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.
The project stemmed from a brainstorm session for the school's new business plan, 2018 – 2020. They considered 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 their students.
"People think kids are only interested in technology, but given the opportunity to play, they will."
- Niel Smith, principal
The 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.
Why Loose Parts?
Michaela and her committee worked hard to put forward a convincing proposal and implementation plan, backed by relevant research, that persuaded the school administrators and teachers 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.
Bringing Everyone On Board
Both operational and teaching staff consulted on the project. At one stage the school's 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 the school 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, this was addressed 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.Principal Niel Smith is out there most days and many staff members have become willing custodians of these spaces and truly enjoy observing the children’s interactions. No additional staff duty rostering has been required, as the school has made adjustments to teachers’ positions.
"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
Loose Parts Materials
The school has 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. Older students are allowed to climb and build on the lower limbs of one of 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 kitchens in the two younger years loose parts areas, with pots, pans and utensils.
"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
The school successfully applied for a $500 community grant offered by Mindarie Regional Council that gave them access to the Tamala Park Landfill tip shop, which was a great way to source recycled materials.
Items were also collected from REmida, a non-profit organisation dedicated to reclaiming and re-purposing materials that would otherwise end up in landfill. A REmida membership allows the school to restock 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.
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. The committee uses their judgement and students also let staff know if something breaks or becomes unsafe.
There are 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 rules for the space are evolving as students’ play 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
Management of Loose Parts Materials
Management of the loose parts materials are the student’s responsibility. The children know that regardless of who used the equipment, they are all responsible for packing away at the end of lunch.
- 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
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
The project has delivered positive outcomes on multiple levels.
Physically, new groups of kids are becoming more active.
Students are 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 Principal Niel Smith really loves 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." he said.
"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.