Loosely Speaking (Play in schools is flawed)

Written by Andy Carley, Director of SOuL


I typically visit more than 50 schools per year to advise on and find solutions for their outdoor play and learning provision. More and more at School Outdoor Learning we are being asked to look at and offer solutions for play spaces and resources. When looking at play provision, my heart often sinks as I hear about and observe play practice and provision.

The Situation
  • Play solutions tend to consist of standardised, large structural elements, broadly very similar in design and style as supplied by a small number of suppliers through a plethora of installers. Uniformity and conformity are the order of the day and often play is seen through the eyes of an adult, not child!
  • These structural items are then often fashioned into themed designs such as pirate ships, forts, trains etc. Form and function combine into a highly prescriptive formula leaving little scope for real imagination and creativity.
  • We see children looking ‘bored’ in empty, sterile spaces.Ball games tend to be the default activity for many of the children during periods of play. What about the significant numbers of children that are looking for a different stimulus or those who require space for quiet reflection, reading or imaginative role play?
  • Play is rarely given the degree of importance that it deserves within a school day. There is often a lack of connection between supervising adults and children. Rules, whistles, ‘no go’ areas and ‘don’t do’s’ seem to prevail! ‘It’s herding rather than learning’ in a brief respite between formal teaching periods and we miss the amazing opportunities that exist within the play space and time.
  • Loose parts, tactile and role play tend to be only for the younger years. However, children of all ages value and appreciate the ability to build, test, create and imagine without devices and software doing it for them. Loose items, mud kitchens, natural tactile materials are just as important for our older children.
  • There is often an OCD like compulsion to tidy stuff away. Schools cultures should be encouraged to leave things out and make play items much more accessible for children and for them to pick up where they left off. Where storage is in place make it open storage with ease of access for all.
  • Where loose and tactile play parts are introduced, they often simply consist of recycled rubbish! Although there is nothing inherently wrong with re-cycling and re-purposing materials and items such as pallets, tyres etc, time and money should also be spent on introducing high quality and robust materials that will last prevent your playgrounds looking like a ‘scrapyard’!


The Outcomes

Then you delve a little deeper and discover some of the more worrying stats and trends that emerge such as:

  • Similar accidents and injuries crop up again and again such as collision injuries between children whilst running, slipping and tripping, falling off monkey bars with uniformly spaced bars and heights above the ground. By establishing more focus and stimulus within your play children are much less likely to injure themselves unnecessarily as they zero in on their own projects in a calmer atmosphere.
  • Many children’s needs are not being met during periods of play. Those who do not wish to kick a football and be highly active and/or competitive, those who wish to engage in calmer activities by sitting and being more reflective, those who need to engage with others and build peer relationships but find this process difficult through conventional play activities and outlets and those who thrive by using their imaginations and creativity.
  • Large sums of money are spent on structures and playscapes that are one dimensional, single purpose and pre-determined. Such as timber trails, clamber stacks etc. By having loose, moving and modular parts we inherently build in creativity, imagination, relationship building and flexibility across many domains. And this often comes at a fraction of the cost of large structural items and the ability to progress and build an equipment inventory over time based on what works at your school. We need to remember that meaningful play is 10% toy and 90% child!

The Conclusions

Play opportunities and solutions within schools seem to have become more sanitised, standardised and simplistic and we are failing our children in many ways. In critically assessing the play provision and opportunities at your school, ask if you are creating ‘engineers’, ‘imagineers’, collaborators, independent thinkers and leaders.

The Challenges to Address

We ask simply, does your play provision enable you to apply the 5Cs across all age groups:

  1. Creativity– Pirate ships and trains are OK, but children must be able to create their own worlds and playscapes. Everything looks different through the eyes of a child. ‘Don’tbuild it and they will come’!
  2. Construction– Providing opportunities for children to design and build so as to learn the fundamentals of forces, structures and materials, gross and fine motor skills. And all without them even knowing it! Play meets learning and learning meets play in a perfect intersection.
  3. Connection– By building in materials and items in their most natural state and encouraging children to play in natural green spaces on your school site they generate a tactile connection with and deeper understanding of the natural environment.
  4. Collaboration– Play apparatus and environments should bring children together, both with their peers and children of other ages. Stories and role play, constructing and building, sharing materials and equipment will help children to build relationships, demonstrate empathy and manage their emotions.
  5. Challenge– We must allow for greater risk taking (physical and emotional) to take place within play periods and environments at our schools. Failing and falling, construction and collapse, problems and perseverance will help to build resilience, critical thinking, communication and independence in our children. Make things harder, not easier, so as to build more intrinsic motivation within your play environments!


Some Solutions

Creating and building a large stockpile of ‘Loose Parts Play’ items will address many of the problem areas and challenges raised above. Here are a few principles you can apply:

  • Try to get beyond just ‘scrap’ and provide items that are high quality, robust and long lasting. Upcycling can work really well but make sure you are not simply adding to your waste bill after a couple of weeks.
  • Create a mixture of natural and man-made items as this will give us much greater scope and make the packs more accessible and affordable (in many cases getting items for free).
  • Make sure children have as much sensory stimulus as possible. Colour, texture and heft all creates real appeal.
  • Include items that are usable for as wide age range as possible so as to make them more versatile. There will be a few exceptions or items that might vary in size from younger to older children. However, ultimately, the parts are the parts and, so long as they are able to be picked up and handled, children of different ages will simply do different things with them.
  • Create an inventory of items that you might need and set about acquiring them (see below for a list of ideas). Some specialist items might need to be purchased but many others could be found. Send a ‘wish list’ out to your wider school community of the items you need and many will be brought in. you may have parents who are tree surgeons, horticulturalists, builders and other trades people, firefighters, members of sea/mountain rescue teams.



Items you may wish to include in your inventory are as follows:

Natural Items
  • Boxes with rope handles for building, balancing and journeying off the ground
  • Planks of different lengths for bridging and constructing. Treated softwood can be good but long lasting accoya/tricoya/marine ply will last a lot longer.
  • Bamboo guttering sections of different lengths
  • Sticks and poles – probably hazel and smooth hardwood dowel
  • Logs and wood slices (oak and other hardwoods will last longer but beware of thin oak slices as they will split)
  • Wooden blocks (offcuts of oak/beech work well) with holes drilled in so that they can support posts for guttering and ball runs.
  • Sensory boxes filled with natural items such as fir cones, acorns etc.
Man Made Items
  • Mats of different sizes – rubber or plastic
  • Puzzle items such as draughts and chess pieces together with a designated puzzle zone
  • Nets and hessian sheets
  • Ropes of all diameters, lengths and colours
  • Plastic pipes, guttering and ribbed duct pipes with connectors (for ball runs and ‘’tubey telephones’)
  • Black and whiteboards (portable)
  • Gridded tarps with maze activities on
  • Tarps for shelter building with pegs and paracord for guylines
  • Artificial grass mats and sections
  • Plastic crates (ensure that they are stackable)
  • Tyres – can be got for free from any tyre fitters but drill holes in them to allow water to escape so they don’t become too slimy and grubby. If they are going to be well used do not paint them as the paint will only wear off and there is a health risk from the chemicals in paint if ingested.
Staff Training

It might also be worth thinking about internally (or contracting with an external organisation) designing and delivering some staff training on great play practice for teachers, play supervisors and TAs. Whoever is at the sharp end of play design, creation and supervision at your school.

How SOuL Can Help

School Outdoor Learning offer advice and guidance on enhancing your play provision and environments. Our ‘Loose Parts Play Packs’ can be delivered to your school to get you started straight away. Also, our ‘All-Natural Playgrounds’ offer environments using materials in their most natural form. Both are suitable for a wide range of ages (EYFS to KS3) and can also be accompanied by training sessions to provide the skills and confidence amongst your staff team to use them safely and effectively.