Close your eyes and we will paint you a picture of what typical outdoor play looks like at a small rural public school... School-aged children, from Kindergarten to Grade 8, playing together, making imaginary fires out of wooden logs to cook chickens on, arranging white pine needles into tiny rooms and houses, converting bark into money for trading, pulling each other on toboggans, making forts or walls using igloo block molds.
This is a tiny view of the type of play that has been happening at Sherwood Public School in Barry’s Bay, On. A small part of their yard: the Sabers Centre (named by the students at Sherwood Public School) is dedicated to creative play. In this area students use a variety of loose materials to engage in the type of play that encourages creativity. Now in the winter, most of the yard is being used for creative play with the introduction of shovels, toboggans for pulling and hauling and igloo block molds. All of this is due to the introduction of loose parts to the schoolyard. What are loose parts you might wonder?
Loose Parts are materials or items, which can be moved around, designed and redesigned, and played with individually or cooperatively, creating more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments. The possibilities are limitless and open-ended and change with every interaction. Examples include from the natural to unnatural: wood logs and disks, stumps, planks of wood, pine cones and needles, rocks, pallets, milk crates, shovels, brooms, and the list goes on and on.
The benefits of loose parts play are many, including:
- Encourages critical thinking skills
- Invokes children to experiment, engage, construct, and invent
- Stimulates creative imaginative play
- Fosters cooperative play
- Improves hand-eye co-ordination and spatial awareness
- Leads to a greater number of engaged students in play, which results in less behavioural issues and bullying
The school is currently extending the definition of loose parts to include two mud kitchens with several loose items, which will encourage further creative play and engagement. Steve Griffiths, principal at Sherwood has been supportive of the ideas since first meeting with KidActive to discuss the Natural Play and Learning Spaces project.
KidActive has been working with the school since January of 2014 to take the vision of the school community and create an outdoor space that enhances play and learning. Shifting School Culture Griffiths has been evaluating his own belief system about play and making different decisions based on the students needs as opposed to a predetermined set of rules. He notes that there is an existing conflict between our health and safety conscious society and children’s need to be exposed to, and take, risks as a part of their learning. It is about finding a balance between our desire to protect our children from harm and the children’s need to develop the skills to evaluate and assess risk, which is a very important life skill. An example of this is the presence of the loose parts in the yard.
A lot of schools throughout the Western world would cringe at the thought of children wielding sticks, or carrying logs on the playground. For many this would conjure the fear of children hitting each other with the sticks, and for Griffiths that fear is present too. He has come to realize that the benefits of the creative play that these items allow, far outweighs the short- and long-term outcomes of not allowing it.
Yes, there is a chance of getting hurt, but there is a far greater chance of children, who do not enjoy the traditional recess activities of team sports, tag, etc., being able to explore, socialize and engage in a way that they wouldn’t have previously. Another example is the allowance of puddle play based on a few simple rules which all teach children boundaries and respect. The children helped to formulate and agree to these rules including “you must wear rubber boots” and “your feet must be cleaned off before you re-enter the school."
It’s that simple. If the children met the simple guidelines they were free to choose whether or not they wanted to play in the puddles. They were also made aware that with that choice came the acceptance that they may get wet or dirty. This was a risk that they assumed with their decision to participate. By going through the assessment and decision process the students weigh the pros and cons of the experience that they could have versus the chance of getting wet and the ramifications of that.
With the increased opportunities for engagement in meaningful activities for students, the supervising teachers are finding there are fewer issues to attend to at recess these days. They can engage the students in positive social interactions and help guide the children’s play by posing questions or making suggestions as opposed to intervening in matters of inappropriate behaviour.
If we look at a traditional schoolyard from a child’s perspective how boring would it be to just have flat grass and a few play structures to climb on. By introducing loose parts and allowing a bit more freedom we open up the possibilities on this flat landscape beyond those of traditional sports and games. This engages more students and results in fewer behaviour issues and happier, more active children.