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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.