Spring means making the most of the outdoors

With warmer weather upon us, schools should review their outdoor play facilities and upgrade those that are worn or fail to excite children. API Chair Mark Hardy shares some advice on what to consider when planning outdoor improvements

The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the winter months are warming into spring. It’s the perfect time of year to throw open the classroom door and head outdoors. If you thought learning through play and outdoor learning were just for the Early Years Foundation Stage, think again. There is plentiful evidence that outdoor learning delivers a raft of developmental and educational benefits for children of all ages and abilities.


There’s no need to travel far. Your school grounds, playground or playing field can open up a world of exciting new learning experiences. Having a large outside space is every head teacher’s dream but for many schools, this simply isn’t possible. If your school has limited outside space, don’t despair.

Small outside spaces needn’t limit opportunities for children to play, learn and be active. With expert planning and creative design skills, the accredited member companies of the Association of Play Industries (API) are here to help. Whether transforming an unused spot into a hub for outdoor learning or designing brand new play and sports facilities, you’ll get great advice and customer service from the UK’s leading play companies.

Improving your outside space can be a significant investment so you want to be sure the company you choose knows what it’s doing and has the experience and expertise to provide the right solution for your objectives and budget. You can be sure that those criteria – and many more besides – will be met by API members.

API member companies are reputable, committed to high standards and quality, abide by a Professional Code of Conduct, and agree to be rigorously checked for financial stability and security as part of our membership criteria. In short, using an API member guarantees peace of mind.


If you need persuading that improving your outdoor facilities is a good idea, here are some good reasons. Children of all ages learn through play. Learning through play is a Trojan Horse for all the learning experiences that will follow in a child’s school life. Without even realising, children develop knowledge, skills and lessons for life, from confidence and endurance to communication and leadership. Providing time, space, opportunity and a positive attitude to play benefits all children.

Physical activity also boosts concentration, learning behaviour and mood. Children have natural energy and enthusiasm. Make the most of it by building physical activity into the whole school day. Use your playground and outside spaces to get children moving during lesson time, break times, before and after school, and for extra-curricular activities, as well as during sport and PE. It’s not just physical literacy levels that will improve; schools report improvements in behaviour and well-being too.

What’s more, for some children, often from deprived communities, school is the only safe place to play and be physically active. Schools should also be aware that there is government funding to improve school sport and PE provision. The Primary PE and Sport Premium is designed to help schools improve the quality of physical activity provision and maintain those improvements. Outdoor play equipment promoting physical activity and movement skills is also eligible for Sport Premium funding. The government has announced a boost to this fund in recent months following introduction of the new soft drinks levy.

Many local communities lack high‑quality facilities for sport and physical activity. Opening your facilities to clubs and the local community outside the school day raises the school’s profile and could generate an additional income stream.


How can you tell if it’s time to update your outside facilities? API members have identified three tell-tale signs that indicate that an upgrade is in order. The first is if your equipment has come to the end of its usable life, poses a safety risk or is dangerous. Rotting timber, rusty metal and broken parts all signal the need to replace equipment.

The second sign is if facilities are failing to support children’s learning and development, and the third sign is if children have lost interest. Tired spaces and equipment with limited play value hold little appeal for children. If these tell-tale signs ring a bell, it’s time to take action – and that means consulting a play professional.


When planning outdoor improvements, schools should first consider its aims and outcomes: what do you want to achieve from your outdoor facilities and how will you know if you’ve achieved it?

The budget needs to be thought about, and whether making CAPEX investment or fundraising for improvements, the API website’s funding section is a good place to start.

The next point to consider is capacity – how many children will use the facilities at any one time and what will they use it for? Play equipment standards are based on minimum user numbers, not large numbers of children playing at the same time. API member designs are based around maximum usage.

Surfacing needs some thought too. Safety surfacing protects against injuries and can be used to create different themed areas. From man-made options to natural surfacing, API member companies advise clients on the best options for their brief and site.

Risk assessments do need consideration but needn’t restrict children’s enjoyment of playing and being active. Children enjoy and actively benefit from a degree of risk when playing. API members reject ‘cotton wool culture’ and build challenge into every design.

When commissioning new play facilities, it is important to make sure play equipment and surfacing conforms to relevant standards – they are viewed as best practice. Avoid contractors that dismiss standards.

Before children use new equipment, a post-installation inspection should take place. A registered, certificated Register of Play Inspectors International (RPII) inspector should check facilities before use.

The last point to consider is repair and maintenance. Regular servicing and replacement of worn out parts is essential to keep play equipment safe and compliant with standards. API members provide nationwide maintenance and repair services.


Every year, hundreds of schools choose API member companies to help them improve their outdoor facilities. When asked recently what their school customers had to say about the benefits of improving their outdoor facilities, members said that schools want to help children be as active as possible.

The top three objectives for school customers to improve their outdoor facilities are to increase opportunities for active outdoor play (85.7 per cent), physical activity (68.5 per cent) and outdoor learning (62.8 per cent).
Children move more when schools improve their outside space – 68.5 per cent said schools report an increase in children’s physical activity following outdoor improvements.

Behaviour and classroom learning improve too – 45.7 per cent said schools report better behaviour and 28.5 per cent report more positive attitudes to learning as a result.

Enquiries from schools are increasing – over a third (34.2 per cent) say increasing numbers of schools are getting in touch for advice on how to make more of their outside space.


For schools wanting to make outdoor improvements, it can be difficult to know where to turn for advice. To help, the API has developed a dedicated hub for schools. At Schools Get Active you’ll find a host of useful advice, information and case studies, plus details of local API members.

Despite evidence of the benefits of play to child development, health and well-being, the government is yet to acknowledge play as a priority. The API campaigns at the highest levels for policy recognition of the value of play.

At a time when physical inactivity poses as big a threat to public health as smoking, it’s hugely important that children have time, space and opportunities to be active. Schools have a vital part to play in getting children moving more and the API is here to help them achieve that.

Further Information: