Are you making the most of your outside space?

Stepping outside of the classroom door carries an abundance of opportunities to enhance pupil learning and development, says Mark Hardy of the Association of Play Industries.

If you thought the best classrooms have four walls and a roof, think again. Getting children out of their chairs and into the fresh air brings a host of benefits. Children look at the world with fresh eyes when outdoors. You don’t need to travel far – stepping out into your school grounds can open up a world of exciting new learning experiences.

A large outside space is every head teacher’s dream, but for many schools, this simply isn’t possible. Having a small outside space needn’t limit opportunities for children to play, learn and be active. With expert planning and creative design skills, an accredited member company of the Association of Play Industries (API) will transform an unloved, unused spot into a hub for outdoor learning.

Improving your outside space can be a significant investment so you want to be sure the company you choose knows what it’s doing, has the experience and expertise to provide a solution that meets your objectives and budget, knows schools inside out and will be in business way beyond the completion of your project.

Reasons for play
If you need persuading that improving or updating your school’s outdoor facilities is a good idea, here are five good reasons. Firstly, 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 children of all ages and abilities.

Secondly, physical activity boosts concentration, learning behaviour and mood. Children have natural energy and enthusiasm so 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 and lunch 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.

Next, school is the only safe place for some children to play. For children in deprived communities, school may provide the only safe outdoor place to play and be physically active.

Additionally, there’s government funding to improve school sport and PE provision. The Primary PE and Sport Premium is designed to help schools improve the quality of sport, PE and active play they offer, and to maintain those improvements. Outdoor play equipment promoting physical activity and movement skills is eligible for this funding.

Finally, open your facilities outside of school hours. Many 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.

Every year, hundreds of schools choose API member companies to help them improve their outdoor facilities. Recently, we asked our members what their school customers had to say about the benefits of improving their outdoor facilities.

They 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 also 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. On top of this, 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. Schools have big ambitions for their outside spaces – 75.7 per cent report that schools want major improvements or complete makeovers of playgrounds and outside spaces.

Advice for schools
For schools wanting to make outdoor improvements, it can be difficult to know where to turn for advice. You’ll find a host of useful advice and information there to help plan a new playground or outdoor space project, including details of API members in your area.

If you want inspiration from other schools that have updated their outdoor facilities, check out our case studies which show a wide variety of designs, equipment, surfacing and solutions by API member companies.

Play matters
The API campaigns at the highest levels for policy recognition of the value of play because the government is yet to acknowledge its vital importance in creating positive early experiences of physical activity for children. Physical activity is a habit so starting early in a child’s earliest years is likely to entrench healthy, active behaviours in adulthood. This improves health and well-being which reduces the burden on the NHS.

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 opportunity to be active and schools have a vital part to play. If we are serious about tackling the root causes of inactivity and obesity, then every school should be able to provide well-designed, high‑quality outdoor facilities. School budgets are under pressure, of course, but the relatively low capital cost required to improve outdoor facilities delivers far-reaching benefits.

To improve child health and well-being and encourage active habits for life, we must look for wide-ranging solutions which engage children of all ages and abilities. While sport and PE are vitally important, they cannot be the only antidote to sedentary lifestyles amongst children. The rigid rules and rituals of competitive sport can alienate some children which can discourage participation and physical activity in adult life.

We campaign vigorously for recognition by policymakers of the value and benefits of play because the evidence of its benefits is irrefutable. We also know that every child has a fundamental right to play, as set out in article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. But with local authority play budgets dwindling, there are many children for whom that right is under threat. A Freedom of Information investigation by Children and Young People Now magazine in 2013 found that 31 per cent of local authorities closed public playgrounds between 2010 and 2013 and cut spending on play by 38.8 per cent during the same period (£67.9m in 2010/11 vs £41.5m in 2013/14).

Research by the API last year found that over half (56 per cent) of parents are unhappy about the lack of high quality play facilities in their local area, with nearly four in ten (38.1 per cent) worried that playgrounds in their local community may close down altogether. Six in ten (61.4 per cent) think the government should be doing more to provide funding for schools to improve their outdoor facilities for physical activity.

Intolerance of childhood
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by ratifying governments. Its latest report paints a damning picture of respect for children’s rights by UK law and policy makers, including the right to play. The report highlights serious concerns about the impact of UK government austerity measures on children, with disadvantaged children ‘disproportionately affected’.

The Committee slams the continued lack of measures to address ‘intolerance of childhood’ and raises deep concerns that children’s views are not being heard. The right to play is wholly undermined, it says, by: the government’s withdrawal of a play policy for England; insufficient provision of spaces and facilities for play and leisure, particularly those accessible to children with disabilities or from disadvantaged communities; a lack of public spaces where teenagers can socialise; and the underfunding of play and leisure policies in the devolved nations.

The Committee reserves praise for the Welsh government for its adoption of a play policy and integration of ‘children’s right to play systematically in relevant legislation and other relevant policies’. This report is a damning reflection of the lack of priority given to children’s lives by policymakers, particularly those that most need state support. If there was ever a chance to make good on the failings around play highlighted, it is with the forthcoming national obesity strategy.

Last year, children’s advocate Baroness Floella Benjamin, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, made an urgent call to government to put play at the heart of policy on child health and well-being. But since publication of the APPG’s Play report, there has been little or no significant change in policy. Our hope is that the government will make good on the failings highlighted in the UN report with bold policy on play and children’s physical activity in the forthcoming and much-delayed national obesity strategy.

Further Information