Free Play Adventures at Broxburn OOSC

16 April 2013 · 6 comments

in Community Involvement, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Outdoor Play, Whole School

You know you are going somewhere good when all you can hear is children laughing and other happy sounds coming out of a woodland. This was my introduction to Broxburn Family Centre’s Out of School Care. For more than a week of the Easter holidays, they have decamped to the woods from first thing in the morning til late afternoon. Children from 5 to 14 years (end of S2) are welcome to attend.

Whilst outdoor out of school care clubs are not an entirely new concept, this OOSC is a bit different. Here the playworkers have developed quite a unique approach to adventurous free play which is proving very popular with the local children.

Everyone arrives at the site shortly after 9am, having been transported up to the site by minibus. The children bring their packed lunches and immediately get down to the business of playing. I was kindly given a guided tour by Lawson, aged 11, who is one of the best ambassadors for play I’ve come across.  Almost all the information in this blog post was given to me by him!

The fire was lit promptly with firewood gathered by children and adults. Porridge was available for morning snack along with fresh fruit – part of the club’s approach to healthy eating. Tea and hot chocolate, along with other snacks are freely available for children to eat. I was given several useful tips for decent recipes. My favourite was dessert burritos – peanut butter, tinned fruit and chocolate (you choose your favourite type).

For any early years educators reading this blog, you may notice the stand over the fire look familiar. It’s a repurposed water tray!!! According to Lawson, the fire is extinguished daily and at the end of the week removed altogether. The stones surrounding the fire help reduce the woodland litter from getting into the fire. He was proficient at using a Swedish fire flint, using cotton wool to start the fire. After years of querying the use of vaseline and cotton wool, I finally got a decent response. Matches get wet. Cotton wool rubbed in vaseline does not!

The fire is used for cooking on as well as keeping warm. Today, afternoon snack was going to be salmon. A gutted and prepared salmon had been bought from the local supermarket. This was going to be cooked over the fire with garlic butter, etc.

At this point, what particularly impressed me was that as well as salmon, 3 rainbow trout had also been purchased. These were placed at a table for interested children to gut and explore. Using knives and a pair of pliers, the children found the liver, heart and all the different organs. After all, it is important to know what you eat. Lawson made a lovely comment about the need to challenge people to “meet eyes with taste.”

Cooking is a much valued activity. Sometimes, popcorn is cooked over the embers, with the homemade  popcorn holder – two sieves on a bambo cane, held in place with duct tape. The foil cover box is a cardboard cooker and acts as a makeshift oven when placed on the grill on the fire.

The toiletting and handwashing facilities were similar to most woodland set ups. There is a peeing area behind one screen and a toilet tent for bigger jobs.

All waste matter is bagged and carried off site. Running water and soap is nearby, with sanitiser available after hands have been air dried.

I was brought up to speed with all the rules. Lawson knew exactly why every rule was in place. A big emphasis is put upon being environmentally aware and limiting impact on the site – “Leave everything as you find it.” All the children know not to break branches off trees. “No hurting animals or filling in animal holes like rabbit holes.” He was able to show me where different animals had been found such as bark beetles.  Tent pegs were not used with the den building. The children weighted the tarps down with logs and used sticks and “common sense” according to Lawson. At the end of each day there was a 10-minute litter search. The site was immaculate and free from litter as a result. Whilst it’s perhaps an unfair comparison, it is interesting that few schools can make this claim about their grounds… is there a lesson to be learned here?

As well as a cosy den with sleeping bags, there were other shelters. The site has lots of space and Lawson mentioned about the sense of freedom he and other children felt up here in the woods. The kids know to stay within the boundaries – a dirt road, wall and single track road. Below is a view of the site from the single track road.

As Lawson put it, “We stay where we can hear the playworkers if they call us.” There was a wee bit of den building outwith the main area and various hammocks could be seen. However the children tended to stay around the nets and fire.

Like with other free play set ups, children have bouts of activity and then down times. The fire worked particularly well this way. There were always children round the fire which was warm and inviting.

The nets were very popular. The main rule with the nets is to remember not to stand underneath them – you might get bounced on! Under the big green net, the children would sometimes lie down to see people come bouncing towards them. The big green net often becomes a gathering space too. Just a lovely place to hang out.

I was shown how to get down from the nets by gripping the edges and somersaulting over the edge! Great fun! In the photo below, Lawson is showing us one of his repertoire of moves.

Although the site is a temporary set up, putting up the nets took Nathan and Simon, two of the playworkers 3 days to do! Thereafter the straps and nets still required regular checks and tightening which takes a couple of hours every few days.

Check out the swing over the mud pit!
These are no ordinary cargo or fishing nets but specially bought ones, following training and advice from Monkey Do. This remarkable company has a wealth of tree climbing experience and the videos on their website are fantastic. Most of what happens at this club should not be tried at home! Or at other settings without support, experience and training.

The adventurous approach has not been an overnight affair. The playworkers also manage the adventure playground known as “The Range.” The woodland area has been used for many years. It began with a couple of slack lines which initially were set up low down. As everyone’s skills and competences have increased, then so has the level of challenge.

The slack line still exists but it is now VERY high off the ground. If a child wishes to use it, then adult supervision is required. The children are attached to a safety line whilst they go across the slack line and back. Halfway back, they can undo themselves from the safety rope and fall backwards onto the net below.

Another piece of kit that has been in use for a number of years has been the zip wire. It was a much plusher affair than the experimental approach of my class. This has been set up so that children can freely access it without direct supervision.

The particular set up with the range and variety of nets has only been in place since September when the first trial took place. Funding was received from the Inspiring Scotland Capacity Building Fund. The playworkers and children gave a joint presentation as part of the bid. It took Nathan and Simon a bit of time to work out the most suitable layout. Even now, things are still being shifted around such as the zip wire.

“This is the best outdoor space we’ve got!”


(Many thanks to all the children and staff for the visit and Paul, the Inspiring Scotland advisor, for setting this up. Also, Broxburn OOSC would like to sincerely thank Oatridge College for allowing them to use their land. Without their cooperation, the project would not have been possible.)

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kierna C April 16, 2013 at 17:44

What a fantastic experience for all ocncerned. Very impressed by the tea of salmon & trout! Thanks again for sharing this with us all.


Juliet Robertson April 16, 2013 at 18:03

For me, this holiday club shows the potential of free play and how it can contribute to children’s well-being and understanding – Lawson’s knowledge of nature was excellent and it was clear he had learned so much through years of going to this club.

Also, I think it raises questions for the outdoor education sector in term of the value of structured adventure activities – how much could be achieved through free play instead … hmm. I’m still wrestling with this.

It also fascinates me, in that this sort of innovation, once again, it’s the play sector which seems to be leading the way…


harriet April 16, 2013 at 20:33

wow, fantastic. Made we want play there too. There is research showing that vestibular movement (bouncing, balancing etc) is really important for emotional development as well as physical and cognitive devt.


Paul Roberts April 17, 2013 at 14:50

Cathy Bache’s Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife Scotland is also a wonderful place of discovery for children. I truly enjoyed my day with Cathy and the children last fall and this in part, along with Claire Warden’s Auchlone Nature Kindergarten has inspired me to open my own nature preschool here in the SF Bay Area.
We’ll be using the site of the preschool during our upcoming international conference: Children Learning with Nature which Claire Warden aand I are hosting in Berkeley / Vallejo, California, USA, May 29- June 1st.

Reply April 19, 2013 at 08:50

Truly amazing. The kind of project everyone should know about – which is why I’m about to share this post on my facebook page.


Juliet Robertson April 19, 2013 at 16:18

Thanks for your comments Tim & Paul.

I agree the Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife is great and run very much along free play principles which is unusual in the education sector.

Also, I hope others do spread the word about this post and this super example of quality free play.


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