The Importance of Outdoor Play for Key Worker and Vulnerable Children

The latest lockdown means that for the first few months of 2021, the only pupils attending school are vulnerable children and the children of key workers. While schools must maintain effective social distancing measures to reduce the risk of infection from the new variant of COVID-19, ensuring that those children get the chance for outdoor play is also vitally important. Here’s why.

Vitamin D and COVID-19

According to a recent article in The Guardian, many doctors believe that vitamin D can help people’s ability to fight respiratory infections, like Coronavirus. Indeed, some even wrote to the British Medical Journal describing vitamin D as ‘a potential, significant, feasible Covid-19 mitigation remedy’. After a number of convincing medical trials during the pandemic, in November, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, ordered Nice and Public Health England to produce recommendations on vitamin D for the treatment and prevention of coronavirus.

While vitamin D is not a panacea for COVID-19, there’s a growing body of evidence that shows it helps the human body’s immune system to fight it. The problem for most of the UK population is that, particularly in winter when we get less exposure to sunlight, we are vitamin D deficient. While some foodstuffs are fortified with vitamin D  and we can take supplements, the natural way to increase the amount of vitamin D we have is through being outside. Even on cloudy, winter days, sunlight hitting our skin causes our bodies to produce it.

For those children still attending school during the third lockdown, the ability to go outside is extremely limited and playtimes offer their best chance of sunlight exposure. Giving them adequate time in the playground, even if socially distanced, can help bolster their immune systems.

Improving mental health

The impact of the lockdown on the mental health of school children has been constantly in the news and is one of the major reasons so many educationalists and health professionals are reluctant to see schools closed. Closeted in their homes from April to September and rarely allowed to socialise with their friends, many struggled with their mental health, with increasing numbers developing depression and anxiety. While there was some relief from this when schools opened in September, this now has come to an end for the foreseeable future and children will once again suffer.

The importance of giving vulnerable children and the children of key workers time for social activities in school cannot be underestimated. The ability to play and chat together, even if from a distance, allows them to reinforce friendships, discuss each other’s problems and have some much-missed opportunities to do enjoyable things - all of which can help improve mental health.

Restoring physical health

While some pupils will be making the most of their daily exercise allowance, the majority probably won’t. Over the last year, they will have already missed out on a significant amount of exercise, whether that’s just walking to school and back every day, playing with their friends, taking part in PE lessons or out of school activities. As a result, the physical health of school-aged children, nationwide, will have suffered, with them being physically weaker, less fit and at even greater risk of obesity. This, too, can make them more susceptible to infection.

Those still able to attend school, therefore, should be encouraged to participate in moderate to intense physical activity as often as possible. Ideally, they need an hour of moderate exercise every day. The pandemic, however, means some kinds of exercise are off-limits as school risk assessments may prevent the use of certain kinds of playground equipment or activities. This may limit physical exercise to games played at a distance or to activities like the Daily Mile.

That said, under the current lockdown restrictions the government has decided to keep public playgrounds open for children. This includes, according to the Gov.uk website, equipment such as slides, monkey bars, climbing frames, activity towers, swings and sandpits. These pieces of equipment are also installed in many school playgrounds and, if adequate social distancing and hygiene protocols are followed, might provide school children with the opportunity to take part in more enjoyable forms of active play.

Conclusion

While vulnerable children and the children of keyworkers can attend school, teachers have the potential to offer them vital outdoor provision. This will enable them to increase vitamin D levels to boost their immune system, socialise and participate in free play to improve mental health and take part in moderate physical activity to restore physical health and fitness to where it was before the pandemic began.

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School Playground Covid-19 Guidance for New Academic Year

Covid-19 guidance for playgrounds

The Covid-19 pandemic means significant changes for schools and nurseries reopening in September. Not only will this affect what goes on in the building but it will also impact the use of the playground, particularly where shared playground equipment, like climbing frames, play towers and sand pits are installed. Here, we’ll look at the latest government advice on what schools should be doing to keep their playgrounds safe in the new academic year.

The government’s guidance is for the governing bodies of schools and academy trusts that provide playgrounds with shared play equipment or outdoor gyms. While schools have to comply with existing health and safety legislation, the new guidance is non-statutory. This is because each school will have different circumstances and their playgrounds will have different layouts and equipment. However, schools will need to implement processes that protect people who use, clean and maintain their outdoor equipment.

Covid-19 risk assessment

Before playgrounds are allowed to be used, schools must first undertake a Covid-19 risk assessment. According to the government, this must be done in consultation with unions or, where representation isn’t in place, with the staff.

To ensure compliance with existing health and safety legislation, the assessment must examine the risk of potential Covid-19 transmission for anyone who uses the equipment, including pupils, teachers, teaching assistants and playground supervisors, as well as any cleaning and maintenance staff or those from third parties. The governing body’s responsibility is to “do everything reasonably practicable” to minimise risk.

Social distancing

Social distancing remains one of the government’s key strategies to reduce the spread of Coronavirus and this currently requires people to keep 2 metres apart or 1 metre with risk mitigations. The government recognises, however, that maintaining social distancing can be challenging in a playground setting and that schools will need to implement additional measures.

One option is to limit the number of pupils and staff who have access to the playground at any one time, perhaps adjusting the school timetable to put this in place. In addition, further social distancing can be implemented by limiting the number of pupils using a specific piece of equipment or reducing the length of time they can play on it.

Further measures include using signs to communicate the maximum number of users, increasing supervision to ensure pupils follow instructions, implementing a one-way travel route around the playground and between equipment and, where pieces of equipment are less than 2 metres apart, temporarily shutting one down.

Cleaning and hygiene

The cleaning of equipment is vital to prevent the spread of the virus, especially if it is being used by different pupil bubbles throughout the day. Schools are advised to clean busy touchpoints frequently. This includes equipment such as climbing frames, slides, play towers, play huts, crawl tunnels, exercise bars, gym equipment, gates, benches, picnic tables and bins.

If pupils are grouped into bubbles, cleaning is most effective if done after each bubble has left the playground and before the next bubble arrives. Cleaning products should be those which are effective against the virus but which do not pose injury or harm to users.

Face coverings

Under current Covid-19 guidance, face coverings are only required in enclosed public spaces and only for children under 11. While Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, said pupils over 11 will be expected to wear them on school buses and moving around school buildings, they are not required in classrooms as other protective measures are being introduced.

As playgrounds are not enclosed spaces, there is no current requirement for children over 11 to wear a mask. However, if social distancing is difficult to maintain when using playground equipment, it is an option that schools could consider.

Other considerations

Besides the guidance given above, other advice includes using playground posters and signage to remind pupils and staff of the school’s procedures and of general COVID protection advice; placing sanitising stations next to equipment and at entrances; providing more waste bins and increasing the frequency of rubbish collections, and banning the consumption of food or drink in the playground or on play equipment.

SEND pupils

The government has also issued advice on how schools should help pupils with additional needs in playground environments. For example, they may need more frequent reminders about new rules or require assistance moving between apparatus or carrying out hygiene regimes.

Conclusion

The new normal in schools is going to take a great deal of adjustment for pupils and staff alike in September. Being able to participate in play is vital to help children acclimatise to the new setup and begin to socialise again after months of lockdown. Hopefully, the advice given by the government and summarised here will help you provide a safe and inviting playground for your pupils. For more information, visit the government’s outdoor playground and gym guidance page.

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Social Play Ideas For Post-Lockdown Playgrounds

Primary pupils

According to mental health professionals, when children return to full-time education in September, schools should prioritise play and socialising over learning. After months of lockdown and with little opportunity for face to face interactions, experts say many children will be suffering from loneliness and isolation. Social play will help them overcome their loneliness and make it easier to overcome anxiety about being in an educational setting whose ‘new-normal’ seems alien. In this post, we’ll look at how the playground can be used to encourage and facilitate socialising and to support children on their transition back into education.

The value of social play

While children get plenty of opportunities to interact in the classroom, the activities they participate in and the topics of discussion are directed by the teacher. Only during free time, away from the teacher and the classroom rules, do they get the chance to engage with each other freely. This makes the playground an ideal place to facilitate and encourage social play. Doing so not only helps them readjust to life after lockdown; it aids their development, helping them acquire the valuable communication and social skills that they will depend upon throughout their lives.

Play is crucial for social and emotional development. It helps children to make friends and build relationships and it develops empathy, trust and an understanding of social norms. Indeed, play gives children the chance to learn from their mistakes: through falling out and making up, they learn how to manage emotions, resolve conflicts and develop resilience. It also provides opportunities to share their thoughts and feelings and to support one and other, something which will be crucial post-lockdown.

Communication skills are essential for social development and outdoor play provides a myriad of opportunities for verbal interaction. Interaction between children is needed to make choices about the activities they want to do and then to take part in them. They’ll need to negotiate, discuss, explain, take turns, ask and answer questions, listen and respond; learning as they do from interactions that went well and those which didn’t. It’s not just speaking and listening skills that they develop either, the playground is an ideal place to learn about non-verbal communication. They’ll discover how to read and respond to facial expressions, gestures and body language and hone their skills in using them.

Equipping your playground for social play

As all children are different, facilitating social play requires a range of playground equipment, this way you’ll be able to encourage every child to take part in activities where they can interact with others. Thankfully, there is equipment for all kinds of activity and something to suit everyone.

Social sports

Team sports are excellent for encouraging social interactions. It develops camaraderie, the sense of fair play and requires plenty of communication. Playground sports markings are the ideal way to encourage the participation of larger groups of children and with sports such as netball, football, basketball and rounders catered for, there’s something that will appeal to most children. There’s also a variety of nets, hoops, ball walls and targets that can be added to make the sports more fun.

Fun and games

Kids love playing games together and there is a multitude of equipment that will encourage them to socialise. These include fun and games playground markings for chess, hopscotch and even a mini roadway; outdoor tabletop games like snakes and ladders, Connect 4 and Ludo as well as battleship boards. There’s also table football, table tennis and skipping rope games.

Creative interactions

Another great way to get children playing together is through being creative. They can do this by drawing, chalking and painting together using a variety of outdoor drawing and chalkboards, making music with fun outdoor musical instruments, like xylophones, chimes and drainpipe drums or by singing together on a playground stage. They can also get creatively messy with a mud kitchen, sandpit or with water and sand play equipment.

Roleplay

Younger children love to get involved in roleplay activities and it is important for their social and emotional development that they get the opportunity. There is some fantastic outdoor roleplay equipment to inspire their imaginations, this includes under-over bridges, trains, storytelling chairs, shop/kiosk panels, carriages, playboats, wigwam posts, play huts and more.

Thrill-seeking play

Thrill-seeking play is excellent for getting children to interact and be sociable. It encourages them to collaborate to overcome challenges and to support each other; it gives opportunities for roleplay and discussion and lets children who have been cooped up over lockdown have a great deal of physical fun. ESP Play has a comprehensive range of climbing equipment, including Trim Trails obstacle courses, play towers, climbing walls, Tangled rope play equipment and FreeFlow modular climbing frame systems.

Conclusion

Social play has always been essential for children’s development and now, following the lockdown, it is also needed to address the isolation, loneliness and anxiety of children returning to school. If you are looking for playground equipment to provide better social play opportunities, hopefully, the ideas mentioned here will have given you some inspiration.

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Developing a Sensory Playground for Young Children

Primary pupils

We use our senses to help us live in the physical world. Without them, life would be far more challenging, especially in the complex societies in which we now live. Giving young children the ability to experience the world on a sensory level and to learn how to use the senses is, therefore, vital for their development. Here, we look at the way this can be done for sight, hearing, touch and smell in the playground.

The importance of sensory play

Sensory play develops children in many ways. On a physiological level, it helps with brain development, building important connections between neural pathways that give them the ability to do more complex thinking, solve problems, communicate, move nimbly and navigate.

Part of the way we use senses is to help us survive. As children explore, they develop the sensory skills which are important for keeping them safe: distinguishing hot from cold, low from high, soft from hard, smooth from rough and wet from dry. They become attuned to sensations which are safe and pleasant and those which are hazardous and unpleasant. In the playground, this can be done in a safe, controlled way.

Sensory play equipment for nurseries and schools

There is a sensory element to many of the pieces of outdoor play equipment that we provide at ESP Play. Below, we will take four of the five senses and look at some of the best equipment to help with their development.

Sight

Sight is perhaps our most used sense and we depend upon it in many ways. It helps us understand distance, direction, colour, shape, size, elevation, brightness, pattern, texture, speed, number, emotion and much more.

To make the most of sight in a playground, we need to give children opportunities to see things at a distance, perhaps with a play tower, and close up, with a magnifying glass or concave mirror. Indeed, in a small playground, a plane wall mirror can also help give the impression of distance. Colours can be introduced through coloured playground surfaces, painted walls, plants and a variety of different coloured equipment. Similarly, these can be a mixture of light and dark, bright and dull, reflective and non-reflective.

Movement can be created through physical activity, such as throwing balls, as well as through installing wind-moved objects like mobiles and mini windmills. Shape, of course, is everywhere, but standard shapes, like triangles, circles and rectangles, can be provided through playground markings.

Hearing

Like sight, our auditory senses give us lots of ways to understand the world around us. We use it to distinguish between types of things, their speed and their direction of movement. We also use it to communicate, both verbally and non-verbally.

Any playground will come with built-in noises: the sound of play, the sounds of nature and those of the local environment like traffic and factories. However, it is possible to complement these with wind chimes, bells and horns or even install purpose-designed outdoor musical instruments, like drainpipe drums, chimes and xylophones.

Touch

The nerves in our skin tell us not only where we are being touched but also a great deal about what is touching us and whether it is safe. Indeed, we are so sensitive to touch we can feel some things, like heat and wind, without physical contact. The more a child gets to experience touch, the better they become as interpreting the world around them.

To give children the chance to develop touch skills, they need as wide a variety of tactile experiences as possible. This can be achieved by using objects and equipment that range from hard to soft, smooth to textured, taut to slack and warm to cold. Contrasting sensory experiences can be easily achieved in a well-resourced playground through a variety of ways, from different types of playground surfacing (e.g. resin-bound gravel, rubber mulch and soft grass), climbing equipment (e.g. wooden beams, ropes and jungle bars), play apparatus (water and sand equipment, soft toys, throwing equipment) and nature (trees and plants).

Smell

Our olfactory sense plays a key part in our day to day awareness. It helps us to discover and avoid dangers, like fire and chemicals, it can tell us whether food has gone bad and when things are dirty. It is also a sense that brings much pleasure and through which we can be attracted to things like food and flowers. And though our sense of smell is far less developed than some other animals, we can still use it to identify people, places and things.

The playground can be an excellent source of smells. If there is an area of greenery, this can be used to create a garden with a variety of scents coming from various trees, shrubs, herbs and flowers and if these are carefully chosen, it is possible to have different smells being given off throughout the year. Where a school lacks a garden, it is still possible to create a nature area using planters and trellises, even embellishing it with a little artificial grass, if need be.

Aside from natural smells, it is also possible to create a smell zone. Fasten a few small wooden boxes around the site, drill holes in them and place scraps of scented material inside, perhaps using things like vanilla, cinnamon, lemon and ginger. When there’s a breeze, the scent will gently waft around the playground. You could even set children the task of identifying what the smells are each week.

Conclusion

Sensory play is essential for all children, helping them develop skills needed for living and for promoting the development of neural pathways in the brain. The playground is the ideal location for this as children have the freedom to explore the senses at their own leisure and pace. And while the outdoors naturally provides many sensory experiences of its own, with carefully chosen outdoor equipment, you can create an environment that meets all their sensory needs.

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Why Outdoor Play is Vital For Primary Pupils

Primary pupils

Primary pupils love to play outside and doing so benefits them in many ways. It improves health, wellbeing and even helps them do better in the classroom. It also encourages the development of the key personal and social skills which they will need throughout their lives. The children, of course, won’t be too interested in any of this: for them, playing out is all about fun, excitement and moments of pure joy. However, with little opportunity to play out at home, primary schools that provide children with a well-equipped playground are laying the foundations for a brighter future for their pupils. Here’s why.

Long-term health benefits

The rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes among primary pupils is a key indicator of the decline in physical activity undertaken by children in today’s society. By providing the time, space and equipment to participate in physical activity in the playground, schools can help them become healthier. They will burn calories, improve fitness, become stronger and benefit from all the good things that come from these. What’s more, when these opportunities are provided at an early age, it increases the chances that children will maintain healthy lifestyles into adulthood.

Encouraging children to become active in the playground can be done in many ways. Simply giving them space to run is a good start, but you can incentivise them even more by adding playground markings for games like football or netball or which get them to jump and hop. Climbing equipment is also great for getting kids active and there is a wide range available to suit pupils from nursery to year 6. Another way is to install an outdoor stage, play some music and get the children dancing. If it gets them moving, it is good for their health.

Contributes to mental wellbeing

Mental health is a major issue for the UK and those with mental disorders often have issues that have wide-ranging consequences. According to the latest NHS study, 12.2% of boys and 6.6% of girls aged between 5 and 10 suffer from a mental health disorder. Indeed, over 5% of pupils start school with a disorder and the numbers increase throughout primary and secondary education.

While outdoor play is not a panacea for mental health, it does have benefits. The Mental Health Foundation states that taking part in low-intensity, aerobic exercise for around 30 minutes a day is the best way to increase positive moods in primary aged children. This can help those with depression and anxiety cope with their disorder while preventing others from developing it.

The Daily Mile initiative, which encourages pupils to run, jog or walk for a mile each day is an excellent way to contribute to mental wellbeing. For schools that lack the space, then playground markings can offer the chance to take part in other aerobic activities.

Outdoor play leads to better learning

Outdoor play benefits learning in several ways. Simply having a break from the classroom and doing something fun can recharge the learning batteries and bring flagging concentration levels back to full steam. Doing something active during free time also gets the blood circulating, boosting brain power – a fact backed up by a University of British Columbia study which found regular aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning.

What’s more, playing outdoors enables children to develop many of the transferable skills essential for learning, like resilience, problem-solving, collaboration and concentration. Equipment such as Trim Trails obstacle courses, which offer both physical and cognitive challenges, are ideal for developing these skills and are also tremendous fun to play on.

Outdoor play can also improve classroom behaviour, with research showing that participation in physical activities helps children to stay on task and be better behaved. That’s good news for the teacher as well as the children.

The sociable child

The complex skills of social interaction take a while to master and primary pupils need plenty of opportunities to practice them. This is difficult to achieve in a classroom where time is directed and the rules of engagement are imposed on them. In the playground, there is scope for wider interaction and more freedom to make mistakes.

Taking part in playground activities enables children to learn important social skills, like negotiating, accepting group decisions and taking turns, while also helping them to become more effective communicators. Over time, they will need to make friends, ask for help and resolve disputes, fine-tuning their interactions with skills like tact, empathy and assertiveness.

Playground equipment that invites children to play together, whether for sport, games, roleplay or in creative pursuits is vital so that these important social skills can be honed.

Conclusion

Outdoor play is vital for primary pupils, giving them opportunities to improve physical health and mental wellbeing and to learn and interact better. Given the time, space and the right equipment at this stage in their development can have long-lasting benefits.

For inspiration and information, take a look at our Products Page.

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