Take the play challenge!

Michael Follett set up OPAL – Outdoor Play and Learning – five years ago. Since then, hundreds of schools across the UK, as well as schools in Canada, New Zealand and Australia have completed the OPAL Primary Programme.

Here, he explains how he persuades head teachers to invest in play development.

“The best way to describe the OPAL programme is that it blends the skills and experience of a school improvement adviser, a primary school teacher and a play worker into something that helps schools plan and improve every aspect of play, including policy, strategic planning, communication, human resources, health and safety, grounds planning, maintenance, playwork training, environment and resourcing.

It’s not easy changing the culture of a primary school, which is what OPAL aims to do. You have got to find a head teacher that wants to change, be able to convince all of the other teachers and supervisors that they want to change too, think of amazing ways to improve play with almost no money and overcome the universal challenges of risk and dirt aversion. This means being able to communicate with parents about the benefits of better play, and convince the majority of them that play is something every good school needs to take seriously.

I discovered very recently that you can’t win over everyone. At a very well attended parents information session at an OPAL school, a very honest parent told me after my talk. ‘I totally agree with you and think it is all really good stuff but the parents either side of me thought it’s a load of rubbish and don’t like it.’

OPAL school

In a literal sense they are right – the playground is now a load of rubbish and was described by a parent as looking like a refugee camp. As you can see, there are loose parts, big and small, everywhere! (One of the current play crazes is connecting play dens with multiple rooms and areas.) However, after having heard the talk and joined in on the playday, the majority of parents were able to see beyond the appearance of the junk materials and messy landscape and interpret the environment through their experience of their own children’s happiness. They could see that the scruffy old pallet and tarp and pile of sticks was a house: their child’s creation, and an expression of their creativity, imagination, collaboration, persistence and resilience. In many cases the parents joined in the play themselves with their children, and – by first hand experience and close observation – came to appreciate the value of the process.

Back in the classroom, parents sat with their children and talked about what they’d valued about their experience. One commented that she was struck by the statistics that children’s average screen time, at five hours a day, now exceeds many children’s hourly outdoor play time at five hours a week. They were also surprised that time for play took up 20% of their child’s school life. A total of 1.4 years of their primary school years. Some said they could now see past the junk and appreciated the value of the process behind it. It brought to mind a phrase my colleague Rachel Murray (Play Coordinator at the Cotswolds Blue Coat Primary) used at her school: ‘Play is beautiful but it is not always pretty’. In my work with many other schools the issue of mess and appearance regularly re-occurs. A clean and tidy appearance is something school promote both in dress and environment so the dirt and mess of great play presents real challenges.

One of the parents at the meeting raised the issue of the school uniform, commenting that in winter when everything is muddy there is extra work created by the several children coming home every day with really dirty clothes, which adds an intolerable amount of work and expense for busy parents. I could appreciate that this was a real concern to these parents, and, as a result of the meeting, the school is going to encourage those children for whom it is an issue to bring in old clothes to change into.

Another parent approached me in the playground and said that he ran a garage and that if he wanted to handle a lot of the kind of items the children were using in their play, then he would be expected to provide gloves and steel toecap footwear to his staff. He said his daughter had been hurt in the playground a few weeks before and how come the children could do all of this and still be okay with health and safety? I did my best to explain the reasons that I thought justified it.

Firstly, at his place of work his duty of care to his staff means he is trying to eliminate risk, while we are providing children with materials that present challenge and the opportunity to learn about, identify and manage risk. Then, that I had worked with the school on a clear policy that stated that the school sees value in play which includes risk and challenge and recognises this has to include the possibility for some accidents. I was also able to tell him that due to the concerns of a local authority in the North East about insurance, that the biggest insurers of local authorities and schools in the UK, had just looked at the kind of play and the kind of procedures OPAL is following and has said they were acceptable. I am not sure if I convinced him or not!

The message from the school, however, is overwhelmingly positive. The Head has acknowledged his initial nervousness on starting the programme; that he would be criticised for wasting money and time on play when there are so many pressing issues around standards and testing; that his school would be seen as a tip; that the problems of mud would overwhelm him and accidents would leave him open to criticism and litigation. In fact, he says there are less accidents, his children are happier, have far fewer behaviour problems; his teachers are getting more teaching time each day because there are fewer problems and his children’s skill set around creativity, collaboration, resilience and empathy are dramatically improving. In his words ‘an excellent school should have excellent play.’

The only hold up in OPAL’s approach being adopted nationally is the demand for evidence. Sizeable funds of £200,000 or more are needed for a scientifically valid research project. But where is the evidence for current practice? Where are the quantitative reports that demonstrate the benefits to children of shortening playtimes, of sitting indoors for longer and longer periods, of barren, dull, unchallenging playgrounds, of eliminating play from childhood and denying children from the space, materials and permissions they require for play?

I have been developing this approach for the best part of 20 years now and can show that every kind of school can provide excellent play whatever their grounds, size, location or budget. I can introduce you to over 200,000 children who have benefitted from amazing play in schools. I can give you the details of 200 head teachers who will vouch that excellent play in their schools has improved behaviour, teaching time, happiness, mental well-being, inclusion, activity, core strength, coordination, resilience, tolerance, empathy, and a host of other qualities and skills.

The issue of school budgets has been making the national headlines recently, but there is money available for play development. The government has doubled the PE or physical activity funding this year, and there is sufficient evidence from the British Medical Association and other sources that free outdoor play is by far the most effective way for children to be active, so play development is a perfectly legitimate way to spent the money. A strategic approach to play development in schools provides a sustainable, affordable and achievable way to improve activity for all the hard-to-reach children. OPAL’s evidence shows that those who do not benefit from the PE and sports approach almost universally respond to environments with a broad and rich play offer and improve in levels of activity, engagement and inclusion.

So, to all those head teachers out there: take the challenge and invest in play development!

Michael Follett is the author of ‘Creating Excellence in Primary School Playtimes’and Director of OPAL, Outdoor Play and Learning Community Interest Company

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