Why Great Design Matters for Small School Playgrounds

small school playground design

Everywhere you look these days, school playgrounds seem to be getting kitted out with the latest, must-have outdoor equipment. The one thing many of these modern playgrounds have in common is that they are of a decent size. For schools with smaller playgrounds, it can be hard to find the right solution when there is so little space available. However, with the right design team behind you, the possibilities are endless. Here we discuss why great design matters for small school playgrounds.

Dilemmas and challenges

Schools with small playgrounds are often faced with the dilemma that, by installing playground equipment, they make available space even smaller. It seems like there is a choice between giving children things to do and space to run around. A good playground, however, should aim to do both. The challenge is in finding a way to achieve this – and this is where having the help of a specialist school playground design team, like ESP Play, can be invaluable.

The importance of zones

No matter how big or small your outdoor space, the modern approach to designing playgrounds involves the creation of zones. This means creating discrete areas for different types of activities. Separating activities in this way is essential for making the playground safer, more inclusive and providing a wider range of play opportunities.

A smaller playground might not be able to have as many zones as a larger one, or, if it does, the zones might have less or smaller equipment. However, by using them, you can create areas for different activities, such as active play, creative play, sensory play and even quiet areas for sitting and chatting. A good designer will make sure that the layout of the playground is such that children taking part in one activity won’t be disrupted or put at risk by those taking part in another and that there is adequate access to and from each zone. In this way, no one is excluded from taking part and staff will have fewer issues to deal with as the design limits the potential for hazards.

Clever space-saving design

ESP Play’s experienced playground designers have created countless designs for small playgrounds up and down the country and understand not just the issues but the unseen opportunities that schools miss.

One frequently missed opportunity is not taking advantage of your school and playground walls. For playgrounds with limited space, these offer incredible potential, enabling the school to add a wide range of fun and educational equipment that doesn’t take up precious space elsewhere. What’s great is that even if you don’t currently have any walls, it’s relatively simple to install a fence that’s strong enough to serve the same purpose.  School walls can be used to install blackboards and whiteboards, traversing walls, magnetic water walls, ball targets and basketball hoops. They can also be used to create nature zones in your playground through the use of planters and trellises, together with wall-attached bug houses, bird feeders and butterfly houses. All these things, and more, can be put around the edges of your playground without taking up precious space in the centre.

Your choice of zones

When it comes to making use of the space, it’s up to you which zones to create and what features you might want them to have. For example, you could create a messy play area next to a wall that features a magnetic water wall as well as a small sandpit and a mud kitchen. The wall could also incorporate hangers on which you could keep aprons to keep the children dry and free of sand.

Small playgrounds don’t need to lack exciting climbing equipment either. Although you might be hard pushed to fit in a large climbing frame, smaller versions are available that can still offer plenty of fun-filled thrills for your pupils, whether that’s play towers for younger children or the Free Flow Expedition package. If you’re really stuck for space, you can choose individual pieces from our Trim Trails equipment, including jungle bars, wobbly bridges, balance beams, log stairs and many more.

There’s also a lot of equipment for imaginative play zones, where children can indulge in creative activities and role play. From mini-stages and shop kiosks to boats, carriages and trains, these pieces offer great fun without taking up too much space.

As for reserving a space for running around, that’s possible too – and can best be achieved with the addition of a few playground markings to provide the sports pitches and traditional playground games markings to inspire participation and keep the activities within designated areas.


As you can see, having a small school playground doesn’t mean your pupils can’t benefit from the great equipment you see being installed in other schools. However, it does mean you’ll need to be a little cleverer when it comes to getting the design right and that you choose the right pieces to match the space you have available.

For more information about our Free Playground Design Service, visit our Playground Design page.


7 Different Ways That Children Play

ways children play

To create a school or nursery playground that engages all children, it is important to understand the different ways that children play. Here, we look at how seven different types of play appeal to children of different ages and interests, discuss the benefits they bring and explain why playground design needs to cater for each of them.

1. Solo play

Solo play is that which children like to do on their own and is usually the first form of play that a child participates in. It is, however, something people continue to do not just through childhood, but into adulthood too. Solo play can include things like building a sandcastle, going down a slide, traversing a climbing wall or kicking a ball against a wall. Highly engaging, it can be useful for developing creative and problem-solving skills, as well as enabling children to learn about themselves and the world they live in.

2. Social play

As the name suggests, social play involves taking part in play activities with others, whether that’s with adults or children, small groups or large. Participation helps children to develop important social skills, understand social norms and build relationships with others. Additionally, it helps with the development of communication, cooperation, rule-following, negotiation and problem-solving skills.

3. Free play

Free or unstructured play is where children are given free rein to play as they please. Obviously, in an educational setting, this will be supervised by adults for safeguarding reasons, but the activities that children choose to undertake is entirely up to them and can be either solo or group play.

The choice of outdoor play equipment is important to provide adequate free play opportunities. The greater the variety available, the greater the choice for children. How they decide to use that equipment, however, can be quite different to how it was intended. The great thing about free play is that it allows children to develop their independence and let their creativity roam free. When this happens, they can come up with some highly imaginative ideas.

4. Unstructured play

The opposite of free play is structured play – that which has a purpose and is planned, organised and has ground rules. In schools and nurseries, it is the teaching staff who organise and supervise the play and the activities are carried out in order to achieve an outcome that is often learning related. Aside from EYFS or curriculum-related learning, structured play also helps children learn how to follow instructions and behave appropriately in organised activities.

5. Physical play

While play tends to get more sedentary as we get older, children love to indulge in highly physical activities: running, jumping, climbing, swinging and sliding, etc. This includes everything from chasing games and playing sports, to playing on climbing frames and play towers.

While physical play offers children endless opportunities for fun, these kinds of activities are also very beneficial for developing physical and motor skills and for both physical and mental wellbeing. Ideally, children should have an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day and this type of play offers the ideal opportunity for them to get it.

6. Sensory play

Sensory play is that which enables children to have sensory-rich experiences and is particularly valuable for younger children and children with SEND. Schools and nurseries should provide sensory play opportunities that address sight, touch, hearing and smell. To achieve this, playground design and equipment needs to provide different colours, textures, sounds and smells. A common practice, today, is to create a sensory zone within a playground. A nature zone with flowering, scented plants and a water feature is another great way to bring the senses to life.

7. Creative play

Children naturally like to make things and the playground provides a range of opportunities to do this. These include activities like building dens, making mud pies and sandcastles, arranging toy building blocks and creating art made from twigs and leaves. Again, this type of play is beneficial to developing creativity and problem solving, and it can also help those important fine motor skills.

Of course, children don’t need to build things to be creative. They will quite easily begin a role play with friends, start drawing or painting and if there are outdoor percussion instruments at hand, will even attempt making music. Ensuring these activities are catered for can widen the creative play choices that children have access to.


As you can see, there are many different types of play that children can participate in and each has its own benefits and value. To give children the widest opportunities to learn, develop and have fun, schools and nurseries should consider these different types of play when designing their playgrounds and provide appropriate equipment for each.

For more information about playground design, visit our Free Playground Design Service page.


Specialist Playground Tables for Learning and Fun

Playground tables

Ask most school staff what a playground table is and the most likely answer is a picnic bench. Indeed, most staff have never seen anything different in a playground. Over the last few years, however, outdoor tables have become increasingly specialised to provide children with more opportunities to have fun and to learn. If these fabulous tables are something new to you, here’s a look at some of the playground activities your pupils could be enjoying.

Compendium of games tables

Not too long ago, every family had a compendium of games, often featuring classic board games like Ludo, snakes and ladders, noughts and crosses, solitaire and chequers. Today, there are specially designed playground picnic tables that feature the playing boards and pieces of these much-loved games and provide the seating for children to participate. Brightly coloured and with large boards, they are fun and easy to play. Tables come in two sizes, the smaller featuring two games and the larger, three games. Besides the games mentioned above, you can also choose from Connect 4, Chinese chequers and the Green Challenge game.

Whiteboard table

Ideal for your arty kids, the whiteboard table, together with a selection of whiteboard pens gives children the opportunity to spend their lunches and break times drawing, colouring, writing or even just doodling. And when they’re done, a quick wipe with a cloth will present a blank canvas for the next person. These tables are also great for outdoor lessons where pupils can use them for writing down ideas, working out calculations, recording observations and so forth.

Investigation tables

The investigation table offers a modern, learning-friendly approach to those science lessons where you take a square surface of grass or soil, divide it into grids and record what you find in each. The table comes in three sections, one where finds are laid, another where they are sorted into grids for closer inspection, and a third where finds are recorded on a cm by cm ruled grid whiteboard.

These tables really look the business, inspiring pupils and providing them with the necessary apparatus to conduct field investigations following proper scientific methods.

Roadway tables

These six-seater and four-seater picnic benches feature a colourful map surface with an interconnected system of roadways, together with rivers and canals, a railway line and buildings. Ideal for children that like playing with toy people, cars, trains and boats, they are great for inventing games, pretend journeys and instigating roleplay. They can also be used to teach some of the basics of road safety and to introduce aspects of geography.

Waterplay tables

Kids love playing with water and waterplay tables allow them to do this in a way that’s safe and doesn’t cause too much mess. The water container is brightly coloured and features cartoon fish, an octopus, a crab and a starfish. There’s a fun funnel for pouring water in, a mini water wheel and even exciting water chutes for sending things down to make a splash. The table itself is built using a sturdy wooded frame to ensure it stays upright and doesn’t cause a mini flood.

Football table

This is a version of the traditional football table found in arcades, where players have to spin the handles to kick the ball and score a goal. The key difference is that this particular football table is designed to be kept outdoors in the playground. With high sides to protect against the wind, it's sturdy and waterproof and made from materials that aren’t going to get damaged from being open to the elements.

Colour puzzle and Tangram tables

Great for those children who like a stimulating mental challenge during their free time, both the colour puzzle and Tangram tables offer lots of problem-solving fun. With colourful shapes and patterns to sort out, these tables are entertaining and provide great learning opportunities too.

Drum table

Part of our collection of outdoor percussion instruments, the drum table, which features three different drums, is the perfect height for younger children to experiment with rhythm and sounds just by using their hands. Bright red and yellow and with the word ‘Music’ boldly showing on the front, it’s an eye-catching and fun addition to any playground, especially when complemented by some of the other great instruments in the collection.


As you can see, playground tables have evolved significantly over the last few years, with their specialisation providing much more value than somewhere to sit, chat and eat sandwiches.

For information about these and our other playground tables, click here.



The Importance of Play in EYFS Ofsted Inspections

Playground Climbing Equipment

The Ofsted publication ‘Teaching and play in the early years – a balancing act?’ was written to address ‘the recurring myth that teaching and play are separate, disconnected endeavours in the early years.’ It is clear from this statement that play is an integral part of the learning process and, as such, will be scrutinised during EYFS inspections. Here, we take a closer look at what Ofsted will look at and what it expects.

According to the EYFS Inspection Framework, inspectors visiting a school, nursery or other EYFS provider ‘must spend as much time as possible gathering evidence about the quality of care, teaching and learning by observing the children at play.’ In particular, they will look at how staff interact with children during both planned and child-initiated play activities to see how they communicate and model language. Besides examining how staff explain, demonstrate, explore ideas, encourage and question, they will also look at how they facilitate and set challenges, taking into account the equipment provided and the attention given to the physical environment.

Crucially, this applies to both indoor and outdoor play and is the first indication in the framework that the quality of the outdoor space and playground equipment, and how these are used for learning, are important elements of the inspection process.


Communication and language

Communication and language are two of the main areas of learning that inspectors will focus on according to the inspection framework, because ‘the development of children’s spoken language underpins all 7 areas of learning and development’ in EYFS. Additionally, it says that a key part of an inspector’s information gathering around communication and language will come through ‘incidental conversations prompted by observing the children at play and the interactions between them and adults.’ With this being a key focus for Ofsted, it is clear that EYFS providers need to create settings and install playground equipment that encourages and facilitates communication and language learning. Storytelling corners, alphabet and phonics markings and equipment that encourages role play and mark making are all very useful here.


Other areas of focus

This, however, is just the start of what Ofsted expects. The inspection framework goes on to add that it is the role of the EYFS provider to ‘help children experience the awe and wonder of the world in which they live, through the 7 areas of learning.’ As the focus here is clearly on providing children with ‘experiences,’ providers need to carefully consider the type of playground equipment they install to ensure that it offers awe and wonder. This can include creating nature spaces with bird feeders and bug houses, magnetic water walls, outdoor percussion instruments or thrilling climbing equipment.

To be successful in an Ofsted inspection, the EYFS provider’s curriculum must have a highly effective impact on what children know, can remember and do. The framework says that children can demonstrate this through being deeply engaged in their play and sustaining high levels of concentration. Indeed, to achieve outstanding, the children need to ‘have consistently positive attitudes to their play and learning,’ be highly motivated and very eager to join in, share and cooperate. Again, the quality of the play equipment is crucial to helping EYFS practitioners achieve this.

Installing playground equipment that boosts physical activity and skills is also something EYFS providers need to consider. EYFS practitioners should ‘provide a range of opportunities for physically active play’ and give clear and consistent messages to support healthy choices around exercise.

In establishments rated as good by Ofsted, observations will show that children are physically active in their play and develop motor, cardiovascular and physiological skills, including showing ‘good control and coordination in both large and small movements appropriate for their stage of development.’ Climbing frames, play towers, age-appropriate Trim Trails, traversing walls, sports and stepper markings are all helpful for developing physical health and movement skills and can provide the range of opportunities that Ofsted are looking for.

Climbing frames, play towers and Trim Trails are also useful in that they promote children’s confidence, resilience and independence. This is important, as another area of Ofsted assessment will look at how well EYFS providers ‘teach children to take appropriate risks and challenges as they play and learn both inside and outdoors, particularly supporting them to develop physical and emotional health.’ These types of playground apparatus address all these key areas.



Ofsted sees play as a vital part of learning. During inspections, they will consider how ‘leaders and practitioners create and plan the play environment’ and observe children at play when gathering evidence. To ensure a successful inspection, therefore, EYFS providers can benefit from installing equipment that engages, motivates and inspires children to learn across all seven areas of the curriculum.

For more information about our wide range of EYFS playground equipment, visit our Early Years page.


6 Ways Playground Climbing Equipment Benefits Pupils

Playground Climbing Equipment

Playground climbing equipment, it’s something fun for the children to do at playtimes, right? Well, although that’s true, it actually does a lot more for children than you might think. Here we look at some of the incredible benefits children get when schools install climbing equipment in their playgrounds.

1. Makes pupils healthier

Although kids won’t see it that way, a climbing frame is a kind of outdoor gym and playing on it gives them a good physical workout. With all that climbing, swinging, jumping, crawling and goodness knows what other maneuverers they get up to, they’ll exercise every muscle in their bodies. That makes it great for building up their strength and fitness and for improving their cardiovascular health.

All that exercise helps burn off the calories too, and with the latest 2021 figures showing 40.9% of all year 6 students were either overweight or obese, providing fun, active play equipment is one of the best ways to encourage more exercise. Indeed, research from Liverpool John Moors University has shown that when climbing equipment is installed in school playgrounds, children’s participation in moderate to vigorous activity increases by around 30 minutes per week and 70% of them show an improvement in their general health and fitness.

2. Great for wellbeing

Even before the pandemic, one in eight children had a recognised mental health condition. Today, that figure is likely to be much higher, even among the youngest pupils. While some pupils obviously need professional help from mental health services, the great thing about physical activity is that it can give a mental boost to every child. Playing on a climbing frame is ideal for this, as the moderate to vigorous activity can increase endorphin levels, reduce stress and improve mood, helping pupils to feel less anxious and happier. And of course, happy kids behave better and learn better too.

3. Makes kids more independent

In order to help children learn better and to prepare them for adulthood, they need to be able to think for themselves and act independently. Unstructured free play is where that journey begins and equipment like climbing frames is great for nurturing that growing independence, as children will need to make their own decisions about the risks they face and the obstacles they overcome.

4. Helps children take on challenge

Challenge – it’s one of OFSTED’s favourite buzzwords. Schools are constantly being told of the need to increase challenge in order to get pupils to attain higher. However, increasing challenge doesn’t necessarily mean children will accept it. Indeed, not all pupils have the self-confidence or the inclination to take on greater challenge.

What makes climbing frames particularly useful here is that they make challenge fun. Can I cross this traversing wall without falling off? Can I get from one end of the jungle bars to the other? Can I get around the entire frame doing it the hard way? Taking on these challenges in the playground improves their overall confidence and this can improve it in the classroom too.

5. Develops resilience

Resilience is just as important as accepting challenge, for the simple reason that if someone fails at something, they need to have the inner determination to get back up and have another go.  Resilience is best developed through failing at small, inconsequential things. If a child takes a week to master a route across a climbing wall, the resilience they will have built up trying and trying again will better serve them to try harder when they don’t do so well in an important classroom test.

On a climbing frame, failure isn’t so consequential, but it improves resilience and drives the determination to succeed. With climbing equipment offering a wide range of challenges, there’s plenty of potential to develop that resilience and harden their resolve.

6. Improves social skills

Climbing frames allow children to play on their own or with friends, and it’s when they are with friends that opportunities arise to develop those all-important social skills. For a start, they’ll need to understand the importance of rule-making and turn-taking. Then there are the negotiations about which routes and challenges the group are going to take. They’ll also learn to give support and advice to any friends struggling to get around.

Some climbing equipment is also themed and this makes it ideal for roleplay, an activity children love and which helps them explore and understand the world from other people’s perspectives.


As you can see, there is a lot more to playground climbing equipment than just having fun. And today, there is a wide range of climbing equipment to choose from, each with its own appeal and challenge. These include our Trim Trails obstacle courses, Free-Flow climbing frames, Tangled rope play equipment, climbing walls, and a wide range of EYFS play towers.

For more information about all these, visit our Climbing Equipment page.



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