice. The grant will be used to help Mike and his colleagues gain useful evidence into why children with severe learning disabilities thrive in an outdoor classroom, and help them excel the project to new levels.
Finding My Voice uses activities like building a fire, making leaf decorations, and doing treasure hunts to encourage children’s language. Working in a team, across a large area has meant that the children taking part have had to communicate with each other, whilst also learning to do jobs independently. The activities also have the added benefit of improving motor skills. Repetitive movements, such as bending down to pick up leaves and firewood, has meant that the children quickly sort out their own sensory seeking behaviours.
The children in the project now understand that when they are around fire, they need to sit calmly around it at a safe distance, and that they can only walk around it rather than jumping over it. Tasks like cooking toast and vegetarian sausages over the fire, and the communication and motor skills involved, are a huge step for the young people involved. It’s simple tasks like these that are so important in these young people’s progress towards independence. And with the children enjoying the woods so much, not only are they communicating with their Teachers the desire to go outside, but dressing themselves in coats and boots independently in order to do so.
Mike will use the outcomes of the research project on Finding My Voice to develop a new innovative SLD curriculum, with resources and training for Teachers. If you’d like to know more about the kind of projects Let Teachers SHINE funds, please visit our Teacher-led Innovation page.