How to make playtimes excellent

Michael Follett
Michael runs a not for profit organisation called OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning, providing the OPAL...
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05 May, 2017 : 16:56

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Out of seven years spent in school, 1.4 are spent in play - so giving children great spaces to play in is crucial.

Michael Follett runs a not-for-profit organisation called OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning, providing the OPAL Primary Programme to schools.  His book Creating Excellence in Primary School Playtimes (How to make 20% of the school day 100% better) has just been published by JKP.

Here's what he told us about the importance of play, and how to make playtimes brilliant.

The importance of good quality play time.

Play is very important for children’s healthy development.  They need to be in control of some aspects of their own lives, and in play they get to do that, to act things out and experiment. 

They need opportunities to try out things for themselves to develop core skills such as imagination, cooperation, resilience, and, gradually, self-regulation - the ability to make judgments about what they’re capable of. That’s where the massive value of play lies, developing children beyond the academic, letting them gain the skills they’ll need to operate in the big wide world.

What's wrong with the traditional playground? Too big, and too boring.

There’s a couple of really interesting things. 

First is that small children especially much prefer protected spaces with corners and edges fairly close, in order to socially operate with each other and feel safe.  From our research, out of 100 children in a playground, 60 will be looking for some sort of protected or enclosed social space. 

So wide open spaces aren’t that good for play and often children feel quite lost. If you’ve watched them in a playground you’ll see that most of them are by the stairs, by the doorways, under the benches.

Second, the key nature of play is about choice.  But the playground is a bit like a café where you’re told you can have anything off the menu, but all there is on it is bread and butter.  The options in the traditional school playground are minimal.  You have short grass and tarmac and maybe a bit of play equipment if you’re lucky.

What's the secrets to a great playground?

Diversity - difference in the physical topography such as uneven surfaces, and then in the material world.   Play is the way that children come to understand the relationship between themselves, and the world around them. So try to give them a really rich material world, with access to water, to different kinds of stone, to different kinds of woods and different kinds of planting. 

Another hugely important aspect of play is the ability to influence and change and transport the world about them. So a good play environment has lots of stuff in it that children can interact with.

It doesn’t really matter what the stuff is, but given a generosity of provision of what we call ‘loose parts’, there’s an infinite variety of things children will do with them.  A cardboard tube can be the wheels for something, or a telescope or controls to a spaceship or a pet donkey.  It’s all fuel for the imagination.

In one school I visited, all the children got involved with one single project, a play wedding.  They had a reception and a table and a place where the wedding was going to happen and they had clothes - all just made of junk.  When I asked who was getting married, they told me it was two dustbins.

Sandpits are amazing, the bigger the better, because children sit in them and play alongside each other.  Also good are high quality social spaces, houses, or areas or enclosures that have nice bean bags, reading material, tubs of cars or horses or dinosaurs. It’s where children can sit down and get engaged in their play in close proximity to each other, and then they will play with one another.

How can PTAs get involved in improving play areas?

They can support schools in providing things which maybe are a little bit messier, such as putting in a messy kitchen area, or a little bit more challenging.  They can act like ambassadors, saying, ‘It’s OK for our children to get a little bit dirtier, or have a little bit more freedom, because we recognise that’s good for them.’

It’s also good if they’re less keen to have a big bright shiny thing as the outcome of their money, and instead a lot of smaller, less flashy interventions that provide a higher play value for money.  The PTA wants to show parents a big flashy thing that their money has provided, but if they could instead show parents that all of the children were having a more engaging, enjoyable time at playtimes, that would be a much more productive outcome.

What mistake do you see most often?

PTAs will often raise money for trim trails, which are physically challenging pieces of equipment from which all of the physical challenge has been taken out to make it one hundred per cent safe.

The problem is that they don’t provide any progression of physical challenge.  A four year old will find them mildly entertaining for half an hour or so, but the play challenge of them has then been fully exploited. 

So if you are in the same play environment for seven years, as primary children are, they’ll use anything that’s different, but you’d get exactly the same play value as from four tyres and a piece of plank as you get from several thousand pounds of play equipment. 

I would say to schools, if you are going to invest in a piece of equipment, invest in the most physically challenging piece of equipment you can.  Things that children can’t do straight away, but might be able to do in several years, such as things that use significant upper body strength. 

The worst value is playground markings. They just become invisible to the children, who don’t play on them.

Should schools and PTAs worry about health and safety as much as they do?

No.  In OPAL I use a guidance document from the Health and Safety Executive called Managing Risk in Play and Leisure.  Throughout it, it specifically states that children need and want risk in their play.  It’s an essential part of development.

Our duty is not to stop risk, but to balance the benefits children get from it against the potential for serious injury. 

We had a report from Zurich (insurers for PTA UK members, and many local authorities) which looked at a set of OPAL schools.  They said, as long as the school is sensible, explains why they’re doing what they’re doing, understands the context of the guidance from the HSE, and trains their staff properly, there’s no reason to be nervous. 

And once they do that, well, there are schools that have fire club at lunchtime, have an old caravan on the playground for the children to play in, let them climb trees, go in woods. 

It’s actually more dangerous for children not to be able to manage and identify risks themselves.  If you don’t allow them to identify and make these judgements, you’re putting them in much greater future danger.

What are the best low spend ideas for improving playgrounds?

The best low spend idea for any PTA is to offer to pay for welly sheds, so that every single child has a pair of welly boots that they keep in school and they can access the field in all weathers.

After that it would be large, accessible storage for loose materials. And then the PTA can organise the collection of loose parts – gathering up old kettles, old handbags, bits of carpet, etc as fuel for the imagination.

How can PTA volunteers help?

Volunteers could build really simple structures.  For instance, in a playtime, it’s hard to build a den that stays up, so volunteers could build a really simple structure, like an A-frame to help.

Or it might be something as simple as digging out and constructing a sandpit, lining and filling it with sand. It might be putting aside the time to do a real drive to get hold of and replenish the loose part collection for the school, and it might be coming regularly to chuck away the damaged stuff and replace it.

A lot of schools have willow. If you’ve got one willow house and 100 children, that’s going to be a source of conflict, so you actually want a willow village. Willow sprouts can be chopped off and replanted during the winter, and will sprout up again so you can plant your willow village. 

What can parents do to make their children's play experience better?

Don’t think you have to spend any money.  Give them time to be playful, maybe to go to a woodland or a park or garden, and follow your children’s invitation.  Listen and watch, and as your child invites you, be drawn into their play and they will give you the cues for what they need for their play, or how they want you to be in it.  The biggest investment you can make is to take them to the kind of places where they can express themselves and have freedom.

Have you been involved in designing or fundraising for playground improvements at your school? Tell us about the experience, and what you think children need from a play area by commenting below or on our Facebook page.  And do like and share via social media!

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Michael Follett
Michael runs a not for profit organisation called OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning, providing the OPAL Primary Programme to schools.
He has written a book on the subject: Creating Excellence in Primary School Playtimes (How to make 20% of the school day 100% better), published by JKP.
See http://outdoorplayandlearning.org.uk/ for more information.