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How to create playgrounds full of learning opportunities

Marco Boi, Founder and CEO of PlayinnovationTM discusses the importance of playgrounds in primary schools and how they can create plenty of learning opportunities…

Learning Outside the Classroom (LOTC) provides children with exciting, engaging and more practical experiences to enrich their education and help them learn, but how many schools have playgrounds geared up to support this?

Many places can be used for LOTC, from local parks and museums to highstreets and nature reserves, but this often involves considerable forward planning and permission from parents/guardians, meaning it’s difficult to implement on a regular basis. Playgrounds, on the other hand, are always accessible, ready and waiting to bring lessons to life.Marco Boi shares his views on the importance of playgrounds

However, the logistics of taking lessons outside can sometimes be a little tricky, requiring teachers to gather multiple resources, which then need to be set up before the teaching and learning can begin. But what if your playground had been designed for LOTC to create a seamless transition from classroom to outdoor space, with the equipment you need already in place?

The great news is that playgrounds are evolving. No longer just places for pupils to run around and let off steam during breaktimes, today’s playgrounds are being designed to promote and support LOTC throughout the school day, and rightly so. According to an Ofsted study into LOTC, “Such hands-on activities led to improved outcomes for pupils and students, including better achievement, standards, motivation, personal development and behaviour.”

By combining specially designed equipment with bold, inspiring colour schemes and inclusive physical activity and learning zones, these innovative, modern playgrounds are able to boost learning, interaction and discovery in a way that’s harder to achieve with more traditional playgrounds.

The inclusive zones (which we like to call pockets) are particularly beneficial. Unlike the huge, empty playgrounds that many schools still have, zones allow you to offer a much wider variety of activities and learning opportunities to your pupils, both in lessons and during their free time. And while creating zones may sound like a mammoth task, it’s much easier than you might think. For example, adding target games to spare walls and fence systems around your school’s playground or sports court is a straightforward way of dividing a larger space into multiple areas – creating accessible, social environments that cater for as many pupils as possible.

Target games designed for covert learning – when not being used during recreation time – are also fantastic teaching and learning tools for lessons. With a bit of creativity, they can be used to achieve a wide range of learning objectives from the National Curriculum. For instance, the majority of target games involve numbers, allowing children to develop maths skills – such as counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication and more – in a fun, interactive setting that inspires a love for the subject. So, why not tick off that Year 2 objective to ‘Count in steps of 2, 3, and 5 from 0, and in tens from any number, forward and backward’ with a target game, or work on your Year 3 class’s ability to solve number problems and practical problems through the strategic thinking necessary with target games? The options are endless, and it might just help to reignite your passion for certain topics. A win-win.

By creating a playground full of learning opportunities, you’ll also be achieving an even more outcomes of high-quality physical education, school sport and physical activity, as described by the Association for Physical Education, such as developing self-esteem, confidence, teamwork and cooperation, independent learners and effective leaders, and, importantly, physical and emotional wellbeing.

Just as teachers are building LOTC into their lesson planning, it should also be a key consideration for headteachers and school business managers when looking to build, enhance or redevelop their sport and play areas. Providing teachers and pupils with outdoor spaces specifically designed for LOTC opens the door to even more possibilities and makes LOTC much easier to achieve on a regular basis, which, I think we can all agree, is an absolute must if we’re to provide pupils with the broadest scope of learning opportunities possible, encouraging them to feel excited and engaged in their education.  

 

Playinnovation's Crossbar King activity in use in a school playground

Why outstanding playgrounds are essential in primary schools

Playground days live long in the memory. Who doesn’t remember the breaktime stampede as pupils squeeze their way through classroom doors to unleash their energy – whether swinging from the monkey bars (a teacher’s worst nightmare) or playing a game of imaginary, swashbuckling pirates – keeping feet off the tarmac as if it were crocodile-infested waters.

For most children at primary school, other than Physical Education lessons, playtime is the most active part of their day. It offers the chance to have fun, let off steam, build friendships, follow their interests and, importantly, relax away from lessons, which is good for their mental health and wellbeing.

However, there’s much more to playgrounds than first meets the eye. Playgrounds have endless potential for developing children socially, emotionally and intellectually. On a basic level, they’re places for children to enjoy themselves outside of the classroom, but when you start to peel back the layers, they’re places for learning new skills, discovering hidden talents, building self-confidence, being mentally and physically stimulated, and expanding horizons. Absolutely essential for primary schools.

Bring Lessons to Life Outdoors

Keeping primary school pupils on task within the four walls of the classroom is a challenge at the best of times. After all, experts say that, typically, a child can concentrate well for three to five minutes for every year they’ve been alive. This means a five-year-old should be able to manage 15-25 minutes at a time. But, as every teacher knows, concentration is made all the more difficult when the sun’s beaming down outside and the lesson being taught requires a fair amount of focus (oh how we love the summer!

Thankfully, there’s a trick that all teachers can perform… Heading outside to the playground, and taking activities down to a more practical level, allows them to switch up the learning environment to make subjects more engaging and enjoyable for primary-aged pupils. What’s more, children’s concentration actually improves while learning outdoors.

When absorbed in outdoor activities, primary and secondary pupils tend to be much more focused on what they’re doing, avoiding the common classroom distractions and fidgeting that come from being sat down for long periods of time. Therefore, by integrating outdoor learning into their teaching practice, teachers can achieve even better outcomes for pupils; definitely something for headteachers to encourage.

One example is taking maths outdoors. Instead of teaching children to add up using the typical resources you’d find in a primary school’s classroom, why not play a target-based game in the playground, where children get to aim at objects and calculate their scores? It’s a great way to combine practical and intellectual skills to create a fun and engaging learning experience, and it’s a concept that can be applied to any area of the curriculum.  

Besides pupils, teachers also benefit from taking education outdoors. It not only helps them to stay fresh and enthusiastic about what they’re teaching by providing a welcome change of scenery, but it also offers them the opportunity to innovate and push boundaries; surely one of the things that gets every good teacher up in the morning! 

Boy playing basket ballPromote Inclusivity and Physical Activity

We tend to think of playgrounds as places where groups form, while other children are left standing at the peripheries trying to figure out what to do and how best to fit in, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Play is a social activity, and, therefore, by their very nature, playgrounds should also be inclusive. However, that’s not always the case, which is important for headteachers to address.

Playgrounds, at their very best, are places where every child – regardless of friendship groups, ages, abilities or confidence levels – can enjoy being active. In my mind, playgrounds are like their own ecosystems. They should be made up of multiple parts, all functioning together, to offer each pupil somewhere they can go to access physical activity. Too often, playgrounds are one dimensional; not offering the variety needed to achieve this. That’s why playground design and equipment selection is so vital.

For a child with low self-esteem, a playground consisting of one or two areas, where large groups amalgamate, can be very daunting. By creating a more segmented playground, you can offer different areas with different games, which can be played either individually or as part of a group, with graduated challenges and the ability to improve skills. Suddenly, you present a much greater opportunity for all primary school children to be actively involved in playtime to enjoy the social, emotional and intellectual benefits.

This is a large part of what inspired me to establish PlayinnovationTM, which creates educational, innovative and inclusive sport and play areas for schools, designed to inspire and engage pupils, while helping them to learn and develop a wide range of skills within a social environment. For more information, please visit: www.playinnovation.co.uk or contact me via marco.boi@playinnovation.co.uk

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