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Trauma Informed Insights - Exploring Sports Sanctuaries

In this week’s blog we are exploring the role of sports sanctuaries and how they use physical movement as a way of calming, replenishing, or reawakening the senses, generating positive engagement and enhancing the wellbeing of our young people.

What is a sports sanctuary?

Vicci Wells, Head of Sport at the Youth Sports Trust, is going to tell us more about sports sanctuaries:

‘Every child had their own unique, personal, lived-in experience during the Covid-19 pandemic. All experienced losses to their routines, structures, friendships, opportunities and freedoms. The result was that as pupils returned to schools, they were in very different places than when they left. Educators asked, ‘how could our school be that place where learners feel supported, listened to, and able to flourish once again’? For ‘an anxious child ‘is not in a place to learn effectively’ (Carpenter 2020)(1).

Simply defined sport sanctuaries(2) are places or activities that are intentionally designed to use physical movement as a way of calming, replenishing or reawakening the senses, generating positive engagement and wellbeing.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a sanctuary as a ‘safe space’. This aligns to the biophilia hypothesis, which can reduce stress, improve cognitive function, and enhance mood and creativity. As Professor John Ratey(3) highlights ‘Physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel…it can be the cue for the building blocks of learning in the brain, it affects mood, anxiety and attention, and guards against stress’ .

Therefore, we have to find ways that enable young people to self-regulate their mood, re-build resilience and feel good about themselves. Physical activity, and its positive correlation to our mental health, offers this at all levels.

As educators, we are all interested in the question ‘how does this child learn?’ and sport sanctuaries are a fantastic way of providing safe spaces, intentional movement activities and approaches to consider, when stimulating or retaining pupil engagement.

Physical activities can range from press ups against a wall to stimulate proprioceptive senses, through to repetitive target games for the vestibular sense. Pupils can be set individual physical skill targets alongside a sensory/behaviour target, such as ‘to improve balance and reduce calling out in class’.

Riverside School in Northern Ireland were keen to measure whether sport sanctuaries would have an impact on individual learners’ engagement in the classroom. They co-created with pupils’ Sports Sanctuaries and evolved the concept to introduce sensory sanctuaries. Their sanctuary includes green space outdoors, and areas of the classroom intentionally designed to draw upon a range of senses through individual activities, all pupil led. Pupils have a voice and a choice in what their sanctuary is and are supported by teachers.

The impact (collated via happiness audits, focus groups, collaborative practice and using the engagement model as a form of assessment) highlighted that when a sanctuary was accessed by learners, before or mid-way through a lesson, there was a direct increase in pupil engagement. Through implementing a whole school approach there has been a positive impact on the wider ethos of the entire school community.

With engagement being considered the most important predictor of successful outcomes for children and young people (Wolke 2013), then the introduction of physical activity- through a sport sanctuary- can ensure that young people are happier, healthier, engaged and ready to learn.’

Riverside Sanctuaries Case Study

Riverside Special School (‘Riverside’) is a school for learners with Severe Learning Difficulties and Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties located in Antrim, Northern Ireland.

They have done some incredible work creating sports and sensory sanctuaries. Head of Department, Laura McAuley and Vice Principal Shona McCann explain more about their journey here:

Setting the context

This academic year 2022-2023, Riverside has an enrolment of 112 children and young people aged from three to nineteen. We offer a comprehensive range of programmes designed to meet the holistic needs of our learners.

We place a strong emphasis on early intervention strategies, recognising the numerous benefits they bring in terms of pupil engagement, wellbeing, and learning outcomes.

By implementing proactive measures at an early stage, we create a nurturing environment that supports the overall development of our children and young people.

Our intent

Our initial intent when we started the sanctuary was to support learners returning to school after the Covid 19 Pandemic. We began an Inquiry Cycle supported by Professor Barry Carpenter to research the impact of co-creating sanctuaries with learners to support their wellbeing.

The Inquiry Cycle process took us on a journey of exploring engagement through the use of sanctuaries. This process has redefined our use of sanctuaries as a whole school approach.

We co-create and co-produce sports or sensory sanctuaries with individual learners. The benefits we have seen have been far reaching; increases in pupil engagement, self-advocacy, self-confidence, and communication.

Implementing our strategy

Initially it was important for us to create a shared vision with our staff team. We chose words to describe what a sanctuary looked like to us in Riverside.

We were all working towards a shared goal of what our sanctuaries would look like for our learners – happy, safe, calm, relaxing nurturing spaces. We captured pupil voice with happiness audits and using visuals to promote communication. We have three areas in school that are dedicated to sanctuaries.

Activities in this area are ever changing with the needs of the learners. We listen to pupil voice to ensure we have what they need to bring their moment of inner peace and calm.

We also brought sanctuaries to learners who couldn’t transition using sanctuary activities in their classrooms. It was essential that all learners could access their sanctuary and that we adapt and listen to their voice. It is an ever-evolving strategy.

The impact of our sanctuaries on our young people

Using the inquiry cycle we measured engagement using the engagement profile. This gave us an indication of the impact of our sanctuaries on our learners.

We had a case study of six learners who were supported by a team of teaching assistants. A baseline measure of engagement was taken at the start of the project and then after time in their chosen sanctuary.

These graphs show the results captured:

As can be seen from the graph there was an increase of engagement across all learners who accessed sanctuaries.

Top tips for teachers who are just starting on a journey of setting up a sports sanctuary

Our journey in creating Sensory Sanctuaries has taught us valuable tips and essential approaches for implementing projects aimed at improving leaner outcomes.

Throughout the process, we prioritised the voice of stakeholders, placing them at the centre of our project.

To begin, it is crucial to gain the support and commitment of your staff team since they will be responsible for implementing the project and working directly with the learners.

By involving a small group of enthusiastic staff members who share a passion for the project, you can establish a foundation for success.

We achieved this by creating a shared vision and initiating discussions with our staff, seeking their thoughts on what they believed a sanctuary should be.

Additionally, it is important to have a deep understanding of your learners. Take the time to observe their behaviours when they are most engaged and when they face challenges. By gaining insight into their needs and preferences, you can tailor the sensory sanctuaries to better support them.

Remember that pupil voice is paramount throughout the entire process of planning and implementation. Actively involve them, ensuring their opinions are heard and valued.

Our learners participated in happiness audits to identify their sensory preferences, which played a pivotal role in shaping their individual sanctuaries. We discovered that their sanctuaries could be created with items that didn't necessarily require a large budget.

In fact, our essentials list for setting up your own sanctuary consists of minimalistic and classroom cupboard items such as bubbles, shredded paper, ribbons, and various auditory stimuli.

Finally, you will experience days where it feels like Sensory and Sports Sanctuaries aren't working for your children and young people, but it is important to remember that everyone has moments of inner peace and calm.

It is up to us as educators to persevere and continue to listen to what they are trying to communicate to us. It is a process of trial and error and exploration; the outcomes and benefits to individual learners are worth persevering for.

Sports Sanctuaries in mainstream schools

Latest data from Teacher Tapp demonstrate that behaviour outside of lessons is deteriorating in secondary schools compared to this time last year.

Could setting up a sports sanctuary in your school help reduce this issue for you and your colleagues by giving young people a chance to self regulate?

For our founder, Neil Moggan, and his children in a secondary setting, going for a walk to the allotment and back when they were disregulated, and having a chat was a sanctuary for them.

For others it was the fitness suite, and for some students it was borrowing a basketball or a football and going outside to escape their troubles, to regulate themselves so that they could get through the rest of their day. For other children the school allotment or the art room was their place of sanctuary during the school day.

I wonder where your sanctuary is. Are there any areas you could utilise in your school to explore, potentially creating sanctuaries for your young people and staff?

We are working with innovative teachers like Mrs Reynolds at Belvedere Academy to help them create sports sanctuaries in their settings to help their young people as part of our ‘Trauma Informed PE’ online teacher training course.

This is part of step 6 of our 7 Step Recover Roadmap. Step 6 - Enhance guides you how you can have a wider whole school impact in addition to your PE department.

Taster resources for you

If you would like to know more, we have got a range of taster resources for you to try. We have created the ‘Enhancing Engagement Scorecard’ to help you track your progress in implementing Trauma Informed PE practice within 2 minutes.

This scorecard acts as a valuable tool for self-reflection and continuous improvement. Click on the link to take the first step and get your score.

Additionally, we offer a ‘Taster Trauma Informed PE Course’ for you to experience Step 1 of our full course so you can develop your understanding of what a trauma-informed approach is, what Adverse Childhood Experiences are, and how this affects children in the classroom at the moment and their life chances, based on the ACEs studies.

Click here to complete this 1 minute form to receive your personalised login.

Take the first step today to creating a better future for you and your young people.

Sport Sanctuary Resources

If you are thinking about creating a Sports Sanctuary in your setting then Vicci Wells has created these brilliant resources through the YST for you. Check them out here:


1 Carpenter & Carpenter, The Recovery Curriculum April 2020

2 Wells, V November 2020 and

3 John J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain 2010

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