In the Play England 'Charter for Children's Play' 2009, it says simply and beautifully that
'Play is the fundamental way that children enjoy their childhood. It is essential to their quality of life as children'
'The school day should allow time for children to relax and play freely with their friends. Young children learn best through play and, as they get older, play supports and enriches their learning. Children learn best if teaching is creative and enjoyable. In school, time and space for play and outdoor learning is as important as formal teaching. School grounds should be good places to play'
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 31 states that every child has:
'a right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts'
And from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, in 'Getting Serious about Play' 2004:
'Play is what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way and for their own reasons.'
It is so easy to think that if a child is playing, they are JUST playing, not learning. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Quite simply, children just don't go outside as much as they used to. The reasons for this have been much discussed in the media and include (in no particular order):
If you are a parent yourself, you will be particularly well aware of all these. Yet think back to your own childhood. Do you remember playing outside 'out of view' of the grown-ups? What did you do… was it fun? What do you think you learned or gained from this experience?
There is a huge importance to enabling children to play (and in doing so, to learn) freely and independently outdoors.
Realistically this is not going to happen as much as it used to in the home environment, so it is all the more important to provide an environment in their school or nursery that enables children to gain at least some of the benefits of this kind of interaction with the outdoors.
Most school settings still predominantly plan children's learning around 'inside' environments. 'Outside' is often seen as the place to just let off steam - where children can pause and play in between more structured learning.
Children do a HUGE amount of learning as they play. Outside spaces offer the most productive opportunities for deep, meaningful experiences that will inspire their development into creative, resourceful learners.
This learning whilst playing never really stops as the children get older. The purpose of improving your outside space - whatever age your children are - not only has the 'all day, everyday' obvious benefits of a 'feel good' space to be in, but also the hidden value of somewhere where children can invent, imagine, problem solve, test their physical abilities and build up knowledge and strategies for life and work.
In other words, by enabling children's creative interaction with the outdoors throughout the day, the knock-on effects of developing skills will undoubtedly feed into more formal learning sessions as required.
There is so much to offer when considering how to improve the outside space. If money is available but no plan, there is often - due to time and capacity constraints - an understandable decision to choose some kind of 'equipment'.
Although well-designed, open-ended use equipment can be of huge benefit and interest to the children, unfortunately so much on the market is not in this category. A huge amount of money may therefore be spent on something that only provides limited physical challenge such as balancing and a small amount of low-level climbing.
A good transition space – preferably covered – allows the children to be able to assess what's going on and where they want to go outside – it gives a moment to pause and maybe to change into outdoor gear. This space can also offer a place to be in itself and is a useful area to contain equipment.
Storage of outdoor resources should be accessible to both adults and children with a hierarchy of shallow shelving containing clearly marked, suitably transportable boxes.
The boundaries and gateways around a site can have a huge influence on how a space feels – formal, informal, overlooked or hidden. They may be peep-through, natural, artistic, interactive… it may even be possible to move them, extending or rearranging the space available to use.
If the area available for use allows, it is wonderful to be able create spaces of varying size and character. Different spaces lend themselves to different uses...so ideally offering some intimate, private, even hidden places; some larger, full of interest and intricacy and some big open and uninterrupted space for simply running about.
Changes in level on a site can be accommodated and celebrated with ramps, steps and platforms, making access for all needs and abilities a really positive addition to the playground.
Pathways and varied surfacing always adds an interesting dimension, both to walk on and to look at. Games and challenges can be organised and invented around and using the different patterns and textures.
Places to sit can be actual seats, low walls, steps or planters with wide edges. These can double up as places to balance, jump off, roll balls down pipes and gutters resting on them. Parents need places to sit too, at the beginning and end of the day, and staff need places to sit and either observe children unobtrusively or be at the same level as a standing child for a conversation.
Shade and shelter can be fantastic imaginary places to be and offer space for a bit of more formal learning as well as socialising. Other, more secret places for children to be out of the view of adults are – as long as the children can still be heard – incredibly important places to include in any setting. Children will actively seek these out to either be with friends or to escape and be alone.
Planting is often non-existent or kept to a minimum in educational settings, yet it makes a place feel so different – nurturing, green, elemental - when it is present. Planting ideally needs to be robust and also useful in children's play rather than precious and untouchable. Thus sensory plants with leaves, berries and flowers that are good to pick and smell and use in play will add massively to a child's experience of that place. Education as to what is safe to play with goes hand in hand with this – not eating unknown berries for example and always washing hands after being outside and before eating.
The constant presence of sand and earth outside is another dimension that enriches a space beyond measure. By being out and available at all times, (staff need not get anything out of storage if only a short time is available) it means staff need get nothing out of the shed to play with if only a short time is available – all the children's needs are there for them in the natural elements of the space.
Water – whether still or moving - is one of the most magical ingredients of a space. With careful thought and planning, it can enrich an area and what the children can do there safely and responsibly.
Ultimately, by integrating all the knowledge and understanding about the outside space you have...combining the opportunities available with what children and staff really need and want… you will achieve the most cost effective, pragmatic and richly rewarding design solution for your site.