Getting busy in the UK for International School Grounds Month

Play Learning Life is thrilled to be supporting International School Grounds Month and we have had a very busy May so far, celebrating the diversity and potential of school grounds with schools and early years settings throughout in the UK.  We have:

  • Collaborated with staff in an Essex Foundation Stage Unit on early years outdoor playground improvements
  • Worked with children at a Hampshire primary school on pond improvements and a new fire pit
  • Introduced action research projects to a group of early years practitioners in Dudley, examining the elements that contribute to high quality outdoor learning and play
  • Created banners with children at a London school, to celebrate progress on their grounds development project
  • Worked alongside school architects to establish how best to integrate good quality grounds into their own projects.
  • Reflected on outdoor practice and provision with early years practitioners at a London Children’s Centre.
  • Explored the potential of school grounds, on a very rainy day, with children at a Liss school

These projects are just a tiny snapshot of what’s happening across the UK; in Scotland, Grounds for Learning have been supporting parents with outdoor play in the natural environment and Juliet Robinson has been blogging the crazy photographs her classes took of their school grounds using iPads.  In Northern Ireland, Kierna Corr’s nursery class enjoyed a wet but fiery Friday and in Wales, Learning through Landscapes have been working with the very young.

For my part, I visited ‘Middle Earth’ in the English Midlands: Featherstone Primary School, where part of their school field has been transformed with the help of Timotay Playscapes into a magical child-sized play environment.  I’d wanted to visit for a while, so the CPD trip to nearby Dudley provided the perfect excuse.  Headteacher Edris Gaibee welcomed me to the school and Early Years lead Helen Beach very kindly gave me a tour of the garden, named Dreamy Hollow.

The focus of the garden is a stunning ‘hobbit hole’ underground classroom, complete with circular door and very low ceilings!  Light floods in from a quirky lightwell – a cottage on the hill above.  The garden undulates and occupies its space with character and purpose, providing the whole school with myriad learning and play opportunities.  

Building work taking place adjacent to the early years classrooms means that their outdoor space is currently out of use, so Helen explained how they are managing to provide regular outdoor time for their youngest children by bringing them up in groups for lengthy periods of time in Dreamy Hollow.  Whilst there, children are able to explore dens and willow tunnels, look at picture books and hear stories in the story circle or in the hobbit hole, tend veggies in the allotment area, ride their bikes around the tricky gravel pathways allotment gardens or play freely on the lush grass or wildflower meadow above the hobbit hole.

Helen talked to me about the importance of child initiated play as well as adult supported experiences, and described how joyfully her young children explore, take risks, co-operate and communicate with one another when placed in this unconventional corner of the grounds.  At a recent seminar, early years pedagogue Jan White talked about the importance of ‘abundance’ and ‘generosity’ of materials in early years play spaces, and this garden certainly has eccentricity in abundance.  It will be fascinating to watch how it develops its character as a playspace in coming years as the natural elements (trees, willow, wildflowers) begin to take hold.

I loved the potential of the ‘mirror’ circle, the casual arrangement of railway sleepers for clambering and the rocks and stones that half-shield the hobbit hole (from Orcs, presumably).  There’s a richness of texture, tone and shape here, and (other than the bikes and trikes, which wouldn’t normally be here) most of the landscape, its features and the resources in it reflect the school’s intention to introduce more natural materials to children’s outdoor play and learning.

It’s unusual to see such an ambitious and such an obviously ‘designed’ landscape garden in a school, but this one reflects the needs of the children and staff and is clearly cared for and appreciated by all who use it.  Collaborating with Timotay meant the school was able to influence the design right from the start, understanding and accepting the maintenance implications and planning ahead for these.  For Helen, the only thing she’d change if they did the project again would be the surface of the path, which coupled with the hilly nature of the site, makes wheely toys very difficult to manoeuvre.  However, she recognises that the garden wasn’t designed with these toys in mind, and once the youngsters have their own early years space back, it won’t be an issue.

School is already exploring ideas for another grand playscape around the new early years unit and I plan to be back in a year or two to see how they get on.

Julie Mountain
Director, Play Learning Life CIC