Loose parts in play

Cath Prisk
Friday, April 7, 2017

Playtime is the time most of us actually remember from school. How can loose parts - junk, stuff - help schools make playtime a key part of the school day?

Back in the early 1990s I was a primary school teacher. Mostly I was privileged to work with three to six year-olds, but I also got to cover every age group the year I did supply teaching. And, of course, we all had to do playtime cover too.

So when about 10 years ago Michael Follett — the author of Making Playtime a Key Part of the School Day in our Outdoor Library — first took me to see a group of schools he was working with in South Gloucestershire, I was dumbfounded. I mean seriously gobsmacked, bowled over and utterly, totally delighted.

On a slightly damp Tuesday lunchtime the head teacher of the first school on our itinerary showed us around and it was the noise that got me. Or rather the absence of a noise. There was no sign of that slightly stressed whine that is oh so common towards the end of a damp Tuesday lunchtime, the whine of slightly stressed children. Instead, there was excited, busy chatter.

There were many changes that the head teacher had implemented over the previous couple of years, but the most obvious and clear one was the introduction of 'loose parts', stuff to play with, junk. You can see what it looked like in this film showing the results of a pilot study of Scrapstore Playpods in 2009.

And the impact of the change?

  • Children are better behaved
  • Children have less accidents
  • Children are happier at playtimes
  • There are less reported incidents of bullying
  • The lunchtime supervisors are happier
  • Children return to class more ready to learn.

Since then, the Children's Scrapstore team and Michael's Outdoor Play and Learning team have won many awards for transforming playtimes, and many more schools have introduced loose parts, either working with a 'scrapstore' or local play organisation, or organising it themselves.

And yet for many today in 2017 this will be a revelation. And not just in the UK, but worldwide.
If the only 'loose part' — thing to play with — in the playground is one football; if the markings on the tarmac or dirt are permanent rather than chalk; and if the children are always kept off the grass/dirt/trees... is it any wonder that football dominates any play space they have and that anyone that doesn't want to play that is left feeling a bit adrift? Maybe even bored?

Many schools worldwide now ban running. They ban marbles. They ban skipping ropes. No one is allowed anywhere that will be muddy or dusty. Green schoolyards with natural places to play are still far from normal outside of Scandinavia. Understandably, because schools are trying to reduce accidents.
But in Bromley Heath Primary school — one of the schools in the film above — the head teacher is very clear. Since they started playing with loose parts, teachers and lunchtime staff have seen a huge improvement in behaviour. Children are busy. They are creative.

And what I saw on that memorable visit on that damp Tuesday about seven years ago was lots of children too busy to care if they got a little bump. Too happy to have fights. Too engaged to want to stop and go inside. Why would they want to go in? Outdoors was where all the fun was at!

On Outdoor Classroom Day we'll see hundreds of thousands of children across the world outdoors during school time. If you haven't signed up yet, register your class or whole school, or please tell schools you work with to sign up and give loose parts a go!

Cath Prisk runs her own social enterprise Outdoor People, and is a trustee for The Wild Network. She was formerly director of Play England. This blog was first posted on the Outdoor Classroom website

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