Feeling free to play

When asked to recall your favourite play memory from childhood, what immediately comes to mind? Is it being surrounded by brightly coloured plastic and metal play equipment, or are you somewhere else, such as lying flat in a field of sweet-smelling summer grass, looking up at the clouds? Were you perhaps playing with your best friend in the street or in a secret place? How about splashing in a cold stream, climbing a tree, digging in mud or sand, or building a den?

If you can recall that wonderful time vividly, you must have loved your outdoor play. But ask yourself this; is it the structures or the experience that make the difference?
And were adults present, hovering over you as you played? We know the vast majority of children today would rather be outside playing if only they were allowed, so why are we obsessed with controlling and dictating their play? Are we safeguarding their interests, or are we insecure about our own?

If we truly love play and all that it stands for, shouldn’t we be doing more to free up the children of today, who can only access a tiny fraction of the precious space and time we enjoyed?
As you’ve just proved to yourself, there’s often a lot more to a memorable play experience than just standardised manufactured equipment, good though it can be. The truth is that the best play experiences start with adults’ attitude towards play.

Play can only succeed when there is a positive, enabling ethos present. It requires parents, teachers and play supervisors to step away and let go of the reins. Adults must focus instead on providing a culture of permission and a rich, interesting environment, so that children feel free to play as they choose, and have access to the widest choice of materials and places. From that sound beginning we can then consider their safety, and promote activity and wellbeing.

Good quality play
We are all legally obliged by the United Nations Children’s Rights Council’s Article 31, The Right to Play, to provide a better play environment for our children but let’s be honest, do we really think a bleak, windswept and soulless playground is good enough?
Remember, children are at primary school for seven long years, of which a huge 1.4 years is playtimes. Why would a child want to play outdoors at all, when the most entertaining experience likely to be on offer is first aid?

No wonder so many schools have issues with behaviour, wellbeing and slowed personal development. Structured sports lessons and boredom aren’t the answer, better play is.
Good quality play doesn’t require acres of fields; a tiny tarmac area will suffice if that’s all you’ve got. What’s really important is that we all love outdoor play, and we want today’s children to love it just as much as we do.

Love Outdoor Play
The ‘Love Outdoor Play’ campaign is led by Play England, the charity that is the national organisation for children’s play. The campaign is supported by the Free Time Consortium, which is founded on the principle of sharing information and resources to support more children to play more often, and is a growing collective of local and specialist organisations working together to increase children’s freedom to play in our schools and streets, parks and wild places.
The annual celebration of our love of play, now in its 28th year, is called ‘Play Day’. The event is driven by enthusiastic parents, community groups, schools and voluntary organisations who organise their local gathering every summer. This way, hundreds of thousands of children get to experience the joy of play, just as we all did.
Remarkably, there are now many schools who will devote a whole day, or even an entire week, to the celebration of ‘outdoor play and learning’ because they are convinced of the many health and educational benefits which only a challenging, interesting and well-designed playground environment can provide.
And don’t forget mental wellbeing and personal development; they are equally as important as physical activity. The benefits play can bring are so much broader than can be accrued from a narrow, selective band of adult-led lunchtime or after-school sports lessons, and the expert advice and support you might need to help make it happen is already out there, just waiting for your call.

To paraphrase, ‘Play reaches the parts other activities cannot reach’.
In short, a high quality play environment can do much to promote important behavioural, health, social, emotional, cognitive and creative abilities. Over time, it even has the potential to impact on bullying and negative playtime behaviour, and can support efforts to raise classroom attention, attainment and happiness at school.

A ‘win-win’ for schools
What then does a good playtime learning environment look like? I’ve already said it isn’t just a case of reaching for a catalogue and calling your favourite salesman. Trade associations are one of several possible options when the time comes to choose some equipment but that’s the final step in the process, not the first.
The right way to start is always by seeking out truly impartial advice. There are excellent internationally recognised publications and structured training programmes available to schools which cover all the essential information you will need to make a sound judgment before spending any money on adding new features to the playground landscape.
These publications include Design for Play and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) endorsed Managing Risk in Play Provision, both downloadable for free on the Play England website.
They explain the importance of careful, considered planning, the need for a proper understanding of safety law and risks, and the value of good design to a successful play environment. They emphasise the need for children to experience the calculated, managed challenges and experiences which you will provide, so they can add to their inner library of knowledge about the world, its wonders and dangers.
As a recent University of British Columbia study confirmed, all children must directly experience, ‘first-hand’, a broad range of risky, thought-provoking interactions with the world if they are not to have their natural development and learning held back. Just telling them about risk isn’t enough; they need to feel it. The study revealed that “taking part in risky outdoor play improves children’s creativity, behaviour and resilience as well as their health. The benefits come from activities including climbing, jumping, rough and tumble play and exploring alone. Playgrounds with natural elements such as trees, plants and changes in height are best. Youngsters also gain from being free to choose their own activities without restrictive supervision.”

‘Loose-parts’ play
Research into activity levels and engagement in Australian primary school playtimes during 2013/14 found that ‘loose-parts’ play (sand, water, mud, leaves, tyres, cardboard tubes, straw, etc.) and a varied, interesting landscape made the biggest difference of all. Their introduction into a school dramatically affected the children’s tendency towards sedentary behaviour in just a few short weeks.

Physical activity levels and engagement in play rapidly increased, when previously nearly 50 per cent of pupils had been avoiding the formal sports on offer. This improvement quickly reduced the number still not engaged during playtimes to just seven per cent.

And make sure you acquire some good training for your staff from fully independent experts which covers safety, design, policy, management and everything else you might need. That way, you can judge for yourselves exactly what behavioural, fitness, wellbeing and developmental benefits you might want in your playtime landscape.
Don’t just trust to luck, or to someone who won’t have to account for any misjudged decisions. Remember, if ever in doubt, use your favourite play memories to guide you.
Only when armed with this comprehensive knowledge is it possible to make a properly informed decision on what steps a school should take. And ask yourself these three questions. Firstly, does my school ensure informative training, a varied landscape and a positive ethos which promotes play are in place before I choose anything else? Secondly, are they fully established in our playtime environment so that I know my pupils are getting all the health and wellbeing benefits they need? Lastly, when they grow up, will today’s children love play the same way we do?

Neil Coleman is a Play England trustee and a Mentor at OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning CIC, who advises the All Party Parliamentary Group for A Fit and Healthy Childhood.

Further information