Outdoor learning for young autistic people

Naj D’Silva is a Senior Teacher at The Holmewood School in London and last year set up outdoor learning camps for autistic young people. In this article she discusses why she founded the Footprints Life Camp and outlines the benefits for the young people who attend.

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Author: Naj D'Silva

Footprints Life Camp: Outdoor learning for young autistic people

Footprints Life Camp is a not-for-profit social enterprise based in North London which offers specialised outdoor learning camps to young people on the autistic spectrum aged between 8 and 19 years with complex needs, irrespective of financial circumstances. It aims to reduce risk of social exclusion of vulnerable young people, promote life-skills and encourage independence.

The project was awarded winner of Most Creative Community Project at the Autism Professional Awards in 2017. It was founded in February 2016 by myself, Naj D’Silva, a senior teacher at The Holmewood School in London.

Aims of the project

Footprints was set up in order to allow young people on the autistic spectrum to realise their full potential and 'be the best they can be'. With a recent NAS survey suggesting that just 16% of autistic people are in full time paid work, Footprints Life Camp is trying to break down barriers to employment.

I carried out a small research study in 2014 which revealed that the impact of outdoor learning and farming on the social and emotional development of vulnerable young people on the autistic spectrum was significant.

  • 87% of students felt they would do more school work outside in the fresh air and 78% felt less angry while learning outdoors compared to in school.
  • 100% of students felt more happiness doing their work outside/on the farm than in school and could work better with others in an outdoor learning environment than in school.

In 2016 the Guardian reported that three quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prisoners (less than 60 minutes per day). A fifth of children did not play outside at all on an average day. These statistics were shocking, particularly considering the conclusions from the case study. All of the above were taken into account when setting up Footprints Life Camp.

What the camps offer

Footprints offers a wide range of activities, all focusing on social and emotional development. We offer:

  • forest school sessions
  • animal care at Sweet Tree Farm
  • swimming sessions
  • baking
  • trips to the beach and day trips to London
  • the students run a Footprints cafe each morning
  • an over-night residential trip.

All of these activities are supported by specialist staff with a high staff/student ratio in a very family-orientated atmosphere. We have a rule of no electronic devices to encourage social interaction.

Social impact has been significant, with 100% of young people who attended the camps and their parents believing Footprints Life Camp increased self-esteem, independence and social skills in 2016.

Many of the young people who attend the camp do not have many friendships out of school, and the opportunity to socialise and make new friends outside of school and in the holidays is invaluable.

In the future, Footprints would like to have a permanent farm site allowing for week long residential stays with specialised staff who could focus on specific individual targets for young people such as independent living skills, social skills and employment skills.

Michelle Flynn whose son attended Footprints Life Camp and usually requires 1-1 support in school said, ‘Footprints made my child’s world a bigger and better place. On Friday night he was delighted with himself, a very happy little boy. He never usually wants to leave the house. Footprints Life Camp did that, priceless and immeasurable’

Paid internships

Footprints is also a Disability Committed Employer and offers paid internships to young people on the autistic spectrum. We offer support to all applicants prior to interview, including a drop in support service for applicants to practice interview skills and ask any questions about the interview or the internship which might be causing them anxiety.

We offer a variety of ways to submit an application including a written application, online or dictated to give them every opportunity to succeed. All interns have done extremely well venturing into the world of work and I would be delighted to re-employ any of them. Over the next five years we are aiming to ensure that at least half of our staff are on the autistic spectrum.

Francis Livsey, a student at Footprints Life Camp before taking up a paid internship position in summer 2016 said ‘Footprints has helped me to achieve confidence and I learned how to do things independently. Caring for the animals helped me feel responsible’

Lisa Camilleri, Head Teacher of The Holmewood School, said, “I am delighted that the work of Footprints Life Camp has been recognised through the Autism Professionals Awards and am exceptionally proud of Ms D’Silva.  The service is exciting, fun and highly praised by students and families across London.  The internships on offer provide an excellent foundation for teaching Holmewood’s 16-19 year olds about the world of work and how to be an integral part of our local community."

Further information

For more information about a referral to Footprints and/or The Holmewood School please visit:

Footprints Life Camp

The Holmewood School

Footprints Life Camp on Facebook

Date added: 31 May 2017