Susannah Kirkmann discovers a garden where children with Asperger Syndrome can relax and express themselves
Huge white hammocks, arbours of willow and clematis, and a turf labyrinth studded with buttercups are all on the outdoor curriculum trail at the Forum School, which caters for pupils with autism.
The setting is idyllic, deep in the Dorset countryside near Blandford, but the trail also offers stimulus and practical activities for the curriculum.
It adds another dimension to learning for the residential school's seven to 14 year-old students, according to Gay Waters, the head.
"Many are totally different children when they have the freedom of being outside," she says. "The high-functioning pupils with Asperger Syndrome (AS) have all had difficulties in classrooms and often find them anxious places. Most of them have been excluded from mainstream schools, because of their challenging behaviour. We find that they learn better and feel more relaxed outside."
Dotted along the trail are several "quiet areas", where the willow arbours provide privacy and security for pupils with AS to talk to staff.
"It is really important for these students to learn to manage their own behaviour," Gay Waters explains. "They need to learn to say, 'I'm anxious becauseI' or 'I'm stressed becauseI'."
Pupils with severe learning difficulties also benefit, enjoying the special sensory garden with its raised beds of lavender, thyme and spiky plants, such as ornamental thistles and cacti. Fences made of different materials provide a range of tactile experiences, while a sound area has cymbals, wind chimes and rustling bamboo. In the wildlife corner a family of blue tits nests in a box made by older pupils; buddleia and fragrant honeysuckle have been planted to encourage bees and butterflies.
"Children with autism often experience high levels of anxiety, but this is a place where they can all learn to relax and unwind," says Jaki How, the school's therapy co-ordinator, who designed the curriculum trail.
With the help of all the school staff, Jaki How has also incorporated plenty of educational challenges into the trail. Next to the sensory garden is the weather station, with instruments for measuring rainfall, temperature and wind direction, and the wind garden, to explore the effects of wind on different kites, wind-socks and wheels. A sundial, a shadow clock embedded in gravel and a solar-powered light help pupils to investigate the effects of the sun.
ICT skills are not forgotten; pupils have helped to lay out a racing track so they can programme remote-controlled cars.
The living labyrinth, created out of turf banks covered in wild flowers, provides a focal point for looking at patterns and shapes and measuring activities. Two hammocks, shaded by enormous triangular sails give another chance to study shape, as well as offering somewhere to chill-out after a maths lesson.
A living willow tunnel leads down to the natural stream, where a willow bridge links to a small island. Here there are bug boxes and equipment for pond-dipping, as well as the soothing sounds of two small waterfalls.
Rachael Alner, the Forum's creative arts teacher, says that she incorporates the natural sounds of the environment into music lessons.
"You can ask: 'What can we hear?' and the children can listen and respond.
Those who can't speak can use picture symbols to express their ideas."
Another resource is the "music tree", which has a built-in xylophone, softly chinking metal mobiles, large oil drums and a gong, which the children love trying out. A large plastic bin contains simple musical instruments, such as shakers and tambourines.
A sculpture trail created by the pupils then leads up through an avenue of old trees. The sculptures include ceramic gargoyles and toadstools, mobiles suspended from branches and bright flower-wheels, which can be spun round.
At the top of the avenue, staff unearthed the base of an old summer house, which now forms the story area, with tree stumps where pupils can sit and listen. Jaki How says that pupils respond well to the natural boundaries of the different curriculum areas and are not tempted to wander off into the trees when a story is in progress.
"It is wonderful to be able to let them go free outside, and know that they are safe," she says.
Beneath, staff have used a natural grassy slope to make a small amphitheatre, with seating and a circular, paved stage where children can sing or read out poems. The trail culminates in the most atmospheric corner of the garden, the "quiet area", which is used for RE. Here, the stone flags of an old rose garden were uncovered, and the area was filled with sculptures representing different faiths. Two contemplative buddhas face a statue of St Francis and there's a stone tub full of flowers. The peace reflects the history of the school, which used to be a religious retreat centre.
Gay Waters thinks the trail is worth every penny of the pound;10,000 spent on stone, musical instruments and other equipment. As well as providing new opportunities for the pupils, it has brought staff together in planning and construction. Most of the work was carried out during a team-building day involving all 150 staff, which included care workers, secretaries and caterers.
* For further ideas, Learning Through Landscapes provides advice and a range of booklets showing schools how to improve their grounds and use them to enrich the curriculum.
* The Royal Horticultural Society has a schools' section with a regular newsletter full of ideas.
* The Forum School Tel: 01258 860295