What would you do with this space?

20 September 2010 · 4 comments

in Developing School Grounds & Outdoor Spaces, Early Years Outdoors, Outdoor Play

Hello Everyone

I wondered if you could help a couple of friends who have no pre-school experience and want to develop this outdoor space for visiting groups of 3-6 year olds. It’s part of an outdoor education facility that is an old converted school.

The centre has a very limited budget. As the site is situated near a road, I’ve advised that the boundary wall cracks need fixed and the area made secure through installing proper gates and fencing where it matters. The other big expense could be a traversing wall by drilling holds into the boundary wall (see why below). The grass is a suitable surface for this, providing the foot holds remain 60 cm or lower.

What do you think? Would this be a priority for you? (Parents, teachers, pre-school staff, interested readers who are willing to give an opinion?)

As you can see from this photo there are a couple of concrete slabs, which I believe need to stay as they are something to do with the site drainage. But look…there’s a wee bit of a trip hazard. Would you..

a) Leave it and point it out to visiting groups?
b) Add turf or some other material to make a slope rather than a step?
c) Put a fence or other boundary around it for a wee cubby, sandpit or play area?
d) Something different (and better)?

At the moment the site is essentially wet, mossy grass that’s quite shaded from large trees, outwith the site. The trees within the site have been pruned…

The plan for the tree area is to create a low ropes course. This will act as an informal boundary to the rest  of the site and will provide a taste of the challenging activities to come as the children return when they are older. Beyond the trees is a cycle area that may (subject to funding) become a high ropes course.

One person did suggest that the area should be zoned according to curriculum areas, e.g. having a literacy area, maths area, etc. But I feel a cross-curricular approach is more natural. Also, in my experience, children move things around. So adults can have these grand ideas yet the children interpret them completely differently…!

The next bit of good news is that the stone outhouse can be used for storage. Also there is an outdoor tap. If a hose is bought, water play is really possible.

I’ve suggested that the centre sticks to the “outdoor adventure” theme to keep it special and different from a standard outdoor nursery space. So, some possibilities include:

  • Using old outdoor clothes like buoyancy aids for an outdoor dressing up box
  • Having old paddles, karabiners and other used equipment as part of the loose parts available to children
  • Putting an old sailing boat into the area for imaginative play. I like the idea of children being able to make flags and having pirate props nearby
  • Using old sails for the children to make dens
  • Having outdated ropes for free play
  • Having large loose parts like crates, planks and tyres for obstacle courses and construction work

However PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE tell me your thoughts, ideas and suggestions. We’re not looking for expert advice, just a suggestion or two or as many as you have time to write down. If you blog and have relevant posts, then add links to these. No idea is too far out to be considered.

Thank you, in advance!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

mamatoelijah September 20, 2010 at 20:58

tree stumps, they can form circles for story times, work together as balance beams and in general are aesthetically appealing as well. I also load up my car when I see one being cut down.
Plus palm tree stumps if you can find them are great for hammering nails into and kids love that.


Amy D September 21, 2010 at 14:22

There are tons of ways you can incorporate nature play into a space at little cost! Loose parts areas–as you already mentioned–are one of my personal favorites, particularly in regards to outdoor areas, because loose parts offer such a wealth of play opportunities to children, and natural loose parts are everywhere: stumps, leaves, stones, branches, flowers, plants, dirt. Vegetable gardens or sensory gardens are also wonderful ways to encourage nature play and develop an outdoor area, too.

KaBOOM!, the nonprofit for which I work, offers a free webinar on the benefits of nature play that deals not only with developmental benefits–in which you all are probably well-versed, given that it’s an outdoor education organization–but also with ways to incorporate natural elements into a playspace by focusing on creative pathways, the senses, natural boundaries, etc. You can check it out here: http://playschool.kaboom.org/session_archived.php?id=4910

I’d recommend visiting Greenhearts Inc which offers many resources, including a downloadable booklet entitled 25 Easy Nature Play Ideas for Early Childhood Centers at http://www.greenheartsinc.org/uploads/25_Easy_Nature_Play_Ideas_for_Early_Childhood_Centers_-_website_version.pdf. Similarly, the Children and Nature Network is a comprehensive resource for research, ideas, and activities.


Nate September 21, 2010 at 18:22

I’d imagine that you could find a company to donate either the machinery and labor or at least one of them, to removing those concrete slabs and installing drainage rock/culverts to move the water away from the play area. It’s incredible what companies are willing to do if you explain your story and make the ask. I have found that reaching out and making the ask can be the hardest part, but that it often pays off. Don’t know who to ask or have no connections? I’d recommend you hold an asset mapping activity with all the adults you can get. Start by having each think about a person they know (a friend, a neighbor, a relative, etc) that works, or has connections to, an industry that can help out with the project you’re working on. Compile all of the connections and ideas and then start soliciting them for in-kind donations or machinery, goods, or volunteer time. It’s incredible what you can find in your community.

I would love to see a sensory garden in this area, and maybe even a nature playground that incorporates the natural elements that exist along with some movement of earth to create divots and hills within the space that the children could play on. Drainage will be key, but with the right people on board this could be an amazing space!


Juliet Robertson September 21, 2010 at 19:35

Thanks for all your comments (and to everyone who tweeted suggestions or put them on the Creative STAR facebook page or my profile page)

I think opportunities for using real tools is a super idea and stumps do work well for this.

Most of the suggestions I put to this centre were along nature play ideas. The sensory garden and veg patch are a great idea – whether the centre staff can get organised around the maintenance and management of this sort of resource would be an interesting challenge for the adventure activity instructors! But visiting children could do this as part of an environmental stewardship activity .

Amy – thanks for the links – I’m wondering if you have any specifc advice about inserting boulders into play areas?

Nate – sensible idea about the volunteers and asset mapping (when working with schools, I take this a step further and suggest asking about all hobbies as sometimes these link up really well too).

One way to assist drainage is to plant willow and alder. The willow can be used decoratively as screening and zoning and for dens and tunnels. If the paths have drainage this will make a difference too.

Many thanks once again


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