Driven by a desire to offer their students more play options, West Greenwood Primary set about creating three loose parts play areas at their school; kindy – PP, Years 1 -2 and Years 3-6.
The spaces are impressive in their simplicity and adaptability and represent an achievable school project from both a budgetary and resourcing perspective.
The schools’ loose parts areas are not fancy, but they are effective at encouraging free-form, imaginative outdoor activity. Children play with milk crates, large buckets, giant wooden spools, ropes, timber planks and myriad bits and bobs rescued from the tip, like PVC pipes, old vinyl signs and cardboard.
So how did they do it? Nature Play WA spoke with school principal, Niel Smith, about the nuts-and-bolts of how the school got the job done.
Q. What was your motivation for this loose parts project?
The project stemmed from a brainstorm session for our new business plan, 2018 – 2020. We were considering what it really meant to ‘develop the whole child’ and how it might realistically be achieved in practice. The discussions moved on from the traditional emphasis on academics, sport and music towards a more holistic view of the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of our students.
‘People think kids are only interested in technology, but given the opportunity to play, they will.’
- Niel Smith, principal
Our staff felt strongly this was an important area they would like to develop, so a Health and Wellbeing Committee was formed by a core group of teaching and non-teaching staff. They considered how the school might engage students who weren’t drawn to playing sports at lunch and recess and how they could offer this cohort alternatives to the library or just sitting around.
They started by implementing several initiatives, including a mural wall where kids could express themselves through chalk drawings, as well as the provision of a selection of large-scale, outdoor games like Connect 4, pick up sticks, dominoes and table tennis. They also decided to form a sub-committee to focus specifically on loose parts.
This committee was spearheaded by one of our junior primary teachers, Michaela Williams, plus our deputy and a few parents.
Q. What convinced you loose parts were a good fit for your school?
Michaela and her committee worked hard to put forward a convincing proposal and implementation plan, backed by relevant research, that persuaded us of the value of loose parts play. Their central argument was that children really need environments they can manipulate and where they can invent, construct, evaluate and modify their own constructions and ideas through play.
Q. Were all your staff on board with the idea?
We liaised with both our operational and teaching staff on the project. At one stage our gardener expressed some concern about an idea for a tinkering table. He felt that screws dropped in the grass could damage the blades on the lawn mower, so based on his feedback we decided to shelve that idea for the time being.
There were also some staff who raised concerns about duty-of-care and increased risk. However, we have managed that issue by supporting staff to make their own choice about whether they feel comfortable supervising the loose parts areas. They are not obliged to supervise these areas if they don’t feel comfortable.
So far, rostering supervision in the loose parts spaces has not been an issue. I am out there most days and we have staff members who have become willing custodians of these spaces and truly enjoy observing the children’s interactions. No additional staff duty rostering has been required, we have just shifted teachers’ positions slightly.
‘What springs out of the kids is heartwarming. The loose parts area has encouraged language and sharing. There are no angry outbursts. If children are using something another wants to use, they sort it out amongst themselves and negotiate. Specials needs kids are all on the same level with inventing and creating.’
- Angie, special needs Education Assistant
Q. What materials are in the loose parts area?
We have a variety of materials depending on the age-range of the space. The Year 3 – 6 area has larger items like milk crates, electrical cable spools and large wooden planks. We allow these older students to climb and build on the lower limbs of one of our mature, sturdy trees and they are also permitted to throw ropes over the branches of trees in the space to make swings and play structures.
All the areas, including the Year 1- 2 and Kindy-PP areas have access to smaller, more portable items like buckets, cardboard, PVC pipe, bubble wrap, old vinyl signs and rope. There are also outdoor mud kitchen in the two younger years loose parts areas, so they also have pots, pans and utensils as well.
‘My favourite part is that you are allowed to tie stuff to trees and hang; just do what you want if it is safe. It’s just fun and something you are not usually able to do.’
- Caleb, Year 6
Q. Where did you source your materials?
We successfully applied for a $500 community grant offered by Mindarie Regional Council that gave us access to the Tamala Park Landfill tip shop and this was a great way to source recycled materials.
We also collected some items from REmida, a non-profit organisation dedicated to reclaiming and re-pursposing materials that would otherwise end up in landfill. Their membership prices are really reasonable and allow us to re-stock loose parts items as needed throughout the year.
In addition, storage containers and tubs, trolleys and a few tarps and ropes were purchased from Bunnings.
Q. Did you need to organise special insurance coverage?
No special insurance was required. The equipment in the area is vetted by the loose parts committee to ensure it doesn’t have sharp edges, metal parts or nails. We use our judgement and students also let us know if something breaks or becomes unsafe.
We also have a few key rules in the area and every class was inducted before being given access to the area:
- No tying rope to themselves.No stacking milk crates (they tend to be unsteady).
- No standing on electric cable spools like a hamster wheel – standing on the flat base is fine.
The rest is just common sense and our rules for the space are evolving as students’ play there evolves.
‘Safety hasn’t really been an issue in our loose parts space. We’ve found we need more ice packs for bumps and bruises on the sports field and around the soft fall in our playgrounds than we do in this area.’
- Niel Smith, principal
Q. Who is responsible for packing away the parts?
It is the student’s responsibility. The kids know that regardless of who used the equipment, they are all responsible for packing away at the end of lunch.
Q. What was your budget for the program?
- roller doors (for securing equipment)
- seven large outdoor storage boxes
- ten heavy duty storage containers
- heavy duty two-wheel trolley
- folding platform trolley
- 10 large rope buckets
- five tarpaulins and
- two mud kitchens
our final costs came it at just over $6000.
‘I see the joy from the children; collaborating, busy, using their imagination. Each time you look out there is something different. It is lovely to watch it unfold.’
- Michaela Williams, PP teacher
Q. What are the key outcomes you have noticed so far from this initiative?
We have found positive outcomes on multiple levels.
Physically, we are seeing new groups of kids becoming more active.
We are also seeing students using their imaginations to build and create; using the materials in new and different ways. There are lots of cubbies, obstacle courses and music making.
But what I really love to see is the increase in cooperation, sharing and resilience. Kids are negotiating with each other when they want to use equipment and working together to make and modify rules to suit the evolving play space. We have older kids playing alongside younger kids, girls playing with boys and kids with disabilities playing as equals with others. It is generating a strong sense of inclusion and empathy.
They are also learning to self-manage their risk taking. Without the supervisors having to say it, they seem to intuitively know when something is risky and are modifying their activities to make it safer.
‘The best thing is making swings and seeing the little kids having fun and enjoying it.’
- Ruhan, Year 6
Project Documentation and Resources:
Beloglovsky, M. and Daly, L. (2014). Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children. Redleaf Press.
Casey, T. and Robertson, J. (2016). Loose Parts Play: A Toolkit. 1st ed. [ebook] Edinburgh: Inspiring Scotland, p.72 pages. [Accessed 15 Aug. 2018].
Maxwell, L., Mitchell, M. and Evans, G. (2008) Effects of play Equipment and Loose Parts on Preschool Children’s Outdoor Play Behaviour: An Observational Study and design Intervention. Children, Youth and Environments.18 (2), 36-63.
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