The Role of Outdoor Play in Pupil Progress

Pupil progress is a cornerstone of the modern education system and something against which all schools are judged, both by Ofsted and in academic league tables. When it comes to improving progress, the emphasis is usually on what happens in the classroom, with heads wanting to improve the ways that teachers teach and pupils learn. One piece of the jigsaw often overlooked, however, is what happens outside of the classroom, in the school playground, and how this can play a vital contribution to pupil progress overall. Here we’ll look at the educational value of outdoor play.

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The link between outdoor activity and pupil progress

Playground activity is often physical activity and participation in this, especially when it involves aerobic exercise like running, jumping or climbing, can be beneficial for both physical health and academic progress. Indeed, a study by Public Health England (PHE) found evidence that aerobically fit pupils achieve higher academic results.

With many children no longer getting regular exercise at home, a result of cautious parenting and the lure of modern hi-tech gadgetry, it is in the school playground where pupils get the greatest opportunities to be active.

Ideally, pupils need an hour of exercise every day and there are various ways schools can encourage participation, such as through the installation of playground markings for sports like football, netball, tennis and basketball or for stepping games like hopscotch. Playing on climbing equipment is also an enjoyable exercise and excellent for developing physical strength and overall fitness. Enabling children to get involved in these activities during break times, lunchtimes and PE can help increase the fitness that is associated with increased academic achievement.

Problem-solving – a transferable skill

The PHE study also pointed out how the development of problem-solving skills also contributes to pupil progress. A well-equipped playground has the potential to be one of the best resources a school has for giving pupils problems to solve and for providing the freedom to explore solutions and develop those essential skills.

One example of how this can be done is with a traversing wall. While children naturally enjoy the challenge of climbing and getting from one end to the other without falling off, success only comes after they have solved the problems they face. What’s the best way to hold on? How do I get across a wide gap? What’s the best route from start to finish? Similar problem-solving skills are required when using a wide range of different playground apparatus, whether it's figuring out how to stop a sandcastle collapsing, how to complete a Trim Trail obstacle course, how to complete a Tangled rope challenge or even how to sail a pirate ship during role play. Of course, once these skills are developed, they can be transferred to the classroom to aid children in their learning.

Better classroom behaviour

If five minutes of every one hour lesson is wasted through poor behaviour or lack of attention, then between reception and year 6 or between year 7 and year 13, pupils will miss out on the equivalent of 22 weeks of learning – over half an academic year. As any teacher who has undertaken intervention work with borderline children will know, those 22 weeks are invaluable when it comes to getting children to the level needed to achieve or exceed their targets. Improving classroom behaviour is, therefore, one way to help pupils make progress.

Indeed, the link between physical activity and improved, whole-school behaviour is a key point raised in the PHE study. Its findings show that taking part improves both relationships between pupils and their social behaviour. This, in turn, reduces classroom disruption and increases the amount of time that students have to learn and progress.

Again, the opportunities to participate in physical activity lie mainly in the playground where children can participate at intervals throughout the day: before school commences, at break and at lunch. The challenge is in motivating pupils to take part, but with the right climbing, sports or roleplay equipment available for them, they are much more likely to become active.

Conclusion

All schools want their pupils to make excellent progress, indeed their futures may depend upon it. Progress is also one of the key metrics through which judgements are made, both for the school as a whole and for the individuals who work within it. What the PHE study reveals is that there is a direct link between outdoor play and academic progress which comes from increased physical activity, problem-solving and improved behaviour. For pupils to benefit, however, schools need to make sure that playgrounds offer the opportunities to participate and the equipment that will motivate them to do so.

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Coronavirus Lockdown – Can Pupils Still At School Play Outdoors?

With thousands of schools still open for the children of key workers, many teachers are asking whether it is still safe to play outdoors. The simple answer to this is yes; however, only if carried out safely. Here, we’ll explain why playing out is still very important and how it should be conducted to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.

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Fitter, Better, Sooner

‘Fitter, Better, Sooner’ is a health initiative from the Centre for Perioperative Care (CPOC) that aims to improve people’s recovery rates from surgery and to reduce the number of post-operative complications. In recent days, however, CPOC has issued advice to the UK public that following the Fitter, Better, Sooner guidance can help people be in a better state of health to fight Coronavirus and thus reduce the chances that they will become seriously ill from it.

The advice from CPOC is for people to stop smoking, have alcohol-free days, take brisk exercise, eat nutritiously and stay mentally healthy. While some of this guidance is obviously aimed at adults, for the children of key workers still attending school, teachers can do their bit to help improve physical health and mental wellbeing. This is perhaps critically important for those children still at school, many of whom will have increased risk of catching the virus because their parents work in the healthcare system.

When it comes to physical health, the advice is to take a brisk walk, cycle or jog. In addition, exercise that improves strength and balance is also recommended. Many of these forms of exercise can be done in the school playground and taking this opportunity means children now restricted to leaving home once a day, can get outside for an additional period of time, which can be beneficial to their mental wellbeing.

Playing safely during Coronavirus

If you allow children to play outside during the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important that social distancing rules are strictly adhered to. This means pupils must remain a minimum of 6 feet or 2 metres apart at all times. At the same time, because the virus can be spread from touching surfaces, children must not be allowed to share equipment during play, this includes everything from climbing frames to footballs. Indeed, for safety, pupils shouldn’t be given access to shared play apparatus and must be told not to pick up anything that has been handled by someone else, even if it is something as seemingly innocuous as a stick.

The implication is that, even though there will be very few pupils in the school, any outdoor activities need to be planned, structured and supervised. Perhaps one of the best forms of exercise for both children and staff is to take part in the Daily Mile – this will give an opportunity for brisk walking or jogging, which can be done with staggered starts to keep children at a safe distance from each other. Alternatively, you can always have races and even introduce fun by asking them to hop, jump, balance and even do dance moves while taking part. Indeed, if you have a battery-operated CD player, why not play games like ‘freeze dance’ where children dance until the music stops and then have to freeze in whatever position they were in?

If you have playground markings for stepper training or games like hopscotch, pupils can take turns while their friends watch at a safe distance. Of course, instead of having an object to throw and retrieve, they can just be assigned a square to finish on.

If teachers are stuck for ideas for physical activities, one possible solution is to look at drama starters and warm-up activities, many of which are done individually but with the purpose of showing to others. These are fun and active ways to get children engaged while outdoors.

Other benefits

Aside from being good for their fitness and mental wellbeing, getting pupils out of doors has other benefits. As social distancing means they will be cooped up at home for most of the time, there is increased risk of Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D, which is essential for good health, is produced in our bodies when skin is exposed to sunlight. Getting children out into the playground is an effective way to boost their Vitamin D levels.

At the same time, being outdoors gives the opportunity to keep children even further apart than 6 feet. The more time they spend outside, therefore, the less chance there is of them passing the virus on to others.

Finally, remember that pupils should wash or sanitise their hands on return to the school after playing out.

Conclusion

For the children of key workers still attending school, outdoor play and exercise can improve physical fitness and mental wellbeing. According to the CPOC, this, together with a healthy diet, can increase the body’s ability to fight the virus. However, for outdoor play to take part, play equipment should be thoroughly cleaned before and after use. This means teachers will need to think carefully about the activities they plan for playtimes and PE.

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Coronavirus and Outdoor Play – Advice for Schools and Nurseries

Coronavirus will be high on every school and nursery agenda at the moment and staff, parents and even children will have concerns about its spread. As providers of playground equipment, we have a specific interest in how Coronavirus can be spread in the playground and have been researching government, NHS and scientific guidance for schools and nurseries. Here is a summary of the most important information we have found.

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Outdoor play is beneficial

Although outdoor play cannot stop you getting Coronavirus, the opportunity to participate in exercise and to increase Vitamin D levels through exposure to sunlight can improve your body’s ability to fight the virus, making it less likely that an infection will become serious. According to Prof Arne Akbar of University College London and president of the British Society for Immunology, exercise increases blood flow and this mobilises white blood cells, enabling them to better ‘seek and destroy’ viruses in the body. Exercise also helps reduce stress, which is another way to boost the immune system - as is increasing our Vitamin D levels which are naturally lower during the winter when there is less sunlight and we don’t go outside as often.

In addition, playing in outdoor spaces gets pupils away from the more densely occupied and heavily trafficked areas of the school or nursery where there is more chance of someone getting infected. Indeed, reducing the length of time children are in these areas decreases the potential for surfaces to get contaminated. Overall, ensuring children can still play outside and take part in physical activities can be a positive step in safeguarding against Coronavirus.

Advice when playing outdoors

According to the UK government, there is currently no reason to stop doing outdoor play and sports as you normally would. However, hand hygiene should be strongly promoted and pupils should wash their hands (or use hand sanitiser) when entering and leaving the school or nursery. This can reduce the potential for outdoor equipment and surfaces getting contaminated and help prevent the virus being brought from the playground back into the building.

Besides hands, it is also important to ensure surfaces remain clean. This includes outdoor play equipment, outdoor classroom resources, playground toys, sports equipment, tables, seats, shelters handrails and door or gate furniture.

Advice from the World Health Organization tells us that Coronavirus can live on surfaces for up to several days. However, this depends on several factors, such as the type of surface, exposure to sunlight, temperature and humidity. In most instances, the amount of coronavirus on a contaminated surface will have decreased substantially after 24 hours and potentially even more on outdoor surfaces.

Dr Jenny Harries, England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, said that Coronavirus will not survive very long outside and that many outdoor events are safe. Although the government’s planned specific advice on cleaning equipment has not yet been published, all outdoor equipment should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after use, especially objects that are frequently touched by hands.

The government has, however, released information about keeping educational establishments clean in circumstances where staff suspect that there may be a case of Coronavirus – i.e. is someone is showing symptoms. In these situations, the school or nursery must follow ‘current workplace legislation and recommended practice’, cleaning all the surfaces that the individual has come into contact with, using disposable cloths and household detergents. Things needing to be cleaned include any surfaces or objects that are ‘visibly contaminated with bodily fluids’ and any potentially contaminated high-contact areas or items.

However, if a person suspected of having the virus only passes through an area or has spent limited time there, and there are no surfaces visibly contaminated with body fluids, deep cleaning and disinfecting are not (at the time of publication) currently required.

Conclusion

Unless government advice changes, outdoor play, learning and sports should continue to take place in schools and nurseries; indeed there may be benefits to the immune system from doing so. When outdoors, it is advised that pupils should wash or sanitise their hands on exit and return to the main building and that regular cleaning and disinfecting of playground equipment should take place, especially surfaces that come into contact with hands or bodily fluids.

Please note that Coronavirus is a new virus and that guidance and advice may be subject to change as more is learnt about it. For more information read the Gov.uk page Guidance to educational settings about COVID-19.

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Competition for children – right or wrong?

Gareth Southgate has recently been appointed as the FA’s elite performance director and has raised serious concerns relating to coaching children and specifically the overly competitive environments in which they play. This is not news as such as many senior Premier League managers, such as Messrs Wenger, Mourinho and Ferguson have all questioned the English culture of early competitiveness and compared this to more progressive and developmental approaches used with young players on the continent.

It’s going to sound as if the record is stuck now, as I’ve raised this issue before, but how can so much opinion be completely out of sync with latest curricular trends that propose a PE curriculum that increases emphasis on competition? I’m afraid to say that such is the influence of personal perspectives of politicians on our subject area of PE that we stand on the precipice of an era that has the potential to be even more damaging than John Major’s Raising the Game. The movement movement is under threat- if the emphasis is on competition the time spent on quality is often diminished; children are turned off by this lack of time to master movement before being asked to apply it. The proficiency barrier, whereby children can’t participate in certain activities due to their lack of basic fundamental movement skills, is highlighted further when children are asked to participate in static, sterile meaningless sports within adult-based competitive environments.

Whilst competition can be a useful environment in which to develop children with a self-referenced framework it worries me that an over reliance on such environments will stifle creativity and prevent a wider range of children participating. If the outcome is to improve performance, there is very little evidence to suggest that more competition will achieve this. Indeed, there is more evidence to suggest that strong participation routes will lead to more effective and refined performers entering the higher echelons of talent development pathways.

Returning to the starting point, isn’t it strange that the all-encompassing and extremely powerful national sport of football is so set against what is happening in schools PE – the tables seem to be turning.

Dr David Morley is Head of Education at ESP, a consultant for a range of national organisations and NGBs of sport, and holds Visiting Fellow positions at both Northumbria and Leeds Metropolitan Universities.

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