Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Primary school play equipment is failing our children… and what we can do to address it

Primary schools are still getting the sums wrong when it comes to children's play. How so?  A key issue is that Playtimes are often subject to too many restrictions, cuts and compromises, typically judged as little more than ‘cooling off’ periods between lessons. This equates to sending children the message that their playtime is neither valued or valuable. Yet numerous studies (and common sense) show that outdoor play is an essential part of productive, positive learning. But as long as the message sent by schools is that playtime still lacks value, the more a slippery slope builds. The restricted nature of playtime leads children to feel frustrated, even misbehaving. This misbehaviour becomes falsely associated with playtime, and so the negativity continues. What clearly needs to be re-evaluated is the value placed on play in primary schools. Already at the forefront of helping  with this is OPAL (Outdoor Play and Learning), a programme which seeks to  work with schools to show that investment in play can lead to greater positivity, reduced misbehaviour and does not have to be expensive. 

The value of outdoor play is getting more attention in mainstream media (like my last article), and this is good, but the reaction of schools can be the opposite – acting as quickly as they can by impulsively choosing play equipment they assume ‘looks good’.  Equipment can facilitate, but it does not create good play. Plus, this equipment is often expensive, seemingly bought under the assumption that a greater cost will bring bigger value to children. To assume this is to misjudge the free, exploratory nature of play itself.  Another sad thing is that many companies appear to be capitalising on unsuspecting schools, selling equipment which has very limited play value and only very short term benefits – at big prices. It looks valuable, but does not bring value : and this needs to be addressed. This is where programmes such as OPAL come in. OPAL supports a much more carefully considered approach to schools investment in play by helping them avoid spending money on expensive capital items which have very little long term play value.  It reinforces positivity. Plus it
works to make schools consider what ‘value’ is in relation to play really is, as Director Michael Follett reflects:

“Children play with difference of any sort, so even a hole in the ground will provide play value. Schools should be able to make much better informed judgements about why they are spending so much when their money could provide much greater value if spent differently.”

Properly selected play equipment can bring out the best play opportunities for children, can help with behaviour problems and is not necessarily expensive.  Schools need to stop looking to high prices and fancy appearances for reassurance.

Stop being tricked by Trim Trails

A particular issue lies in outdoor play equipment which ‘looks fun’ for the first few days; but beyond the illusion of its ‘bright’ appearance it is often bland and lacks actual sustained benefits.  The most guilty culprit is the ‘Trim Trail’. These trails are typically low-level wooden or metal obstacle courses, like those you usually see in a public playground. This type of equipment expects children to complete a ‘circuit’ of obstacles, moving on from one piece to the next piece in line like items that move steadily along a conveyor belt. Inevitably, children don’t opt for this approach – and instead use the trail at various points when they feel like it – often blocking it or interrupting it for others.  The second problem is the Trim Trail is designed to be physically challenging play equipment, yet actually comes with very little risk or challenge. In order to assure complete safety the physical challenge has been minimised meaning that children master it within days, hours or often minutes! 

This raises the key issue: surely play should be constructive, rather than reductive: not reducing a child’s task to going round in minimally challenging circles? The beauty of good play is that it can lift children out of the pressure of routines and offers freedom of expression and self-direction.
It’s an interesting thought then that the play equipment assumed to be ‘fun’ by schools could be actually limiting to children. Why? Because the play offer is both limited and fixed, there is no opportunity to alter, change or be creative or imaginative. It could even be the case that children are coming home feeling frustrated because their play equipment, and the way adults manage it, has  again been a source of obstruction rather than construction.

Because school play equipment like this is often present in school playgrounds but not serving the needs of children, this can lead teachers and parents alike to draw the unhelpful assumption that outdoor play is disruptive. Surely if outdoor play was a benefit to children then they would be enjoying such equipment to its full extent? There is an importance here, however, of looking beyond the Trim Trail  and at the detail. Outdoor play is well documented as being is highly advantageous to children of all ages. This is supported by  the national organisation Learning Outside the Class Room (LOtC)  which argues that ‘Children need an outdoor environment that can provide them with space, both upwards and outwards, and places to explore, experiment, discover, be active and healthy, and to develop their physical capabilities’ –  with play a part of this. Now consider equipment like the Trim Trail. With its typically very low level structures and set circular course, it is hardly a structure which supports development ‘upwards and outwards’.

Skeletons in the playground

Action research by OPAL shows that when trim Trim Trail equipment is introduced to schools, there is an initial flurry of children using it (after all, children will be excited to play on anything new) but after the first six weeks, usage falls to levels as low as 5-10% of playtime involving the equipment, used only by 5-8% of the school population. This suggests such equipment is not bringing big benefits to children and under-usage again causes unhelpful assumptions to be drawn – teachers and parents conclude that play equipment is not a worthwhile investment.

OPAL however is working to highlight  that investment in play can be worthwhile and manageable. It does not equate expense with success.  Instead it works with schools to adopt a clear set of principles and policies  so all involved can understand how good play is resourced, staffed and evaluated. Schools create their own unique improvement plans and with OPAL offering ongoing support over the 12-24 month period it takes for a primary school to completely change its culture and behaviour, transforming playtimes into a highly beneficial part of the school day.  Already running programmes in over 120 primaries across the country, it is well endorsed by headteachers and in October 2015 was cited four times asgood innovative practice in the All Party Parliamentary Report called 'PLAY'.

Rather than dwelling over play practice of the past, OPAL provides a bright promise for the future. And this does not involve enormous expenses and investments in technology as some might assume. Instead OPAL promotes changes which support children's natural playfulness. For example, in Slimbridge School, where an OPAL programme has been running, children have been offered a range of activities including role playing games, climbing in the bushes, digging and den building, an outdoor office space and even a ‘Messy Kitchen’. The range of scenarios this play provides is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face; so imagine the impact on the children themselves! Rather than the expense of one big item like a Trim Trail, OPAL’s resources prove that play opportunities can be provided inexpensively across a number of areas.

OPAL aims not just to change the equipment available for play, but attitudes too. For more information you can visit their website: . They re-inforce the vital value of freedom in play which goes far beyond monetary value or a piece of equipment. Play, when well-supported, upholds that it is children themselves who are truly valuable.