Lunchtime Free Play Project with Scrap and Natural Materials

In 2011 Juliet had the privilege of being involved in a wonderful and spontaneous project about “stuff”. This page is a summary of several blog posts which were written in December 2011. It is about Crimond School who undertook a very empowering enterprise project that has improved lunchtimes for many children in the school. The youngest children gathered scrap and natural “loose parts” and actively demonstrate on a daily basis high levels of creativity and imagination in their free play.

Exploring The Stuff

How did it begin?

It happened as much by chance as by intent. Every year, Grounds for Learning and Exxon Mobile run a small project called “Greener Grounds” for a few schools in Fife and NE Scotland. There is usually a theme. For example, one year it was numeracy outside, the next it was a film project and this year the focus was on natural play.

Two staff members, a teacher and a classroom assistant (who also does other jobs including playground supervision) attended a course in June 2011 about natural play facilitated by me. This covered the basic principles of play, the concept of free play especially in a natural setting and the practicalities of developing an outdoor space for improving play. This was followed up by a couple of support visits to the schools involved.

At Crimond School, the Primary 1-3 class were developing the play project. I went along one morning in August with my portable playground containing a variety of natural and scrap loose parts. We began with a quick discussion about practical aspects of playing with the stuff I had brought along. The bottom line was simply, “be sensible”. A couple of reminders about how to use ropes and sticks were also raised as part of this discussion. And then the children played…and played…and played.

Whilst the children played, the school staff and myself had ongoing discussions about the play we were observing. The children were clearly highly engaged. There was lots of cooperative work and socialising happening. There was also many children happy to work alone on specific projects. The creativity demonstrated by the children as they solved practical design and construction problems was very high. We saw and heard much imaginative play as children transformed wood cookies into X-boxes and created shops from sticks and crates.

Help We Need Stuff

Gathering scrap and natural materials

From this session, the children in the P1-3 class at Crimond School really got to work. They reviewed the materials with which they had played and decided what they felt they needed. The school gave the children a budget of £600 for natural materials and certain items which were very popular. They compiled lists of the materials they particularly enjoyed and then wrote to local companies to ask for their scrap materials.

Most of the companies were intrigued. One local DIY store wrote back saying…

“As I am sure you appreciate we receive a large number of requests almost on a daily basis for donations / support for all manner of projects but it would be fair to say that we were delighted that the pupils took the time to write themselves and so it ended up as an agenda point at our weekly manager meeting that Monday which I can assure you is a first ! – so tell them well done!”

The letter concluded with an invite to visit behind the scenes!

Needless to say, a lot of parents and relatives were extremely helpful and gave the class plenty of useful stuff. One grandparent donated an old boat, which makes a perfect play feature. Another very popular item has been this big plastic bore pipe. It is extremely robust. Everyone enjoys crawling inside it and being rolled around.Being a fishing community, there were also lots of fish boxes donated.

What changes were made to current practice?

The school has made some changes to practice. Firstly, the lunchtime staff do not lead the play that is happening. They facilitate instead. If a child needs assistance they are there, but as much as possible the children are encouraged to make the dens, tie the knots and build up the skills required to do this independently.

The lunchtime staff have also organised themselves so that one of the two of them is near where the stuff is. The other floats between the playground and the field at the back of the school. They have found an ideal vantage point where they can see the whole part of the main playground yet are closest to the place where the riskiest play happens.

The staff have found that the older children who do feel confident and able will climb on the walls and swing off the ropes, etc. Those who aren’t confident don’t. Sometimes a little caring intervention is required but this happens only when necessary. For example when a child doesn’t follow the rules which the P1-3 class devised.

Another significant change is that the area where bushes grow has been opened up for play purposes. This has proved highly valuable because the trees can be used for lots of den building and rope work, especially by older children. The den building has continued to be popular. When the winter months arrived and more wet days came along, the sheets were replaced with tarps which don’t need drying out as much. Again, this is a change of practice, in that the children are allowed to play with the stuff when it’s wet and rainy outside.

Because the bush area is now available for play, the school bought some trowels and forks. Also the stuff is available for all age groups. There is no segregation of age ranges. The older ones model ideas and good practice, and more often than not, the opposite happens.

Outdoor Play Rules

What has been the impact?

The Primary 1-3 class initially kickstarted the project, but within a couple of weeks, the older classes had also been “trained”. This was done in exactly the same manner as before. The stuff was taken out during class time. The rules were negotiated with the children. The staff observed the play and audited what they observed in line with Curriculum for Excellence Experiences and Outcomes (EOs). This was an interesting exercise. At first glance it would appear that through the informal play opportunities many EOs are covered. However, because most include discussion and reflection, there is a need for this to happen, perhaps, within a Circle Time session in class time. Either way, this needs more consideration before big claims about curriculum coverage are made.

However if the curriculum design principles are very much in evidence throughout the children’s play. The variety of materials and the freedom to choose completely meets the all principles: breadth, depth, choice, challenge and enjoyment, coherence, relevance, progression and creativity and holistic.

The staff and children all say lunchtimes have become more interesting. The football area is going to be moved to another part of the school to allow for more tarmac space to be used for the stuff. Some children rush to eat their food as quickly as possible so they can get out and play with the stuff. This is even after three months of the project being up and running.
In terms of creativity and imagination, there is both abound! As the lunchtime staff said:

“Every day, the children do different things. It’s never the same. We don’t know what each day will bring.”

What are the issues which arise?

Although, initially there was concern about letting children play with sticks, blocks of wood, pipes and ropes, so far the children have been really sensible about using it all appropriately. But then there’s been a lot of discussion, practice, support and expectations around the use of the stuff. This project hasn’t happened in isolation. It is part of a wider ongoing commitment to learning and play outside. For the past three years or more, the school has been continuously developing its grounds as a place for play and learning as shown in this lovely video.

The biggest issue has been around the storage of the stuff. During the past few months it’s been stacked up in a corridor near the outside door. This isn’t ideal. The school are about to get an outside shed which will mean that it’s much easier to take out and tidy up the stuff. A trick worth remembering is to buy a shed with double doors that allow quick access by more children. A long narrow shed will slow down the process.

The tidying up of the stuff is also a matter to be agreed with the children. At Crimond, everyone helps. Also, (and it’s just a personal opinion) I think having larger items such as guttering and tarp are quicker and easier to tidy away than the little loose parts such as noggins, shells and itty-bits. Whilst these have high play value, too many little bits are a fiddle to tidy up.

Further information

If you want more information about this project, please do contact Juliet directly. There are also plenty of organisations and other people who can provide the free play training for staff along with advice and support on how to develop this sort of project. For example:

  • Michael Follett, a former play adviser in Gloucestershire has a consultancy, Outdoor Play and Learning which has a specific package of support based on years of trialling play improvements in schools. This has been the subject of a highly respected report Supporting School Improvement Through Play published by Play England. He is THE person to ask about this project.
  • Marc Armitage runs a play consultancy and was involved in the evaluations of the Scrapstore Playpod approach. He is highly knowledgeable and experienced in the use of scrap and loose materials in school-based play projects.
  • Grounds for Learning ran highly successful Natural Play Project which also took a holistic whole school grounds development approach that included natural loose parts.
  • Play in a Pod is a Dundee and Fife-based play bus project called Play on Wheels.
  • Scrapstore Playpods have an excellent video and plenty of material on their website.
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