Tyres are a highly versatile open ended resource that can be used by schools and settings for children of all ages and stages. They take hundreds of years to break down if sent to a landfill site, so opportunities to re-use them make a positive difference.
Using tyres for play purposes
Children enjoy being able to move, stack and manipulate small tyres. Building up a collection for free play at lunch and break times or for use in an early years outdoor space can provide hours of exploration and construction play.
The more different types and sizes provided, the more inventive and complex the play seems to become. Just bear in mind the developmental level of your children and their ability to move tyres around. For example, older primary children like the challenge of using bigger tyres. Yet for a 3-yr old, the challenge of pushing a motorbike tyre may be sufficient.
Some schools decide to keep tyres on the playing field. Others are happy to have them used on hard surfaces. In my experience, children adapt their play accordingly.
Tyres are a form of climbing equipment. Children need opportunities to climb, balance and jump in different ways. The nursery where the above photo was taken, had a selection of tyres that the children would move about to create obstacle courses and to clamber in and out, up and down. Naturally other loose materials were woven into the play.
As well as physical activities, tyres can be used in other ways. For instance, have a look at how to create splash pools from tyres and tarp. Jenny Kable has a super post about creating miniature worlds in tyres on her Let the Children Play blog.
Looking after your tyre collection
Tyres can be sourced from local garages. However they will need reassurance that you will take responsibility for the tyres and not hold them liable for any damages. Furthermore, it then becomes the school’s job to look after the tyres, to keep them maintained and dispose of them in an environmentally responsible manner once they are no longer fit for purpose.
- Only accept or obtain tyres that are intact. Inspect thoroughly and ensure they have have no piercings (such as a nail going through the wire) and no exposed wires and strips. They have a metal mesh inside and once the rubber wears down this can come loose. Remember to check inside the tyre as well as on the outside surface. Use heavy duty gloves to do this, and continue to check your tyres on a regular basis for wear and tear. Replace as necessary and promptly as they can very quickly deteriorate and become sharp. Only use tyres that are in good condition.
- Clean the tyres thoroughly using detergent and water. Check that the tyre surface will not leave black marks on clothing. Some tyres are softer than others and cause more markings.
- If you paint your tyres, use gloss or masonry paint and make sure the surface is clean and dry. Bright colours can look a bit garish to consider using pastel colours.
- If tyres get dirty during play, wash them down with a hosepipe. It’s a lot of fun for children to do this!
- Unless your tyres are covered up, they will collect rainwater! Watch this doesn’t become stagnant and empty out daily.
- In countries where snakes and spiders exist, then painting the insides white and teaching children to check carefully before using are sensible measures to put in place.
- Tyres can get very hot on hot days. In Scotland this really isn’t a significant issue. In hotter countries think about providing sufficient shade especially if tyres are left out to bake in the sunshine!
- If you are worried about use of tyres during evenings and weekends, then running a chain through the tyres and padlocking the line of tyres to a fence or other secure fixing may help prevent this occurrence.
- Some local authorities have guidelines in place about where and how tyres may be stored. This is to reduce the chances of tyres being used to access buildings or being burnt in wilful fire raising. Double check whether such advice exists in your area.
- Make sure that the use of tyres is included in a risk benefit assessment and you have procedures in place for managing the risks and maintaining the tyres.
Creating play features from tyres
It would seem that there are infinite possibilities for creating play and learning features from tyres. In the photo below, the staff at Adventure Aberdeen have been very skilled at developing their outdoor space making good use of tyres. In the background have a look at the dirt bike track and how tyres have been used to create the different levels.
In the middle ground, the tractor tyres have been covered with boards. This can be a good approach to storage but it is also used for team-building challenges. Likewise the tyres in the foreground are part of a low ropes challenge.
Highway Farm makes very good use of tyres on their site. The photo above is of a much loved construction zone in the Little Explorers Outdoor Pre-school. By placing tyres vertically, low-cost climbing structures have been created.
Children love the feeling of enclosure and will frequently stack tyres up for this purpose. At Highway Farm, the children dug a deep pit and created a tyre prison. Of course it is easy to climb up and out!
Tyres can be used as borders. In the example below, they separate gardening areas from the path. I like that the children can also use this form of edging for walking along! All that’s needed is a bigger monster head at one end and you have a Loch Ness Monster edge!
This den at Highway Farm has added attachments for look outs! By infilling the tyres, the structure becomes much more stable.
Very often, vertical tyre tunnels can be made by lining up tyres. Look at the bark chips in the example below. These have been added to reduce the chances of other stuff in the cracks. If you put gravel below tyres and ensure there are holes drilled for drainage then less water will build up.
Sherry and Donna who blog at Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning created a tyre sand pit. They used bamboo sticks and materials to create a den or “cubby”. They have kindly allowed me to show you what this looks like:
This sort of den would appeal to most children of any age! Tyres make great places to house other materials. As well as sand or soil, consider, gravel, coffee beans, pine cones, shells and other natural materials.
Painting tyres is popular. This is a “seagull seat” which is simple, effective and easy to do – the idea came from the children who wanted a place to sit in their rainbow garden. Using the markings on tyres can also lead to some lovely designs.
Tyres for gardening
Permaculture enthusiasts seem to have lots of ideas for using tyres in gardening projects. I would recommend the book Getting Started in Permaculture by Jenny Mars. Here’s some ideas I’ve seen during the past few years:
It’s hard to believe that this miniature pond at the Rosmarynek Permaculture Garden in the Czech Republic has been created within a large tractor tyre. It is possible to disguise tyres very well!
Another clever idea is to use tyres as storage! Look at how this school has used tyres to hold their supply of bamboo canes!
This planter represents the sun in a “Rainbow Garden”. I like the way the children chose marigolds to plant there. If you do paint tyres, it does look better if the flowers grown there complement the colour of the tyre. It’s a good idea to line tyres with a porous mesh right up to the rim so that the soil can be contained should you need to move it about. Tyres can also be stacked up for plants that have deeper root systems, such as potatoes or to enable children to access them without the need to bend over.
At this nursery, the tyre planters are used as traffic islands in the cycling area. The advantage of large tractor tyres is that they are immovable and the plants won’t be damaged by children bumping into them. The wide rim can also be used for sitting or playing on too.
For me, the best use of a tyre has to be as a swing. Tied to a tree. Do you remember the hours of fun to be had? For good advice about rope swings, then have a look at this Forestry Commission document. It is also worth getting hold of Children’s Tree Swings – A Guide to Good Practice published by London Play.
For lots more ideas about creating play features out of tyres then have a look at the Pinterest boards of Hilary White and others. It is always worth seeking professional advice to ensure any structures meet playground equipment standards (or whether they need to, depending on what is being proposed). This document from Worcester Council also gives lots of good ideas.
Health and environmental issues around the use of tyres
A commonly asked question when I work with schools on loose parts play or developing their grounds is that of safety around tyres. The production and composition of tyres involves the use of hazardous chemicals and metals. So it is reasonable to consider the health and environmental impacts of tyres in children’s play.
There is substantial amounts of research about shredded tyres and the use of crumb rubber on artificial playing surfaces. The easiest research collection to access is through the Rubber Manufacturers Association. These papers and literature reviews suggest that the risks are very low. How biased these research papers may be is difficult to tell.
I could not find any research online about the use of whole tyres in children’s play. This is very different to the use of shredded and crumbed tyre products, not least because of the difference in surface area – the whole tyre will have a smaller surface area. Thus the amount of hazardous material which can make its way into the environment is likely to be considerably less . In relation to other risks around the production and use of cars and other vehicles, perhaps being concerned about tyres in children’s play is less of an issue.
Another concern that is sometimes raised is around the use of tyres for gardening and the potential for chemicals leaching into the soil. I found inconclusive evidence that this is something to worry about. However I would genuinely welcome references to specific research on this matter (not opinions but actual links to published research documents) to help me find out more. Again, perhaps here, we need to be thinking in a broader context about the need to repurpose tyres in so many societies world-wide.
Finally, tyre dumps are a recognised fire hazard. Whilst they are hard to ignite, once they are on fire they burn at high temperatures, emit toxic fumes and can burn or smoulder for a long time. Big piles of thousands of tyres though is very different to having a few made available for play purposes. Nevertheless educators and play workers should be aware of this when storing tyres and manage this risk accordingly.
All-in-all, I hope this blog post is of use and perhaps a good place to start effectively examining some of the issues raised. I look forward to your comments 🙂
(This blog post is an up-dated and revamped version of a previous post I wrote five years ago).