An increasing number of children and young people are finding it difficult to cope, and anxiety and depression are on the rise. Studies show that children need to feel capable, trusted and able to make decisions. In this piece, Sarah Watkins argues that outdoor play is one of the most effective ways we can support children’s wellbeing.
“Children are active participants in their own development, reflecting the intrinsic human drive to explore and master one’s environment.” (Shonkoff and Phillips) Neurons to Neighborhoods.
Our sense of place, identity and wellbeing are closely intertwined – the places where we played as children helped shape who we are. If you think back to your own childhood, your memories of outdoor play are probably most vivid because play engages so many different senses.
‘Placeness’ is an old word that means having or occupying a place and I’ve decided to reclaim it. How truly do children feel they occupy their play space? Do they feel like custodians, visitors or even intruders?
I was Head of School at the same school I attended as a child. On the day I started, a four-year-old pupil asked me shyly “do you know where the secret hiding place is outside?” “Yes,” I replied, “because I went to this school!” We then went straight out to find it together. I was first shown this area by older children, who probably learned about it from their older peers. Why not find out which areas of the outside space are viewed by the children as special?
You can also increase a sense of belonging by getting the children to carry out an audit of the space: children tend to know every stone and bush so they have a unique perspective. The Anna Freud Centre states that when children feel listened to this develops their sense of belonging and this can act as a buffer against the effects of disadvantage. A child-led audit can also stimulate great discussion amongst staff.
Children have an instinctive need to put their mark on their environment. Make them responsible for watering and planting, and storage and maintenance of outdoor play resources, which should be easily accessible.
Trusting children to manage play resources gives them the message that they are capable and trusted. Autonomy is a vital feature of flow, where children are completely absorbed in an activity that they find genuine satisfaction in. For physical and mental health, children need what occupational therapists call ‘the just right challenge’ – not too easy and not too difficult.
One of the best ways to achieve this is to give children of all ages regular access to large loose parts such as cable reels, planks, plastic crates, sections of guttering, buckets, tyres and logs.
Don’t just keep loose parts for EYFS: all children need to experience a sense of control and experience exhilarating play that supports them to test their limits. Simon Nicholson, who coined the term loose parts, called for a “laboratory type environment where [children] can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.” It’s joyful to watch KS2 children collaborate to create their own STEM challenges, making a tree swing, a kart, or a restaurant from loose parts.
Local businesses are often delighted to be able to donate loose parts, supporting sustainability. Why not send home a wish list with pupils?
We all need to feel connected to nature in order to feel good and function well, and regular opportunities to play in nature improve children’s emotional wellbeing, particularly if the environment includes ‘wild’ spaces rather than just adult-friendly manicured outdoor areas. Greening the play space helps children feel restored and stimulates their sensory system. Without time in nature, stress and fatigue levels are likely to increase.
Even as little as five minutes of ‘green exercise’ can improve mood and self-esteem, and children need access to green space in all weathers. A great investment is good-quality waterproof clothing for all staff.
Natural outdoor environments have also been shown to have a more positive effect on the quality of children’s speech and language. They are an ideal springboard for vocabulary building because they are constantly changing with the seasons. (The outdoor space is also a great arena to support children to build conflict resolution skills).
Plants can grow in even the smallest outdoor area, and a good diversity of plants will attract a wide range of minibeasts so that the play area is less sterile and more therapeutic. If you can let areas grow wild, establish no-mow areas and throw down some wildflower seeds. Drought-resistant plants such as succulents are ideal for small spaces and survive well in containers. If you look at the planting around supermarkets or new housing developments, you’ll often see shrubs, hostas, daylilies, sedum, astilbe, and achillea – all plants that do well with very little attention. Herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and mint are equally robust and when crushed, they release a mood-elevating scent.
Risk in play
The Health and Safety Executive states that we need a balanced approach to risk in play, and warns against sterile play environments that prevent children from expanding their learning and stretching their abilities. But what is ‘risky play?’ To me, it is simply child-directed play where children are enabled to challenge themselves, make evaluations and decisions and test themselves. For one child, this may be tree climbing, for another, it might be allowing a ladybird on their hand.
Studies have found that loose parts play outdoors helps children become less fearful and able to take progressively more healthy risks. When they have repeated opportunities to explore age-appropriate, healthy risk-taking, children become better prepared to deal with subsequent anxiety and fear-provoking situations. Having the opportunity to roll tyres down a slope or walk across a plank between two crates encourages children to practise making safe decisions.
More than ever, children need to feel ownership of their play space and they need opportunities to understand their own capabilities and develop perseverance. What’s more, happier, more engaged children means happier break times and better focus in the classroom!