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.