Are you a Mad March Teacher?

As the Mad March teacher hares towards financial ‘year end’, the race often involves a task that under different circumstances would be a real pleasure: spending money.

However, that last minute rush to spend left over budget (yes, even in these straitened times, most schools and settings have a little bit of underspend) is rarely fun – because lurking in the back of your mind is the fear that by immersing yourself in catalogue and website panic buying, you’re unlikely to be purchasing the resources that will really make a difference to outcomes for your children.  In my experience, it’s often outdoors that feels the ‘benefit’ (I use the word advisedly) of the underspend, with Headteachers and Managers gazing critically at the playground or garden and wondering whether a huge piece of installed play equipment could answer their outdoor play and last minute budget dilemmas in one fell swoop.

I don’t have a solution to the ‘Mad March Hare’ to spend as quickly as possible, but I can offer a few tips to help you focus your ordering for outdoor resources, having helped schools and settings do just this over many ‘year ends’.

This is by no means a substitute for a proper, well thought out and carefully paced development programme – which ideally would involve talking to children, exploring the way your site is used in some detail and over several weeks and undertaking consultations and investigations to identify needs outdoors.  But it could help you concertina some of this work into an intense period of research followed by a sensible, purposeful campaign of last minute spending that will result in the delivery of resources and materials that will make the most of the potential of outdoors.

Put a temporary halt on the buying

Take time out to think about what is really needed in your school or setting.  You’ll still make the end of March spend deadline even if you spend some time talking to colleagues and children and exploring how you currently use the space.

Inventory what you already have outdoors

If you can get hold of a plan of your site (a Google Earth aerial view would do) print it at A3 and mark on the resources and features you already have – such as storage units, planted areas, play equipment, sandpits, etc.

Make a list of the resources available for outdoor play, noting down whether they ‘live’ outdoors (for example in a shed or in the grounds) or are brought outdoors from indoors.

Identify what children are doing outdoors

Use an observation tool you are comfortable with to observe and record how children are using the space and the resources available to them.  Think about affordances – how children use places, spaces and equipment in ways other than those they were ‘designed’ to be used for.

Analyse your observation notes and photographs: what did children appear to be enjoying the most?  Where did conflict arise – and why?  Which areas are over-popular and which are barely used?  Why?  What sort of condition are the resources and spaces outdoors in?  What does this tell children about how your school or setting values their play spaces?

Ask yourself, ‘what do I want children to be able to DO outdoors?’

And don’t ask, “what do I want them to HAVE?” – at least, not yet.  Examine the objectives you have for this cohort of children.  What are you trying to achieve with them?  What are their and your goals?  Where are there gaps in provision?  What could outdoors provide that indoors simply can’t?

List the types of activity or play or learning you’d like children to be able to experience outdoors – for example you might identify that mark making is weak and that outdoors could contribute to improvements.  Or opportunities to be agile might be few, so places and spaces to balance, climb, jump, build strength and co-ordination might be needed. Could your children benefit from places to play in small groups, or to act out stories, or reconnect with the natural world?  Do they need somewhere to make noise or exercise their whole bodies?  Are there elements of your curriculum that could be enriched by being taken outdoors?

If you can, encapsulate this in a sentence that describes your aspirations for outdoors – what you write shouldn’t be too dissimilar to your school or setting’s overall aspirations.  After all, the outdoor space should be contributing to children’s development, learning and wellbeing in the same way you would expect activity taking place indoors to do.

Establish how you could meet these needs with new resources and make a ‘long list’

Examine each item in your list of activities / learning you’d like children to be able to experience outdoors.  What kind of resources would lend themselves to supporting this learning or play?  Think about the development of key skills and where there might be opportunities for resources to meet more than one set of needs.  Open ended resources such as loose parts items are more likely to do this than items with fixed or specific uses.

Brainstorm two or three different ways you could fulfil EACH of the needs you identified above.  As an example, if the priority is to develop children’s communication and language skills, or their creativity, resources to enable role-play outdoors could meet this need.  So a timber playhouse would help, but so would a really excellent den building kit, or a CD player and basket full of clothes, fabric, storybooks and props.  Each of these comes with a very different price tag!

Research costs and logistics for your ‘long list’ of resources

Okay, you can return to the catalogues and websites now!  But this time you’re armed with a clear vision for what you need to buy – and importantly, WHY you need to buy it.  Knowing the rationale behind your spending spree means you are far more likely to end up with resources you’re still using in six months’ time, a year’s time, five years’ time.

Think about open-ended resources; think about sharing resources with colleagues; think about storage (Where will all this ‘stuff’ go?  How will children access it?); think about sustainability (Will it need to be replenished? How often, and how much will it cost?); think about maintenance of the resources (How do we care for it?  Who will do this?  How much will it cost?); think about their management (Should I risk benefit assess this resource?  Does its use need supervision?)

Check with colleagues that you aren’t doubling up on resources you could possibly share (or that they already have).  If you’re ordering several of something or lots of things from one supplier, be cheeky and email or call the them first and ask for a bulk discount – as we say up north, ‘shy bairns get nowt’.  The worst the supplier can say is ‘no’.

Now order your goodies and enjoy!

That’s something of a whistle stop tour of tragedy-free catalogue ordering, but it should be possible to do all of this over the course of a week.  The inventory and observation bits will take longest and it is important to get them right, as they provide the foundations for your decision-making and subsequent spending.Image

These two excellent advice notes by Learning through Landscapes – one for Early Years settings and one for Schools – will help you think about making better use of outdoors, whatever your budget.

If you are in the enviable position of not having to spend a budget in the next two weeks, and would like to explore outdoor learning and play at a more measured pace, please give us a call at Play Learning Life.  We would be delighted to talk to you about how we can help you, your colleagues and, vitally, your children make the most of the potential of outdoors to contribute to better learning and play outcomes.


Announcing the launch of the International School Grounds Alliance: press release

New international group forms to address an increasingly sedentary and risk averse generation of children, disconnected from nature.Growing school grounds movement gains international voice with formation of The International School Grounds Alliance.

Cam Collyer reads the Westerbeke Declaration – the global statement of intent developed during September 2011’s International Green Schoolyards Conference

Berkeley, California (April 24, 2012)

Organisations working to enrich the lives of children through outdoor learning and play have a new global school ground network where they can turn for ideas and support. Leaders in the school grounds movement from Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States have formed the nonprofit International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) (, which brings together a wealth of experience in the fields of school ground use, design, education and management around the globe. The ISGA invites like-minded organisations and professionals to become members and collaborate to nurture and grow the international movement to help schools make the most of learning and play opportunities on their grounds.

“Children around the world, growing up in very different environments and cultural settings, all need engaging childhood learning and play experiences for healthy development and enjoyment,” says ISGA co-founder Sharon Danks of Bay Tree Design in California. “The ISGA is not only a resource, but is also a call to action for teachers, parents, and students to go outside, improve their school grounds and explore the world first-hand.”

The ISGA believes that school grounds should:

● provide powerful opportunities for hands-on learning

● nurture students’ physical, social and emotional development and wellbeing

● reflect and embrace their local ecological, social and cultural context

● embrace risk-taking as an essential component of learning and child development

● be open public spaces, accessible to their communities

The ISGA does this by:

● focusing on the way school grounds are used, designed and managed

● facilitating a dialogue about innovative research, design, education and policy

● fostering partnerships between professionals and organisations across the globe

● organising international conferences, gatherings and other programs

● advocating for student and school community participation in the design, construction and stewardship of school grounds

● promoting the value of enriched school grounds as uniquely positioned, engaging environments for children

To commemorate the founding of the ISGA, the organisation has launched a website and just released a brief new inspirational film, entitled Voices from the International School Grounds Movement, which includes perspectives from leaders in the school ground movement and inspiring photographs of school grounds around the world:

Water course and planting in the playground at Sherman School, San Francisco.


School grounds are crucial childhood landscapes, both in terms of the considerable time spent there and the messages to children (both explicit and implicit) that come from their design and care. They are located in almost every neighborhood, town and city around the world, and often act as important community gathering places in addition to their roles as places of learning and play during the school day. For many children, school grounds are the primary place they play outside—so what they experience there resonates with them and helps to shape who they are.

“In this rapidly urbanising century, there has been a substantial erosion of children’s outdoor time both for play and learning in the space of a single generation. The reasons for this decline – as well as the negative repercussions – are numerous. With ISGA we want to address these issues and reverse the trend.” says ISGA co-founder Cam Collyer of Evergreen in Canada.

In today’s world, children’s opportunities for outdoor learning and play in nature are disappearing around the globe, due to a variety of influences that include:

● cities that are poorly designed for both children and natural systems

● overprogrammed childhoods that leave children with little free time

● powerful parental fears of “stranger danger” and an increasing fear of risk and liability

● school grounds that are barren expanses with little to support children’s play and learning

ISGA co-founder Mary Jackson of Learning through Landscapes in the United Kingdom says, “As research from around the world tells us, learning and play outside can have a truly positive impact on our children. Their results improve, they concentrate more in lessons, they develop their interpersonal and social skills and have improved mental and physical health. Already many schools around the world are seeing this is true as they develop and use their grounds for the benefit of children, but there is still a long way to go and we want to be able to share lessons learned with schools across the globe. The ISGA is a great way of sharing these lessons.”

Join the Movement

We invite organisations and individuals to join us and declare their commitment to creating and caring for these special environments that support children and young people’s learning, play and wellbeing. Membership is free. Join the ISGA to help build this global movement:

● Visit our website – International School Grounds Alliance:

● Sign up to become a member –

● Watch the video – Voices from the International School Grounds Movement:

● Join the discussion in our LinkedIn group: “International School Grounds Alliance — Public Forum

The next ISGA conference will be hosted by Evergreen in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in Fall 2013.

For More Information

● Please contact Sharon Danks at or 510-872-4554

● Inspiring, full color images of school grounds around the world are available upon request.

About the ISGA

The nonprofit International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) is a membership organisation, bringing together leaders in the fields of school ground use, design, education and management. Membership is free. We invite organisations and individuals around the globe to join the ISGA and declare their commitment to creating and caring for these special environments that support children and young people’s learning, play and wellbeing. To join the ISGA, please visit our website:  The International School Grounds Alliance also invites organisations and the public to join an ongoing dialogue about school grounds on our LinkedIn group: “International School Grounds Alliance – Public Forum

International Green Schoolyards Conference, San Francisco 2011

The ISGA formed in Fall 2011 as a result of the Engaging Our Grounds: International Green Schoolyards Conference held in California in September 2011, co-hosted by New Village Press/ADPSR, San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance and Bay Tree Design, inc. This event was the first international green schoolyard conference held in the United States, and the second in a new series of international school ground conferences organized by the ISGA’s three co-founders: Cam Collyer, Evergreen (Canada); Sharon Danks, Bay Tree Design (USA); and Mary Jackson, Learning through Landscapes (United Kingdom). The conference series began with an international school grounds conference in Winchester, England in June 2010, entitled The World Outside the Classroom, hosted by Learning through Landscapes. The next ISGA conference will be hosted by Evergreen in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in Fall 2013.

ISGA inaugural steering committee members include (in alphabetical order; * = ISGA co-founders):

Atlanta Taskforce on Play (USA)

Bay Tree Design, inc. (USA) *

Boston Schoolyard Initiative (USA)

Center for Ecoliteracy (USA)

Children in Nature Collaborative (USA)

City Sprouts (USA)

Community Built Association (USA)


District of Columbia School Garden Program (USA)

Environment Design Institute (Japan)

Evergreen (Canada) *

Green Schoolyard Network (USA)

Grün macht Schule (Germany)

Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education (USA)

Learning Landscapes (USA) Learning through Landscapes (United Kingdom) *

Learnscapes Planning and Design (Australia)

Life Lab Science Program (USA)

Movium – Centre for the Urban Public Space at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sweden)

Naturskolan i Lund (Sweden)

New Village Press/ADPSR (USA)

Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (USA)

Play Learning Life (United Kingdom)

PLAYLINK (United Kingdom)

REAL School Gardens (USA)

San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (USA)

San Francisco Unified School District (USA)

School Ground Greening Coalition (USA)

Teichmann Landschafts Architekten (Germany)

Trust for Public Land, NYC Playgrounds Program (USA)

450 Architects, inc. (USA)

Individuals who appear in the ISGA video entitled,Voices from the International School Grounds Movement, include (in order of appearance):

Cam Collyer, Program Director, Evergreen (Canada)

Dr. Petter Åkerblom, Landscape Architect, Movium (Sweden)

Prof. Robin Moore, Director, Natural Learning Initiative (USA)

Manfred Dietzen, Landscape Architect, Coordinator, Grün macht Schule (Germany)

Dr. Ko Senda, Landscape Architect, Environment Design Institute (Japan)

Ayesha Ercelawn, Garden Educator, Tule Elk Park Early Education School (USA)

Arden Bucklin-Sporer, Executive Director, San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (USA)

Julie Mountain, Director, Play Learning Life (United Kingdom)

Mary Jackson, Development Manager, Learning through Landscapes (United Kingdom)

Helen Tyas Tunggal, Director, Learnscapes Planning and Design (Australia)

Sharon Danks, Principal, Bay Tree Design, inc. (USA)

Bernard Spiegal, Principal, PLAYLINK (United Kingdom)

Birgit Teichmann, Dipl. Ing., Landscape Architect, Teichmann Landschafts Architekten (Germany)

Voices from the International School Grounds Movement was filmed and edited by Erika Brekke. The video was coproduced by Erika Brekke and conference director Sharon Danks. The video was filmed during the ISGA’s 2011 conference, co-hosted by New Village Press/ADPSR, San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance and Bay Tree Design inc.  Video link:

Outdoor Play in the “olden days” – hmmm, thanks for that, Junior PLL the Elder!


Image (c) Google Earth – our flat was at the end of the long block orientated NW – SE and the area in the centre and behind the two smaller blocks was our domain.

I had an absorbing discussion about outdoor play with PLL Junior the Elder today, on our train journey to London for his latest dental drama.  On the way, our train passes the estate I lived in as a young child, and he always asks about what it was like “in the olden days” when I lived there.  Today’s sunshine and blossom took me back forty years and our conversation has had me musing on the nature of free play all afternoon.


Run, Junior PLL the Younger (aka Forrest Gump), run!!

Our maisonette had no road at the front or back, and at the rear was (is) a large greenspace, with trees, bushes, grassy mounds, shady spots and suntraps, deep and creepy shrubberies and garage blocks to play tennis against or British Bulldog between.  The pic below is a Google Earth view of my childhood playscape – this is exactly how I remember it (albeit with fewer cars) so this is not just a view though rose tinted specs!  It isn’t a huge area, but it was enormous to us; I’m still in touch with several of the friends I made in those days, and their recollections support mine; in the early 70s we really were free to go play, so long as we free-ranged with our friends and promised to be back by teatime.


There were no houses around this field 40 years ago, but other than that, this could have been my childhood.

It’s become something of a cliché to begin outdoor play or learning seminars with the question, “what do you remember about your childhood play?” and to follow that up by noting how many memories are set outdoors.  In fact, I rarely ask this question any more; I find myself increasingly in front of an audience I’m coming to think of as the outdoor play ‘lost generation’.  Aged 18 – 30, their parents (and thus they themselves) were the first victims of society’s increasingly skewed perspective on (some might say obsession with) stranger danger, risk aversion and H&S myths.  The media’s rush to sensationalise incidents that in fact represent vanishingly small risks to children’s safety in the grand scheme of things didn’t and still doesn’t help.

Many of these adults, who are now working with children themselves, did not in fact play outside as children.  They don’t have these ‘shared memories’ – or at least their memories don’t encompass freely chosen outdoor play as readily as I and others of my age recall it from ‘our’ childhood.  The two Junior PLLs WILL have play memories we will be able to share and compare in later life: as a parent I try to model the actions I promote as a practitioner.  I hope (and believe) that Mr PLL and I allow our boys age-appropriate freedom to roam and to choose when and where to play out, what to do when they’re out there, and with whom.  Don’t misunderstand me; we do have rules (they are only 4 and 7 after all) and we do fully expect broken bits of bodies at some point in the future.  Nevertheless, we begin with the premise that the Junior PLLs are sensible, dynamically risk assessing, adventurous small people who look out for each other and for their friends – just as ‘we’ did as children.


Outdoor play occupational hazard: cow pat on your leg.

My family is extremely lucky to live opposite a large green public space; the Junior PLLs and their friends truly make the most of it, throughout the year.  As those of us in the northern hemisphere move into what we hope will be a fair and warm spring and summer, we ought to be considering what WE will do in order to ensure ALL the children whose lives we are privileged to touch are able to enjoy the sheer joy and freedom of independent outdoor play.  Those memories of free outdoor play are precious and diminishing – but by no means extinct.  I want Junior PLL the Elder to be sharing recollections of his childhood with his own children, but that’s an easy ask – I know he will.


Only equipment needed, some sticks, an old throw and bags of imagination. Oh, and vitally, Outdoors.

We should really be asking, “what more can I do to make sure that all children are able to collect these experiences and memories?”  That question will be occupying my thoughts in the coming weeks.  Amongst other excellent blogs and websites, Rethinking Childhood, Love Outdoor Play and Playing Out will help us focus our ideas and provide motivation and inspiration for action.

Stick stomping, and other timber tales

...then the rest of us abandoned them to go eat halloumi. I took them a lot longer to get back out than it did to get in. Were we bad, for sniggering and eating marshmallows at them?

I was delighted to be invited to deliver a couple of workshops at the Slough Early Years Outdoor conference in March.  Even better, lovely Sharon Bright and equally marvellous Hazel Thorpe were prepared to indulge my current stick obsession, by positively encouraging me to share my (quite extensive) stick collection with practitioners from across the borough.Sure Start manager Julie Quinn introduced the day by expressing her disappointment at the blazing sunshine outside; we all looked slightly puzzled until she explained she’d hoped for raging storms and pelting rain in order to make the point that outdoor play can be enjoyed in ANY weather.  True, of course.  However, I don’t think I was the only person rather glad to feel the sun on my back.

My 'presentation'. I think it's essential to keep up with the latest technological breakthroughs...

Gail Ryder Richardson of Outdoor Matters! began with a rousing address on the benefits of outdoor play for young children, and what she expected to see in the revised EYFS (due out any day now, though I don’t recommend you hold your breath).  She made excellent use of an excerpt from Jan White and Siren Films’ documentary Toddlers Outdoors: Play, Learning and Developmentto illustrate how little is needed by way of ‘equipment’ for a toddler to explore and enjoy his environment.  In fact, as the audience agreed, the single most important element was the engaged, attentive and respectful practitioner, who supported the child’s fascination with a hill and a stick, patiently and with interest.

My workshop looked at ways of introducing sticks of all shapes and sizes to every day practice, and participants were invited to explore the materials, consider how they could support the six (three plus four) areas of learning and collaborate to create new activities for their settings.

Pampas is one of my favourite sticks and I loved how they were used on this teepee. The wind kept blowing tiny seeds around, as if they were snowflakes.

We began with a bit of stick stomping – always a great way to blow away any cobwebs.  I have around a dozen very long, very straight and pretty hefty staffs.  We used them to beat out rhythms in sequence, to help us spell out simple words and use our whole bodies to make sounds.  Then we used them to show off our balancing skills and hand eye co-ordination, tossing them in the air and catching them… well, mostly catching them.  I explained that with young children, I’d provide staffs half this size – taller than the children’s bodies but not so substantial that they become unwieldy.

Discussing how to arrange the sticks in order of size. That odd shaped one has a mind of its own: is it actually the longest, we debated? It was certainly the least willing to lie flat.

The conference was themed around challenging outdoor play, with other workshops looking at forest school skills and getting babies and toddlers active and motivated outdoors.  My groups examined real tools for making and doing with sticks, discussing the barriers to using tools and sticks in the setting and demonstrating how they’d mitigate risk and supervise the use of tools.  Then I set them loose with the stick collection, the tools and a myriad of free and found objects from my *ahem* crammed resources store (endearingly, my husband still calls it the garage).

Yes, alright. Your stick IS bigger than any of mine...

As always with early years practitioners, latent creativity leapt forth at the first opportunity.  Not only were the sticks and the other natural materials employed with wit and flair, practitioners made use of the environment they found themselves in (the courtyard of a very smart, new build school) to inspire their creativity and shape their work.  Exactly the point: you don’t actually need a flashy or expensive outdoor space to encourage dialogue, movement, risk taking or socialisation – what you need is enthusiastic, hands-on practitioners, able and willing to help children make the most of the spaces that truly ‘belong’ to them.

The shadow of this mythical creature's head became part of its tail. Loved this structure so much.

We ended the session by cooking halloumi and marshmallows over a fire; the group helped build it, and whilst we did so, they raised issues about safety, permission, food hygiene and insurance plus the questions they’d expect to face if they suggested having an open fire back in their setting.  I think (hope) that between us we were able to address all of these in a positive manner.  Certainly in the ‘my next step’ postcards I asked the group to fill out, many noted that by the time I’d posted the card back to them, they’d have tried out some form of fire in their setting, be it incense sticks or nightlights, or a full campfire.

Conversation, collaboration, creativity - this group made a beautiful washing line, with stunning and mysterious shadows cast onto the paving.

A super sunny day and a truly eager crowd at Slough; the buzz of conversation over (a spectacularly delicious and locally sourced) lunch confirmed that everyone had connected with the morning’s discussions and endeavours.  I wasn’t attempting to offer the participants forest school ‘lite’ with my workshop; I admit to one or two ‘issues’ around forest schools, but that’s for another time.

The venue had its own woodland right on the edge of the grounds - what a amazing resource to have available every day.

There is a place for large, inherently risky natural materials IN the setting, EVERY DAY.  Sticks are not just for the woodland – they offer infinite opportunities for free play, directed play, purposeful learning, personal investigations and collective fun.  We all saw the potential for using these fabulously sensory and tactile objects (voted #1 toy of all time) in a different way in the setting; separated from the woodland, each stick becomes special.  Even in the brief time they had together, participants began to feel a connection with their stomping stick: evaluating its weight; testing its structural qualities; feeling its texture and shape and anticipating how it would respond to their movements.

I’m hoping for nods of recognition from the participants in my workshops, when their own voices drop onto their doormats in the form of their handwritten evaluation postcards in four weeks’ time…

Stick story books, stick activity books, stick poetry, stick operas (actually, just kidding about that last one)

Engineering – the missing Area of Learning

'A' swinging from the tree swing she made herself

Last spring a nearby school invited me to run a play session at an ‘inclusive play day’ they hosted for local families.  The intention was to get families playing together, whatever their ages, abilities or interests.  It was a great success, with ‘play stations’ located all around the site at which a variety of indoor and outdoor activities were taking place, from face painting to model making.

I ran a den building session in the school grounds, using my own den building resources and borrowing a couple of extra boxes of kit from Learning through Landscapes, the national school grounds charity.  One box does really well for up to 8 or 10 children, but with a larger group, more choice and variety is essential and the den building boxes are treasure troves of odd stuff including free and found resources.  You certainly won’t find anything like this in a ‘bought’ set of den building kit equipment.  See the PLL Den Building resource for an idea of what’s in our den boxes.

Love this - utterly child initiatied and how lovely that they'd thought about a welcome mat! Or were they more concerned about mucky wellies in their pristine den?

As with all den building sessions, there was a great deal of creativity on display, a plethora of complex and descriptive language and excellent use of quirky materials, but the imagination and energy of this little girl, A, in particular really struck me.She’s certainly no older than 4 in these pics, and yet her tenacity and fine motor skills showed a highly developed sense of purpose.  She worked collaboratively with the older children around her (one of whom was her sister), persuading them to undertake the tasks that were genuinely beyond her – although in fact, there actually weren’t many of those.  A had a really good go at tying the knots for her swing in the branches of the tree – and managed to do one herself.  Took me ages to untie it later…

This future engineer was also the first to try out the swing she’d built – fearless?  Or just very confident in her own abilities?  Perhaps a bit of both, and I think that’s great to see in a young girl.

I think A may have been with a friendship group as well as her sister; at any rate, this small group worked well together, collaborating, communicating and sharing ideas generously.  They created and decorated a very sturdy den as well as the tree swing in their ‘garden’ area, and made the ‘Welcome’ sign at the start of this article, using scavenged twigs.  The den stood up to being played in for around half an hour and could be dismantled and rearranged without collapsing.  It encompassed shelter and privacy along with places to observe without being observed, which is pretty much everything you’d ask from a decent den.

Practising knot tying. As the person who took all the dens down at the end of the session I can testify to A's success on this task.

When I contacted A’s mum for permission to write this piece and use the pics (thank you A’s mum!) she said she was intrigued by the story and the pics because they represented something of a role reversal – her elder daughter is usually the tomboy, with A taking less of a lead in shared play.  On this occasion however, there was no doubt who was boss and A was very clear and determined about what she wanted to achieve, how she was going to achieve it and who would help!

In my experience, this is one of the things ‘outdoors’ does; children and adult behave differently outdoors.

They physically and mentally feel freer when not constrained by walls, chairs and desks.  Experimentation seems exciting and children show real tenacity when problem solving in ‘real life’ situations.  Open ended resources can be used in new and big and innovative ways and mess is positively encouraged… or at least, it is in my sessions!

Young children thrive and their minds and bodies develop best when they have free access to stimulating outdoor environments for learning through play and real experiences - from the Shared Vision and Values for Outdoor Play in the Early Years

I adore the featured pic of our future architect (or hey, landscape architect, even better!) swinging on her creation, celebrating her achievement and using her brain and her body to fly through the air.

This is why I love den building…

Reflections after my ‘Siege!’ blog post: affordances in the real world

Reviewing the ‘Siege! or, How We Learned About Pivots and Counterweights’ blog post of a month or so ago, I have been left contemplating ways in which we could create play features for schools that would enable this large, noisy, spontaneous, whole body play – AND introduce new language AND inspire new knowledge at the same time.  I don’t imagine I’ll be designing many full sized drawbridges for any schools, any time soon.  But there is no doubt that this ‘real world’ learning stuck in the children’s memories – they are still talking about it now – because it was fun, it was purposeful and perhaps also because it was so unexpected.  That’s the challenge, I think.

Too often, spaces for children are barely designed at all (I don’t count picking from a catalogue as design) and even when the space is exciting and varied and risky, I’m not sure schools are really gleaning all they could from the features and fixtures.  I want to work on this over the coming months, and try to find affordable solutions to this conundrum.  Money is tight in schools; money for the grounds is even more scarce.  If a school is to invest in change outdoors, do the spaces have to offer more than ‘just’ playfulness, more than ‘just’ curriculum support or more than ‘just’ recreational opportunities?  Would this begin to negate play’s inherent value as an end in itself?  Would it be harder to assign ‘learning value’ to the spaces?

The popularity of parkour (which to all intents and purposes, the clambering and cable sliding was) shows that play in ‘real’ environments is hugely attractive.  My two haven’t caught the skateboarding bug yet (only a matter of time, I’m sure) but I can see that specially designed spaces, however participatively planned they were, are probably nowhere near as challenging or exciting as playing / boarding in the real world.  Yet when children try to play ‘in’ and ‘on’ the real world, the reaction of adults is frequently to stop the activity, because the real world isn’t ‘designed’ for play and most of it wouldn’t pass British Standard muster.

Recreating the special qualities of our short play session on the drawbridge and barriers would mean allowing children to be playful with the everyday objects in their grounds.  It would be okay to run and leap off the benches, balance on the walls, explore the padlocks and hinges on gates, feel the weight of a felled tree trunk.  With robust risk-benefit analysis to back it up, few, if any, places in school grounds would be out of bounds to children.  Some spaces might be more carefully supervised than others, and some might only be used during lessons.  But I know from many years of observing children learning and playing outdoors at schools, and now playing out with my own children and their pals, the places that children like to be in are often the ones we as adults would most like them to keep away from.  The broken fence, the spiky Berberis, the narrow steps, the bins… the ancient cables right next to a deep and murky canal… all have a magnetic attraction for children.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard myself, or one of my colleagues say in a training session, “It’s not about what you want to HAVE in your grounds, it’s about what you want to be able to DO out there” – it’s mantra at Learning through Landscapes.  I for one am going to redouble my efforts to really draw out what it is that children want to be able to do – and hopefully along the way we will discover stuff they didn’t even know they wanted to do until they started to explore outdoors with free ranging minds and bodies.

After School, After Dark

I’m finding wordpress horrifically inflexible, so have made this blog post into a pdf download instead.  I do apologise if this is inconvenient – my snazzy new website will have a simpler blogging system for me, but in the meantime, here’s my meandering thoughts about outdoor play after dark: After School, After Dark – click this link.

An early iteration of the After Dark trug – stacks more in there now.

Asphlat to eco-systems: design ideas for schoolyard transformation

It’s fair to say that when this book landed on our desks at LTL, there was a bit of a fight over who would borrow it first; we are big fans of Sharon Danks’ work with US schools so it’s a real delight to finally see a copy of this much anticipated book.

And it’s a delightful book; meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated with full colour photographs (including many ‘before and afters’) and combining strong and persuasive arguments for change, with a clear, accessible writing style. Sharonhas travelled widely in Europe and theUS and there are stories and pictures from over 150 schools in 11 counties – including theUK.

Those of you who attended LTL’s International Conference last summer [2010] will no doubt recall hearing Sharon talk passionately about her work in San Francisco and across the UK; many of the stunning images she showed are reproduced here and the book is of enormous value for those alone.  Carefully chosen images illustrate Sharon’s points about simple, effective interventions and for those schools aiming higher, there are inspirational examples and pictures of what some schools have been able to achieve in their ‘schoolyards’ including keeping animals, renewable energy programmes, managing play spaces with running water and offering urban learners spaces that begin to replicate natural, wild environments that they may never visit for real.

Sharon’s work is strongly influenced by her commitment to environmental sustainability and many of the examples in the book showcase ambitious but realistic changes that schools have made in order to ‘do their bit’.  Many examples are drawn from the work of the Green Schooyard Alliance inSan   Francisco, where the climate is temperamental and water is at a premium.  Creating ‘green’ spaces in this sort of environment is a real challenge, but one that schools are increasingly taking on.  A selection of ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures scattered throughout the book will amaze – can these really be the same schools?  But yes – they are, and alongside the motivational pictures are case studies that explain the rationale and the processes behind the changes.

I’d recommend this book to any school – Primary or Secondary – or PTA with an interest in taking learning outdoors, becoming a ‘greener’ school or providing richer play experiences for children.  It’s also an invaluable text for designers and planners, offering guidance on materials, planting, adjacencies and sustainability, based on real life, successful examples in a wide range of different school contexts.

The easiest way to get hold of a copy of Asphalt to Eco-systems is via an online bookshop such as  Don’t let the fact that it’s an American rather than British text put you off – if you are interested in broadening your curriculum outdoors, or focusing on becoming a more sustainable school community, you’ll find both inspiration and practical help in this book.

I originally wrote this review for the Learning through Landscapes’ subscription newsletter, Outlook: visit for details.

Siege! Or, ‘How we learned about pivots and counterweights’.

Our recent trip to Odiham Castle to consider ‘how they kept warm in the olden days’ yielded all sorts of treats, not least an unexpected and deliciously welcome lunch at the real ale pub at the end of the canal tow path.  But leaving our stomachs aside for just one moment, the real highlight was actually right at the end of the walk.

The canal adjacent to our parked cars had a wonderfully rustic looking wooden bridge across it and as luck would have it (since PLL the Younger has been studying castles) the bridge was to all intents and purposes, a drawbridge.  Having answered our key question of the day (answer: not very well, it must have been appallingly freezing most of the time) we had plenty of time to explore how the drawbridge worked.

So, exactly what do I have to do to get this thing moving? Press a few of these buttons maybe?

Sadly, it was key operated (“Urgh! It’s electric” groaned A in disgust, although that didn’t stop him testing out the many buttons on the console and poking the keyhole with a tiny stick ‘key’).  So, we weren’t able to test the mechanism of the bridge itself, but the safety barriers were distinctly manual and the Junior PLLs and their ever willing accomplices A and P set about the task of opening and closing it – several hundred times.  Well, maybe just half a dozen times, but boy, was it fun.


A huge counterweight at one end ensured the barrier didn’t accidentally flop down on an unsuspecting car (or, indeed, child).  The older two quickly established that it would take all four children to collaborate to move it even slightly, so PLL the Dad took this opportunity to share his extensive knowledge of levers, pendulums, pivots and counterweights to explain why it was so impossible to start the barrier moving at one end and yet so light to push back up at the other.  He’s a hoot at parties, honest.

He was also collecting tolls each time we strolled by...

Young P also enjoyed repeatedly guiding the barrier into its aperture – quite a tricky task for a five year old, but one he completed with great care and precision, co-ordinating the relatively small slot, the heavy barrier and avoiding trapping his own hand in there too.

We took some time to examine the gap between the road and the bridge, to establish how often we thought the bridge was opened – verdict: not very often. Junior PLL the Younger and P observed moss and dirt wedged in the gap and surmised that it had been some time since the bridge was last opened.  A recalled that the tunnel we’d seen earlier in the day had collapsed many years ago, and had never been cleared, so there was little point in canal boats heading through the drawbridge anyway.

"Yep. It's going to take more than the weight of a skinny 7 year old to lift this bridge."

Of course, no trip outdoors is complete without children climbing all over something that wasn’t intended for that purpose (how I love affordances!).  The drawbridge cables proved irresistible but at least we were able to explore how heavy the bridge must be by testing the rigidity of the cables.

All in all, a very satisfactory Castles outing – with added forces and dynamics, plenty of collaboration and observation and of course, opportunities to poke things with sticks and climb all over them.  Perfect!

So, parents, you think outdoor play is vital do you? Really…?

I’ve been pondering my own hypocrisy.

Playing with Fire - After Dark Club shenanigans with the neighbour's pampas grass

A couple of weeks ago, exhausted by a relentless day of parenting two lively boys, my patience finally failed when Junior PLL the Elder answered back just ONCE too often.

“Right, that’s it!” I screeched, in a measured, thoughtful, responsible way.  “There is no way you are going out to play tonight.  You are not going out.  End of.”  There was quite a bit more in the “If I’ve told you once, la la la” vein, most of which I wasn’t even listening to, let alone the Junior PLLs.  There were tears (not mine) – but my resolve did not waver.  My boys love playing outdoors (well, really, whose child doesn’t?) and this was a severe punishment indeed.  It certainly showed those two rascals who was boss.

It was only the next day that I began to feel very hypocritical.  I believe – no, stronger than that, I know – that outdoor learning and play is vital for young children’s proper development, growth and wellbeing.  So why on earth did I use restriction of it as a punishment?  Would I withold food or water?  Nobody would deny that they are vital for young children’s development, growth and wellbeing.  Would I send them to school half dressed, just because they were tardy getting ready in the morning?

Like most of the punishments (such as they are) in our house, there was plenty of grumping for an hour or two (much of it from me, as I realised I now had the little terrors housebound for even longer), followed eventually by a “sorry”, and another very dull talk from me about understanding what the transgression meant to everyone who’s ever met JPLLTE, and then we moved on.

I’ve been brooding over this far more than is healthy.  I’m veering between “parenting is hard, get over it” and “how can you preach to others that getting children outdoors is essential, if your own children are banned because of a bit of banter?”.  I thought writing a confessional blog post might ease my conscience, but it hasn’t.  Now it’s even more obvious that I need to find other, more reasonable ‘consequences’ to avoid punishing the children in a way that has actually been far more punishing for me than it was for them.

Any ideas?