Government Puts Physical Activity Back on the School Agenda

The new School Sports and Activity Action Plan, announced in July, is a programme implemented by no less than three Whitehall Departments: the Department for Education, the Department for Health and Social Care and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It’s a major public health initiative and its directives will impact on schools.

What is the action plan aiming to do?

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The aim of the new action plan is to increase participation in sport and physical activity in order to improve the long term physical and mental health and wellbeing of young people with the hope that they will continue to enjoy healthy lifestyles throughout their lives.

According to the most recent Active Lives Children and Young People survey, a third of young people in the UK still do not do the recommended minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity per day. The action plan seeks to change this by introducing new ways to put sport at the heart of young people’s daily routines. In particular, it seeks to find ways to encourage girls and other social groups that currently do not take part in regular sporting activity.

Ofsted to focus more on physical activity

early years outdoor play

The action plan has been taken into account by the new Ofsted Inspection Framework which comes into effect at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year. From September, inspection teams will expect a school’s curriculum to include opportunities for pupils to be active during the school day and through extra-curricular activities.

Specific focus points

The Sports and Activity Action Plan has a number of focused objectives that it wants to see achieved. These include increasing opportunities for girls and those from disadvantaged backgrounds and giving greater access to competitive sports, which it describes as ‘character-building’. As a result, it wants to see that there is equality for boys and girls when it comes to the sports, activities and competitions on offer. In addition, it is looking for schools to offer more modern PE lessons and provide access to high-quality after school clubs and competitions.

Extra funding in place

Although it is by no means a huge capital injection, the Department for Education has provided £2.5 million over the next financial year to help schools. This will be used to deliver additional training for PE staff, assist schools in making their sports facilities available during weekends and holidays, and to provide young people with increased opportunities to become sports leaders and coaches. A further £2 million is to be made available by Sport England with the purpose of setting up 400 new after-school clubs, offering coordinated sporting programmes and competitions for those pupils in disadvantaged areas.

Beyond health

early years outdoor play

Sport and physical activity have long been known to have an impact that goes beyond improving health and the action plan is designed to reap these additional benefits. As a result, all schools in England and Wales need to recognise the importance of physical literacy and modern PE lessons when it comes to improving such things as attainment, pupil behaviour and wellbeing. To increase enjoyment and participation, therefore, the action plan wants pupils to have a greater role in determining the range of sports and physical activities on offer. In doing so, schools are encouraged to provide activities for those pupils who are not motivated by what is currently on offer.

What schools should consider

Essentially, the action plan seeks to integrate sport and exercise into the daily routines of all pupils; it wants to increase the amount of time students spend being active but doing so in a way that will appeal to all, especially those who currently turn their back on traditional sports and activities.

For schools, this means listening to the pupils and finding out what activities they would be more inclined to enjoy. Sports England, for example, is investing £1 million in digital resources for girls, including a range of workout videos with Netflix-appeal, that can be used in schools. Some schools have expanded their offer by buying in third-party providers of equestrian and water sports, others have utilised outdoor spaces to install climbing walls, Trim Trails, outdoor gyms and MUGAs. Even installing simple playground markings can dramatically increase the activities on offer, providing pitch and court markings for football, basketball, netball, cricket, tennis and more.

Conclusion

The School Sports and Activity Action Plan aims to expand physical and sports activity in schools, especially for those pupils who are not currently enticed to take part. With Ofsted taking increased note of the breadth and balance of the curriculum, it is likely that there will be close scrutiny of those schools which do not provide adequate opportunities for all students to take part in sports and physical activity. Hopefully, this article will have given you a greater understanding of what the government is trying to achieve and how schools will be expected to play their part.

If you are looking to offer a wider range of sports and outdoor activities, take a look at our outdoor playground equipment.

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The Role of the School Playground in Tackling Climate Change

Climate change is the burning issue of the moment – and rightly so. The impact of human activity on the planet is leading to disastrous consequences for all life forms, including our own. Unfortunately, it is our children and their children who are going to suffer the worst of these effects and if we want to reverse the situation, then we urgently need children to learn about what the causes are and how they can bring around change.

That learning starts in school and one of the best places for it to happen is in the playground. Playing outdoors is vital if children are to start understanding the environment and how to take care of it. Outdoor play encourages children to develop a love and an appreciation of nature, something they seldom get the chance to in today’s screen-obsessed world.

Climate change is already having a devastating impact on young lives. Respiratory infections, due to polluted air and water, are estimated to take the lives of two million under-fives each year. The effects upon weather mean that we are seeing more storms and flooding in some areas and worsening droughts in others. These cause large scale devastation, sometimes with hundreds of thousands of people being made homeless and lacking basic essentials like food, water or shelter, which in turn lead to famine, disease and long-term poverty.

In order to improve the climate, we need to make drastic changes. Although the UK may have committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, this will have no significant impact if the rest of the world doesn’t follow suit. The key to success lies in changing attitudes to climate change and here, society has a critical role to play by exposing children to the wonders of being outside.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of research to show that this is not the case. When away from school, children are increasingly confined indoors and don’t get the opportunity to enjoy unstructured play. There are many reasons for this: fear over the child’s safety, parents too busy working, too much homework, not enough local places to play, the attraction of the internet. While the causes are many, the result is that children begin to see the outdoor world as alien. Unlike their parents did, they don’t go out to play. They don’t climb trees, throw sticks, collect conkers, roll down hills, explore woods and streams or do anything much that links them to nature. The fear is that this lack of connection with the outdoors will make them even less environmentally friendly than the generations that have gone before.

The onus, therefore, is on schools to make up for what society is failing to provide. Thankfully, there is a great deal that schools can do, on a daily basis, to get children learning and playing outdoors.

early years outdoor play

To foster the sheer enjoyment of being outside, break and lunchtimes are best left for unstructured play and there are some fantastic pieces of outdoor playground equipment that can be used to encourage involvement. From sports and games markings to climbing frames and obstacle courses, these are great for encouraging children to have fun in the open air.

It’s not just during breaktimes, however, when the playground can play a part. Many schools are now developing their own outdoor classrooms and there is a wide range of outdoor resources available for all curriculum areas. Indeed, the outdoor learning space has a lot to offer, especially when doing active lessons or work that requires observation of the natural world, such as art, geography and science.

In addition, there has been a big increase in the number of schools providing access to nature areas. More schools are developing on-site ‘forest school’ environments, often using pre-existing grassed or garden areas of the premises. These are then added to with shrubs and trees, trellises, planters, water features, bug houses and bird feeders to give children more experience of the local flora and fauna. Nature areas are extremely popular with children who are not only fascinated with the plants and creatures but who find them peaceful havens in which to get some much-needed time out during the busy school day.

Some schools have begun to start other climate-friendly activities. One which is very popular is the ‘Walk to School Day’, which aims to get children more active and reduce pollution outside the school gates. Run once a week, these often include walking chains where children and parents will pick up classmates on-route so that no-one is left walking alone. Just imagine how much pollution could be cut If every school did this?

Taking part in such initiatives is useful in getting children and their parents to think about the environment and how they can make a positive impact. In doing so, you encourage them to develop a more caring attitude and take ownership of their actions.

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Summing up

The future of the planet lies in the hands of today’s youngsters. If we are to prevent climate change having a catastrophic impact, not only do we need to teach them about how to make the world a better place, we also need to foster the desire to care for it. You can’t do this without giving them access to the outdoors. Only by being outdoors will they develop a sense of awe and wonder at nature. As a school, you have the opportunity to make this happen.

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How to Reduce Sickness Absence Through Outdoor Play

Although schools are doing more than ever to increase attendance levels, the rates of absence due to sickness have increased, according to the DfES. One potential reason for this is that today’s children spend far more time indoors than previous generations and so are less immune to common illnesses. Additionally, increased pressure to achieve has led to more children suffering from stress. To reverse these problems, there are calls for schools to encourage more outdoor activities. Here is how outdoor play and outdoor lessons can help.

The Vitamin D effect

early years outdoor play

As most people already know, spending time outdoors helps increase our Vitamin D levels. This is because our bodies naturally create Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight. From April to September, even short periods of exposure to our hands, faces, arms and legs is sufficient to produce all we need.

And while most of us are aware that Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, it also plays an important role in the function of our immune system, helping our bodies fight off infections. Without Vitamin D, we make ourselves more prone to catching bugs and for schools, this means more children being off school for longer.

There are always a few children away with bugs and colds but, today, there seems to be a significant increase in the number of infections ‘doing the rounds’. Indeed, the situation has become so concerning, that some schools have begun to put up hand sanitisers in the way hospitals do. In the worst cases, schools are even asking parents to keep entire groups of students at home until the infection has passed.

If sunlight exposure and Vitamin D can help improve immunity to these infections, then extending the amount of time children play outside can only be a good thing. Any school considering cutting lunchtime in half to enable an earlier finish should consider how that choice can impact on attendance and wellbeing.

That said, it’s not necessary to extend lunch or breaktimes, rather it’s about increasing the opportunity to be outside. This means putting equipment in the playground that children will want to play on or creating outdoor learning environments where lessons can take place in the fresh air.

The magic of muck

Aside from Vitamin D, the other thing that helps immunity is exposure to the very things that cause us to get ill. Such is the wonder of the human body, that when we are exposed to viruses and bacteria, our bodies learn to fight them. This means the next time we come across them, we deal with them quicker and more effectively.

Unfortunately, children today live in hyper-clean environments where exposure to these microbes is limited. Sanitary product manufacturers have done too good a job at scaring parents into disinfecting everything. Ironically, our desire to protect children from infections has made them less immune to fighting them off.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, letting children participate in mucky play, such as with mud pies, can be good for them. The immunity they develop to the microbes will mean that they are less likely to succumb to infections later on and this can have a positive impact on the number of days they have off ill. Remember, human beings have existed quite well for thousands of years without the need for sanitising gels, anti-bacterial sprays and wet-wipes – it might be far more beneficial to replace these with a mud kitchen.

The benefits of exercise

early years outdoor play markings

When we talk about the benefits of getting children to be active in the playground, it is usually in respect to its impact on their fitness and in reducing obesity. While these are certainly health benefits to be welcomed, we also need to consider that activity can help children to be better at fighting infections.

Exercise, whether it is just walking around or doing more challenging playground activities like playing on climbing equipment, is what causes the lymphatic system to circulate. This is the system that creates the white blood cells that attack infections and then drains the resulting waste away from the bloodstream and organs.

Getting children to be active, therefore, helps them fight infections more effectively and keeps them fit enough to stay at school.

Alleviating stress

Much of the stress suffered by pupils today is a direct result of the pressure put on schools by Ofsted to improve progress and attainment. With no sign of those expectations being diminished, it is up to schools to manage pupil (and staff) workloads in a way which will have a minimum effect on their wellbeing.

While some amount of stress is natural, being overstressed can have an enormous impact on our health, affecting our immune system and stopping us being able to relax, sleep and even eat well. Over the longer term, it can increase the likelihood of serious illnesses, such as stroke, heart disease and cancer. With regard to mental health, it can be linked to depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders and suicide. Those who suffer from stress are also more likely to turn to unhealthy habits as coping mechanisms, for example, smoking, drugs and alcohol.

Today, we are seeing increasing numbers of children taking time off school because of stress. One way to help manage stress and reduce the impact on attendance is to give children more opportunity to work and play outside.

According to the NHS, lack of sunlight can cause part of the brain called the hypothalamus to stop working properly. When this happens, our body produces less of the hormone, serotonin, which we need to lift our mood and cope better with stress. Being in the sunlight, therefore, can help us deal with stress more effectively. In addition, taking part in outdoor physical activity or having somewhere calm and quiet to escape the daily pressures of the classroom can also help us feel less stressed.

Conclusion

Keeping children in school is essential if they are to make consistent progress. However, this is difficult to do if children lack the immunity to fight off infections or are not given the opportunity to participate in activities that alleviate stress. Hopefully, the ideas mentioned here will be useful in helping to keep your pupils healthier and thus improve their attendance.

If you are looking for resources to create outdoor classrooms or for inspirational playground equipment, check out our wide selection of products.

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Playground Solutions That Help Children Achieve

It’s in everyone’s interest that young people succeed and, for schools, this means providing children with the opportunities and skills to achieve, whether that be in academic studies or in any other field. While much of the input will take place in the classroom, the school playground is increasingly being used as a space for learning and, in this post, we’ll look at the best playground solutions to help children achieve.

1. If at first you don't succeed...

early years outdoor play

Failure is an integral part of success – ask anyone who’s ever learnt to ride a bike. The problem is that some people never learn to ride because, after falling off, they give up. To succeed they need the resilience to get back on and the ability to learn from their mistakes.

In the playground, children tend to be less self-conscious about failure and this makes it the ideal location to develop resilience and perseverance. This is especially so when there is an array of play equipment. When there is a variety of different activities on offer, children soon realise that no one is good at everything and that it is okay to fail at things when you first give them a try.

Great pieces of equipment for building resilience are those challenging pieces which children have to learn to master, such as Trim Trails obstacle courses and traversing walls where trial and error are necessary for success.

2. The joy of learning

The human mind is naturally hedonistic and this means we tend to switch off if something isn’t enjoyable. When children get bored, they don’t learn so well and this can be a barrier to success. The opposite is also true: provide pupils with enjoyable activities and they will be more engaged, better motivated and eager to learn.

To increase enjoyment, more and more teachers are leaving the classroom to deliver active lessons in the playground. Why teach numbers and phonics on a whiteboard when you can have kids learning the same skills jumping on a giant number grid or playing a phonetic stepping game? Is it more interesting to look at a diagram of a plant’s root system or to see the real thing in a discovery planter? With such a variety of outdoor curriculum equipment available today, there’s a wealth of opportunity to provide children with a wide range of fun, active, outdoor lessons.

3. Gamification

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Children love games and when they are incorporated into the learning experience, they are more motivated to achieve. Gamification is the process of using games to encourage participation; for example, replace rewards certificates with game-like point scoring where children can ‘level up’ and they’ll be much more inclined to want to earn rewards.

Games can be incorporated into everyday learning, too. For example, you can use outdoor battle boards (battleships) to teach coordinates, maths traversing walls to teach number skills, or tangram table puzzles to teach shapes. Using these kinds of sensory play in gamification lessons improves children’s ability to remember the skills they have learnt and this can be instrumental for future success.

4. An easy way to learn hard lessons

There are certain hard lessons in life that we’d all rather children didn’t have to experience. One way to help children avoid making such mistakes is to let them role play scenarios where they can experience these traumas by proxy and learn important lessons that they can take away and use.

Today’s outdoor stages make an ideal playground performance space to create role plays about important issues. When exploring bullying, for example, the children can experience what it is like to be a victim and see the consequences for the perpetrator. This can have a significant impact on the entire group; changing attitudes, reinforcing important values, preventing children from bullying and convincing those who see it to report it. In the long term, knowing the difference between right and wrong can be crucial in ensuring a child has a successful future ahead of them.

5. Dealing with stress

The world we live in is increasingly stressful and mental health is a growing issue. In schools, children who find it hard to cope with stress do less well in exams and are more prone to a range of other mental health issues. In order to counter this, most schools now provide spaces where children can escape from the pressures of the classroom and teach them strategies to help them cope.

Outdoor spaces are by far the best places to create an escape. They let pupils step away from the building associated with the pressure of learning and they are outside in the fresh air and open to the sunshine that provides mood enhancing vitamin D. One solution is to create peaceful nature gardens with planters and trellises, embellished with bug houses and bird feeders. Alternatively, you could install a MUGA, where the children can let off steam by participating in energetic sports or learning to relax by doing a spot of tai chi or yoga.

Conclusion

We all want children to achieve their potential but to do this successfully, they’ll need to overcome the obstacles that life puts in their way. This can be poor resilience, boredom, a lack of motivation, not knowing the right path or not being able to deal with stress. Schools are tasked with helping children in all these areas and it can be a challenge to find the right solutions. Hopefully, this post will have shown you that the playground can be one of your strongest assets and that, with the right equipment in place, it can work wonders for helping your pupils be successful.

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5 Ways Your Playground Can Improve Critical Thinking

Critical thinking ranks high amongst the list of skills children need to learn for life in today’s complex and ever-changing world. Teaching critical thinking, however, is a challenging process and this is best achieved when the children are engaged in activities that are both stimulating and fun to do. Taking this approach helps them develop skills to evaluate facts and evidence, make judgements and find solutions. Here are some of the most effective ways to hone critical thinking skills in the playground.

1. Provide real choice when it comes to play

Critical thinking is all about learning to make better decisions and you can encourage this by offering different activities in the playground. The more choice you provide, the more a child will need to evaluate each of those options. They’ll need to consider which activities they find the most fun, how much time to spend on each, what activities their friends might want to play on, and so forth.

A well-resourced playground can offer a wealth of critical thinking opportunities, many of which come from taking part in hands-on activities. From these, children can learn about a wide range of thought-provoking things. Take causality, for example, which is essential for understanding subjects like science and technology. Playing with equipment such as a Magnetic Water Wall, pupils can explore how forces like magnetism and gravity work. They can use this to investigate how forces and channels affect the flow of water and create pressure.

2. Peer modelling in the playground

early years outdoor play

Modelling is an important classroom technique used to scaffold pupil development. It allows pupils to make progress by observing someone with more experience or knowledge and to follow their example until the skills have been acquired. A typical example used in the classroom is when the teacher models how to write the opening paragraph of a story on the board.

Modelling, however, can also be of benefit in the playground and assist with the development of critical thinking – and in these circumstances, children often learn from watching their peers, rather than from the teachers. When a pupil sees a classmate navigate successfully across a Trim Trails obstacle or traverse a climbing wall, they’ll be observing another pupil’s critical thinking skills in action and can apply them to their own attempts on the equipment when it’s their turn.

Similarly, when observing other pupils playing on outdoor percussion instruments, such as drainpipe drums or xylophones, children can learn how the speed at which an instrument is struck affects the sound and how different pipes or bars make different notes. This can lead them to make new connections, using critical thinking to create sound patterns and even learn to play tunes. And the more they observe others and then get to apply their learning, they more they are able to make effective choices.

3. Outdoor experiments

The playground is the perfect place for pupils to explore ideas. Fire an open-ended question at them, such as ‘why do you look different in a curved mirror?’ and they can come up with the most imaginative and insightful hypotheses. Of course, whether they are right or wrong is not always important, what is, however, is the thinking skills that go into providing that answer.

An interesting activity would be to ask teams of pupils to design planes made from recycled materials brought in from home. This could be followed by a show and tell at the storytelling circle followed by a debate about which plane would fly the furthest. After this, the planes could be put to the test. Finally, the children can regroup and use their critical thinking skills to explain what they have learnt from the outdoor experiment.

4. Role play and forum theatre

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Role play has long been a useful method for developing critical thinking and is often used for helping pupils consider social and moral issues, particularly when they are given the role of someone in a different situation to themselves.

An excellent way to teach critical thinking outdoors is to combine role play with forum theatre. Here, a small group of children role play a moral dilemma on the outdoor stage and the class is tasked with finding a resolution. Being a forum theatre piece, at any point in the performance, other pupils can stop the action to ask questions, direct the actors or replace them on stage to find an alternative solution. In doing this, all pupils get to explore the dilemma and put on their critical thinking hats to come up with the most appropriate solution.

5. Alternative communication

People are creatures of habit, often choosing the path of least resistance in how we approach life. One way to develop critical thinking is to put pupils in situations where the path of least resistance can’t be taken and where, as a consequence, they are forced into considering a brand-new approach.

Communication is a critical area for child development and the focus in schools is heavily weighted towards speaking and listening and reading and writing. An interesting and stimulating experiment, using outdoor whiteboards and chalkboards, could be to temporarily deprive children of these abilities and to ask them to communicate only through the use of colours, shapes and pictures. This would require a great deal of critical thinking as the children would need to evaluate all the options open to them and see which way of communicating was most effective. Some pupils could even come up with their own, ingenious hieroglyphics – you never know.

Conclusion

Developing critical thinking begins by giving children the opportunity to face challenges, evaluate options and find solutions and to do this in a free-thinking way. The school playground is an ideal place for this voyage of discovery, challenging children, in a fun and engaging way, to solve all kinds of problems, whether that’s how to traverse a climbing wall, discover the best way to build a model plane or solve a moral dilemma.

If you are looking for playground equipment to help your pupils develop critical thinking skills, check out our main products page.

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