Active Journeys

Photo credit: Scrapstore Play Services

Play is an essential part of every child’s life, and children at school and in early years settings need time and space to play. Children should have the opportunity to play before school, during break times and after school hours. Playtime support including training and awareness-raising for school staff and parents is vital, as well as provision of suitable environments, equipment and materials for active, creative play.

Many play organisations work closely with schools to improve children’s play opportunities. So, this month we’re talking to three such organisations, Play Gloucestershire, the Futsall Partnership and Scrapstore Play Services about the impact their work is having on the lives of children, parents and teachers.

Play Gloucestershire’s Fit for Play scheme gets people active through informal sports, building dens, active games, creative art, and adapting existing play equipment. All ages play together on a shared community space. They believe schools are a key influence on children’s attitudes to activity and have been working to create play-rich environments on school grounds across the county, promoting active and creative play. This reinforces the message that active play is an important part of childhood and often motivates children to move more, once they find a game or activity they enjoy. Feedback has been incredibly positive. “The lunchtime active play sessions have been an amazing addition to our in-school sport and PE,” says primary school teacher Adam Watson. “All of the children are active, being creative and building new friendships. It’s been particularly lovely to see the non-sporty element flourish.”

The Futsal Partnership is a research-based company that delivers informal sports sessions in schools and futsal tournaments around the country. (Futsal is a type of football played on a hard court, like five-a-side football.) Director Matt Goodman went on his own personal journey from “your archetypical sports coach who cared about the win more than anything else” to someone who is now passionate about child-centred, play-based approaches to helping children get active.

They had to find a way to remove pressure and competitiveness from a football tournament – which is inherently competitive. “We have put the children in charge of everything,” explains Matt. “They decide their tactics, their positions and they referee the games.  Where there are substitutes they also decide them.  There is no adult interference at all from parents or coaches.  The children keep their own scores, which often they forget about.  This has been particularly successful in engaging children who have previously withdrawn from competitive sport.”

Scrapstore Play Services have been working with schools and early years settings all over the UK for over a decade delivering play training, research and consultancy, advocating and supporting the development of play in schools. One of their main programmes is delivering Scrapstore PlayPods – a structure filled with scrap materials and other ‘loose parts’, such as cardboard tubes, tyres, lengths of material, netting, rope, bins and barrels – into school playgrounds.  At playtimes, staff open the PlayPod doors and the children are free  take out anything they want to play with.

The un-prescriptive nature of loose parts, combined with children’s inventiveness and creativity, means the items can be used in endless different ways, by children of all ages and abilities playing and socialising together.  Scrapstore now work with over 300 primary schools and early years settings, from Cornwall to the Orkney Islands, enabling over 70,000 children access to quality playtime experiences.

Building links with the schools

Pip Levett, Director of Play at Play Gloucestershire says that building links with schools can be hard. “Our school work started when we found external funding ourselves and approached a primary school that was a stone’s throw away from a regular community play site. We explained that we wanted to extend our playful influence by coming in to facilitate some lunchtime play, and develop a Junior Play Leader scheme. We evidenced our successes, and then did a presentation at the district-wide School Lead Professionals forum. We were amazed at the interest in our work, and from that we developed both our Active Lunchtimes and Play Nurture offers. One primary school has now commissioned us on a weekly basis for the last four years, so we know what we do is working.”

At Futsall, they first built links with schools by referrals. “Now we are seen as experts in our fields so schools will get in touch with us,” says Matt.  “Working with some totally inactive children we have used the play-based approach to huge effect:  within 6 weeks children are fully active!  We are finding time and time again – and have the data now to support this – that we’ve had 100% engagement using a play-based approach and a huge competency increase in all key skills.”

For the Scrapstore Play Services, they found a large number of local primary schools approached them after the success of the two-year Lottery funded project. “From this point Scrapstore PlayPods was born,” says Dan Rees-Jones, Play Development Officer,  “and now, ten years on, schools continue to approach us keen to introduce loose parts at lunchtimes. Our process is based on building positive ongoing relationships and working with the entire school community to change both the human and physical play environments, transforming play at lunchtimes.”

Seeing the benefit

Photo credit: Play Gloucestershire

“Broadly speaking, our active and creative child-led outdoor play is supporting both physical and mental wellbeing,” says Pip from Play Gloucestershire. “We are seeing relaxed, confident and happy children enjoying adventure, friendship and fun with peers and the Play Rangers.” The therapeutic nature of their playwork is helping children cope with adversity and build resilience. “The Play Rangers here are very supportive and nurturing,” says a ten-year-old school boy. “They nurture us like we’re newborns. It’s just so good that we don’t want it to end”. A nine-year-old girl says, “I’ve told other children about Play Rangers, that you’re very kind and how you help me not to get so upset about the little things in school”. Local head teacher Andrea Mills, is a keen advocate. “Play Nurture has helped children find healthy ways to cope with the stresses and strains of life. Their emotional wellbeing has visibly improved, as has their engagement in learning.”

For Futsal, it was when they changed to a play-based approach that they really saw the benefits.  “Our original purpose Futsal was to create more technically proficient players,” says Matt. “However, our research made us concerned our model could encourage early specialisation.  So, we moved away from blocked and repetitive practice and instilled a games and play-based approach to all learning and application.” The Partnership’s child-centred approach means “we may have a basic session plan but the children are encouraged to come up with their own progressions and constraints.  We provide the problems and look to the children to provide the solutions rather than everything being directed by us.  A great example of this might be a passing class. Instead of directing the children to pass in certain ways, we’ll ask them to come up with as many different ways to pass the ball as possible.” Peer-to-peer coaching is also a big part of the process, which they find is potentially more successful than coach-to-child sessions. Check out feedback from one school teacher here.

One of the benefits schools have found using the Playpods is the way children collaborate across ages and genders. Schools have also noticed a reduction in accidents and incidents such as bullying.

Expanding the funding streams available for play providers

Most schools with primary-age pupils receive the ‘PE and sport premium’, funding which is based on the number of pupils. One of the outcomes of the funding is to ‘improve the engagement of all pupils in regular physical activity’.

According to Public Health England ‘[o]ffering a variety of physical activity opportunities, including free play, games and the fun elements of participation, as well as the more traditional sports or competitive activities, can help to encourage participation, particularly among inactive children and young people’.

“Most of our school work to date has been funded by Pupil Premium,” says Pip, “but two schools have just started to use some Sport Premium allocation to commission us to deliver active lunchtime play. As passionate advocates of active play, we understand that not everyone is sporty, or has the  confidence to join a team or club. However, everyone needs to move and active play is a fabulous way of increasing physical activity levels in children. We’ve noticed a shift among schools and physical activity specialists in their thinking about sport, and how it needs to embrace and value physical activity for the contribution it makes to childhood wellbeing. For too long play and sport have been separate entities, and yet the playwork sector has so much to offer. The playwork sector needs to believe it can step over this ‘sport’ threshold and use the funding out there to push the play agenda into education, into the sporting world and into communities.  Schools have increasing amounts of Sport Premium funds now available, and we are working alongside Active Gloucestershire, (our County Sports partnership) to show how active play can contribute to the five key improvement indicators that schools need to evidence.”

Dan at Scrapstore Play Services agrees. “The benefits of a regular improved play opportunity equates to real value for money and wise investment as well as contributing hugely to children’s overall development and well-being.”

Advice to other play providers on improving their work with schools

“At Play Gloucestershire, working with schools, in their school grounds, has been a steep and beneficial learning curve for us,” says Pip. “We have been developing our school work since the end of our community based Big Lottery Children’s Play programme funding in 2011. We recognised it was a way of extending our reach, and diversifying our income streams. We are playworkers, and our Playwork Principles are very important to us. Schools have school rules and are driven by the curriculum. The two approaches are necessarily very different, and we have to work hard to create an understanding of what we do, and why it is so important and so different. The schools we have worked with, have people in the senior management team that have an empathy and understanding of the value of outdoor play. Finally, I’d say that you need to be clear about your offer, believe in it and be brave. One school wanted us to provide a structured programme that fitted in with learning outcomes. We explained that this was all about child-led unstructured play, and that we would show how these outcomes had been met on our report card, using observations and reflective practice. It felt like it could have been a deal breaker at the time, but the school agreed to try this approach and three years later we still work there!

Matt says that Futsal found it quite hard to break down traditional views on what PE should look like. “Sometimes you may have to dilute things and then take the school on the journey with you.  Once they see the results you definitely have them on board.  All that said, schools are the one place that we know we can reach every child and especially those that are most in need of the work we provide.  Looking at current initiatives I think we are slowly moving away from old models but it will take time.”

Dan at Scrapstore says a good tip for play providers is to appreciate that schools’ understanding of play can be very different from a playwork perspective. “Every school is on their own journey (with respect to understanding and supporting play) so facilitating a gentle and supportive approach to making improvements works better than a judgemental approach.”



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