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.

For information about our range of playground equipment, visit our Products page.

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How Outdoor Play Helps Speech and Language Development

Speech and language skills are two of the most important things that children need to develop during EYFS and primary school. Those who acquire them early will find their education journey easier and are more likely to succeed academically. Beyond learning, speech and language are essential for all aspects of life, they are something we all rely on every day. In this post, we’ll look at different outdoor play activities that can be used in EYFS and primary settings to help speech and language development.

Roleplay activities

Roleplay is a vital and unique ingredient of child development and something which, for most, comes naturally. In it, children take on the role of others and act out scenarios in improvised dramas. What makes roleplay important is that children explore relationships, often involving parents or authority figures, and act out situations that help them develop a better understanding of the world in which they live.

Taking part in roleplay requires children to use language and speech and through participation, these skills are enhanced. Learning through experience and from each other, they acquire a wider vocabulary, learn different ways to use their voice, understand the right words and tones of voice to use in different situations and so forth. They also develop a better understanding of non-verbal communication – gesture, facial expression and body language.

For roleplay to be most effective, children need the freedom to create their own roles and scenarios. The ideal time for this is during breaks, where they can indulge in unstructured free play and have the entire playground to create their invented world.

While some children are adept at spontaneous roleplay, others need a bit more encouragement and this is where nurseries and primary schools need to provide support. The best way to do this is to give the children props and equipment that will encourage them to start a roleplay. The easiest and most obvious solution is to provide them with a box full of dressing up costumes and some everyday props. Toy phones, magic wands, work-related hats, shopping bags, etc, can all inspire children to roleplay.

So too, can specialised outdoor roleplay equipment. Shop kiosks, playboats, castle-themed climbing towers, mud kitchens, play trains and carriages, bridges and tunnels, etc. can all motivate children to get involved.

Outdoor storytelling

Outdoor storytelling has become very popular over the last few years, due mainly to the trend for storytelling corners being installed in schools and nurseries up and down the country. These are often magical places for young children where the environment they are in helps them become fully immersed in the story they are listening to, whether read from a book or told by a storyteller.

The increased engagement seen in storytelling corners can be hugely helpful in developing speech and language. Children are keener to listen to the story, take part in audience participation activities, ask and answer questions and even tell stories themselves. They learn how speech and language can captivate, how storylines unfold and how words spoken in particular ways can have an impact.

Kids love traditional stories and fairy tales and a storytelling corner is the best place to enjoy them. With wooden storytelling chairs, log seats or woodland mushroom seats, it’s easy to create a special storytelling corner for your children.

Speech and language playground games

The playground presents a myriad of opportunities for speech and language-related playground games. For example, you could create a treasure hunt where children have to find clues and then discuss where the next clue is. Traditional games like charades, who am I? and I-spy encourage children to describe things and ask questions, while outdoor table games like Ludo, snakes and ladders, noughts and crosses encourage dialogue about excitement, strategy and turn-taking.

While these games require general speech and language interactions, alphabet and phonics games, on the other hand, are perfect for young children just starting out on their letter learning and phonics lessons. Combining traditional playground games like hopscotch and stepping challenges with letters and phonics is a great way for children to have lots of playground fun while reinforcing classroom learning to enhance their understanding of speech and language. At ESP Play, we have a number of alphabet and phonics playground markings, including letter steppers, phonics spots and footwork vowels.

Conclusion

Speech and language skills are highly important to young children and the sooner they start to develop them, the quicker their learning will be. Nursery and primary school playgrounds are the ideal environments for children to participate in roleplay, storytelling and speech and language games that can help accelerate the development of these skills.

For more information about the speech and language playground equipment mentioned in this post, visit our Products page.

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How to Support Risk Taking in Outdoor Play

Learning to negotiate risk is a vital skill that everyone needs to develop. Without it, we’d all take poorer decisions, make a lot more mistakes and suffer unnecessary injuries. While it is important that children are given the opportunity to learn risk taking skills, the challenge for schools is how to balance risk with safety. Here, we’ll look at some of the ways that schools can support risk taking in the playground while minimising the risk of injury.

Why risk is important in the playground

Children in EYFS and primary settings can benefit physically, mentally and emotionally from risky play. Any playground activity with an element of risk will cause children to assess what those risks are. They’ll ask whether the activity is safe or dangerous and consider whether their decisions will get them or their friends hurt or even into trouble. Though at first they likely to make the occasional mistake, over time, they will fine-tune their risk taking skills and learn a healthy respect for danger. Once learnt, these skills can be applied in far more risky situations than those they experience in the safety of the playground.

While some children benefit from learning when a risk is dangerous, others are given important freedoms by learning that some risks are not as hazardous as they think. The unnecessary avoidance of risk in childhood can have life-limiting consequences. If not dealt with, people will shy away from opportunities in life, not because they cannot do them but because they fear the risk. Overcoming small risks in the playground can help the child to become a confident adult and a better decision-maker.

Additionally, risky play can also improve a child’s ability to solve problems. They may, for example, avoid climbing across a traversing wall if they think they may fall, but if they look at different ways of getting from one side to another, they may discover a safer route and manage to complete the challenge.

Children need to begin to develop these essential life skills when they are young. The earlier they do, the sooner they can be given greater independence in the knowledge that they know how to avoid danger both in the playground and in other areas of their lives. Of course, supervision is important at an early age, but children should not be micromanaged.

Types of playground risk

There are lots of ways to offer risky play in the playground. Giving children access to heights is one of the most common, such as play towers, climbing equipment, traversing walls or even climbing a tree. Speed is another form of playground risk and can include playing games or sports where children can collide or on equipment like skipping ropes, swings, sea-saws and roundabouts where there’s the potential to fall.

Children will find risk everywhere in the playground, even if it's only mildly hazardous. They will ask, ‘Will I get wet through if I play with the magnetic water wall?’, ‘Will I get mucky if I play on the mud kitchen?’, ‘Will I fall off the trike on the playground roadway?’ There are psychological risks that children will face too: ‘Will they say no if I ask to play?’, ‘Will people laugh at me if I fall off?’

Playground design for risk taking

While it is important to offer opportunities for risk taking, schools and nurseries have an obligation to make sure that the playground is safe to use. This means that any risks are controlled to minimise the potential for injury.

Playground design should include the creation of zones so that activities of one kind don’t interfere with another. A child might be able to assess the risks of using jungle bars but they are not likely to have factored in being hit by a football halfway across. Good design will ensure that these activities are kept separate from each other.

A key element of playground safety, especially when risk taking is involved, is the type of surfacing used. The use of shock-absorbing playground surfacing, like wetpour, artificial grass and rubber mulch, reduces the risk of injury when placed under climbing frames or in areas where children are moving at speed.

There is also the equipment itself. While we’ve already mentioned the types of risk taking equipment that can be used, it is important that they are well made, properly installed and regularly maintained. All equipment and surfacing installed on your premises must meet the necessary safety standards.

The final safety consideration is the way the playground is used. Zones should be supervised so that particular pieces of equipment don’t have too many children playing on them at the same time and it can be advisable, for some activities, to keep older children and younger children playing separately.

Conclusion

As adults, our experience of risk taking helps us to stay safe every day. It also helps us take advantages of opportunities, knowing the risks are small. Children need to start developing these skills at an early age and the perfect place is in the playground, under supervision and in an environment that has been specially designed to be safe.

If you need help designing a playground that offers safe opportunities for risk taking, visit our Free Playground Design Service page or give us a call on 01282 43 44 45.

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5 Benefits of Artificial Grass for Schools and Nurseries

There are plenty of choices when it comes to playground surfacing but one of the most popular is artificial grass. Ideal for both playgrounds and sports surfaces, it’s become a go-to solution for nurseries, primary and secondary schools. If you are considering installing artificial grass in your school, here, we’ll look at the benefits you’ll receive.

1. Low maintenance surfacing

While there are a lot of good things about natural grass, it requires high maintenance to keep it in good condition and looking after it properly doesn’t come cheaply. During the spring and summer months, grass grows incredibly quickly and to be of any use as a sports or playground surface needs cutting weekly. Paying a gardener to cut large areas of grass consistently throughout the school year can be a significant cost. Artificial grass, on the other hand, never needs cutting and removes this financial burden.

At the same time, natural grass areas can create health and safety issues that need maintenance to reduce risk. Constant use and the effects of weather can lead to uneven or slippery surfaces and raised divots that children can trip over. Again, putting these issues right leads to further maintenance costs.

Heavy traffic is another maintenance issue for grass as it causes the turf to be worn away. It’s easy to spot unsightly pathways across school grassed areas or bald patches in front of the goal on football pitches. If left untreated, the erosion would spread and the soil underneath get worn away until the surfaces become unusable.

Artificial grass is purposely designed to be low maintenance, providing a safe, robust surface that is easy to look after and lasts for years.

 

2. All year, all-weather use

British weather being what it is, there are always times of the year when grassed surfaces become a no-go area. Periods of prolonged or heavy rain can quickly turn a sports field into a quagmire and a safe play area into a slippery hazard zone. There’s an increased risk of injury, soil gets trampled all over the school and PE students and their kit end up caked in mud. In many cases, the PE curriculum will be disrupted and areas of the playground made out of bounds – and it can take days for the grassed areas to dry out.

The weather resistance of artificial grass removes this problem. It won’t stop the children getting cold or wet, nor, unless you have underground heating, will it stop snow from settling; however, for the best part of the year, the surface will remain useable without having to worry about children slipping or getting a mud bath.

3. Increases opportunities for play

Artificial grass has become an integral element of modern playground design used to improve the aesthetics of the playground, creating a stimulating outdoor environment that inspires and motivates children to participate in a wider variety of outdoor play. It can be used to create specific, all-weather play zones and provide more suitable surfaces to surround and put under play equipment.

4. Safer surface for play equipment

The modern school playground makes increasing use of play and outdoor learning equipment. Today, you can expect to see play towers, climbing frames, creativity and roleplay apparatus, sports equipment, messy play areas, nature zones, playground markings plus a wealth of outdoor classroom equipment installed in a schoolyard.

One of the benefits of artificial grass is that it provides additional safety for children using much of this apparatus. This is because it can be installed with a shockpad underlayer that absorbs impact if a child trips or falls and reduces the potential for injury. This makes it the ideal solution for putting underneath equipment like play towers, traversing walls and climbing frames.

5. Put nature where there isn’t any

Many schools simply don’t have any green space available for them to use and this means the children are bereft of nature when playing outdoors. Over the last few years, there has been increasing demand for nature zones to be incorporated into playground designs, often to create a quiet, calming space for children and to improve the provision of science.

Although artificial grass isn’t real nature, it can provide the perfect surface on which to install planters and trellises to create a green zone in your playground. Trellises can be used to grow climbers or shrubs that create living walls and planters can be used to add colourful plants. Add a water feature, a bird feeder and a bug house and the area can be completely transformed. The artificial grass provides a low maintenance, complementary surface that is usable all year round and comfortable to sit on during drier weather.

Conclusion

Artificial grass is a practical solution for school surfacing. It needs little maintenance, can be used all year round, provides safe surfaces for physical activities, increases opportunities for play, improves the aesthetics of the playground and enables the creation of green spaces in places where this is normally difficult to achieve.

For more information, visit our Artificial Grass page.

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How Outdoor Play Helps EYFS Children Prepare for School

Primary school is a big step up from nursery, with an increasingly structured day and greater emphasis on academic learning. While schools go out of their way to make the transition as easy as possible, many children will find it a challenge. Outdoor play has an important role in getting children ready for primary school and in this post, we’ll explain why.

What do children need to be ready for school?

Often referred to as ‘school readiness’, by the time children reach the age of five, they are expected to have acquired the essential skills and knowledge needed to start school. They should be comfortable leaving their parents, understand language, be able to listen to and follow instructions, be able to articulate thoughts, feelings and needs, interact appropriately with other pupils and staff, focus on tasks, take responsibility for their actions and understand how to share things.

These are important because, once they reach school, they’ll be expected to follow school rules, behave in a responsible manner and actively participate in learning activities. While still in an EYFS setting, outdoor play can help children acquire these skills as it gives them opportunities to communicate, collaborate, cooperate and share. This will help them to be more socially, emotionally and intellectually developed prior to beginning school, something which research has shown to improve the chances of academic success across their entire educational journey.

 

Barriers to school readiness

There are several barriers that can prevent children from being fully prepared for primary school.  For most, these are a lack of social, emotional and physical skills. Socially, some children struggle to develop relationships with their peers and don’t know how to be polite or play and learn appropriately. Other children may find it difficult to control their emotions or recognise and understand the feelings of others. This may prevent them from being able to focus on tasks, deal with challenging situations or even participate in group work. The lack of fitness or physical skills can also cause issues, slowing down learning where coordination and dexterity are required or limiting participation in the physical playground activities that are so important for fostering relationships.

How outdoor play helps

One of the key differences between nursery and primary school is regimentation. While EYFS focuses on learning through play, schools have far more structure, with days divided into lessons and lessons divided into structured activities. They require children to be more organised and follow more rules and instructions. In an EYFS setting, staff can provide opportunities to prepare children for this increased regimentation, for example, by playing games with rules, providing time limits for activities and setting challenges that require children to follow instructions. All of these, of course, can be done in a fun way that is in keeping with the EYFS way of doing things.

Similarly, outdoor play encourages children to interact with others, develop empathy and use good manners. This can be achieved in many ways, such as participating together in sports or games, taking part in roleplay or creative activities, sharing toys and equipment or helping and encouraging each other to complete challenges on Trim Trails or climbing equipment. Developing these skills at this age will mean children are more prepared for the transition to primary school.

At the same time, outdoor play can help overcome the barriers to school readiness. It encourages children to participate in activities together, which, in turn, helps build relationships and fosters the social behaviours, like sharing and turn-taking,  expected in primary school. Playing together also enables children to express their emotions, understand the feelings of others and through this, develop empathy. Providing opportunities for roleplay is particularly helpful for this. Of course, equipment like climbing frames also boosts physical fitness, coordination, stamina and dexterity.

Conclusion

To prepare children for primary school, it’s important to create an outdoor environment where play can be used to help them learn the essential skills they’ll need. The most effective solution is to create play zones specially designed for different activities, such as climbing zones, messy play areas, sensory zones, roleplay and creative play areas, a place for quiet conversation and open spaces to run around in and play traditional schoolyard games. By designing your playground with the right zones and the most suitable equipment to meet the needs of your children, you can more effectively ensure that they’ll be school ready when the time comes. And with the wide range of playground equipment available today, you’ll be able to cater for every child’s needs.

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

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