Monday, 17 October 2016

Loose Parts Playground


As the Associate Leader of Learning (DP) for a new school in Auckland I was quite amazed to find out that the MOE does not provide funds for a playground. With a rapidly expanding roll and a school devoid of any ‘play structures’ we as a staff needed to do something to pique the interest of our learners at break times.


Schools from my past often had a large play structure for climbing and sliding and once when we had a handy caretaker at the school (loved Mr Pita) we had a cubby/playhouse for the children. In many schools I taught in there were two playgrounds one for the juniors and one for the seniors - we can’t allow children of different ages to play together…!  

The play opportunities of these playgrounds are often limited by “non-connected pieces of equipment” (Maxwell, Mitchell, and Evans 2008) on springy OSH compliant surfaces. I do recall my own school playground of the 1970s being set over concrete so we wouldn’t get muddy if we fell off…


As my own children began their school journey I was involved in actively fundraising for a new school playground - one with bright colours and lots of that springy matting… Funds were raised and the playground was duly installed, it didn’t really enter my mind that fixed equipment affords less novelty. I’m sure all the kids enjoyed the new playground with its $20,000 worth of springy matting - yup,  you read that right and I’m talking 15 years ago. I’m sure the playground was a success and I spent many an afternoon waiting for my two to have ‘just one more slide’ but I don’t recall any rich and deep learning occurring from using the playground.

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Fast forward to 2014 when we were first imagining and designing what teaching and learning would look like in our new context of Ormiston Primary.  I was introduced to the idea of PlayPods by Tania Coutts. This was a real aha moment for me - I feel instantly in love with the idea  of open ended resources or loose parts as I was to come to know them. The term ‘Loose Parts’ dates back to the 1970's by architect Simon Nicholson, who believed that it is the loose parts in our environment that ‘empower our creativity.’ Nicholson also believed that the ability to create, discover, and imagine are enhanced when multiple kinds of loose parts are available for children to use (1971).


So what are Loose Parts? Loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. Not only are loose parts cheap and easy to find, but they’re endlessly interesting to children. Unlike fixed equipment, loose parts allow children to recreate their playground every day from the materials provided.

Loose parts add creativity into the playground while developing resilience, initiative and meaningful and positive relationships.” Interesting to note that Professor Jo Frost back in the late 1980s was talking about the idea thatloose parts are necessary for high-quality play experiences’ (Frost, 1989).



Complexity and the opportunity to creatively solve real-life problems holds the children’s interest and adds to their development as well as their enjoyment. The outdoor play experience is enriched if loose parts are part of the playscape. By adding quality to the outdoor environment loose parts are necessary for high-quality play experiences. (Kable, 2010).  Ask most children and they’ll tell you they prefer open-ended, action-oriented, moveable materials that can be used in different ways for different purposes. Maybe not in those exact words, probably more in the words of one of our learners ‘I like using the different stuff for different games’


It is my observation over my time in education, spontaneous outdoor play of all kinds has declined, both in energy and in quality. Several studies, real ones,  led by actual scientists, concluded that physical education and playtime at school and outdoor play at home are essential to healthy child development. If inactivity among children isn’t addressed, the current generation may be the first in history to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. It is my belief that limiting children’s outdoor play harms their cognitive, social, and language development.
Which brings me back to loose parts. Why use loose parts?
■ Children can use the parts in any way they choose.
■ Children can use and change the parts in many ways.
■ Loose parts encourage creativity and a child’s imagination.
■ Loose parts help a child develop more skill and competency than most modern toys.
■ Loose parts can be used in combination with other


Loose parts can be handled, manipulated, moved, and combined to enhance the value of play (White 2011).

Because we had no playground and weren’t likely to get any money to build one anytime soon, we had to use our creativity to some up with some ideas. It was a discussion during one of our team meetings that a learning coach happened to mention he had access to some tyres and pallets. We had also just finished some learning around farms and had some left over hay bales... low and behold the loose parts playground was born. The pallets, tyres, hay bales and reels formed what started of as ‘the obstacle course’ then became known as the ‘Trim Trail’ by our  lovely young teacher from England - google trim trail, it’s an actual thing over there. It wasn’t until recently that the name ‘loose parts playground’ started and has stuck.

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As you can see from the picture and the movie clip, the first iteration of the playground was linear and very teacher directed. The learners were unsure of what to do and how to fully engage with the playground. The learners waited for the teachers to change up the order of the “trim trail”  it was like they were waiting for permission to mix it up.

After some discussion/questions with the learners, particularly with the Year 1 and 2 learners around ‘does the trim trail have to be in a straight line’ and ‘what would happen if we put the tyres in a pile?’

Slowly things started to change, the playground began to take on different configurations, admittedly the changes weren't immediately huge - it went from a line to a rectangular shape, but the exciting thing was the learners starting to take ownership.






The linear and rectangular configurations lasted until about ½ way through term 2, then the real magic began to happen.


A learner (Jack) discovered that if he tipped the reel on it’s side he could walk on it as it moved. I can honestly say it’s not for the faint-hearted, overly OSH concerned teacher to watch, particularly as the reel was missing a board and said learner would leap over the reel as it was rolling to avoid the missing board.

I was doing lots of professional reading as part of my eFellows16 research around play based learning and came across a few gems. One that really struck a chord with me was the idea of risky play, more specifically the emotion regulation theory of play—the theory that one of play’s major functions is to teach young mammals how to regulate fear and anger.  

In risky play, children engage with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping calm and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear.  They learn that they can manage their fear, overcome it, and come out alive.  In rough and tumble play they may also experience anger, one player may accidentally hurt another.  But to continue playing, to continue the fun, they must overcome that anger.  If they lash out, the play is over no-one will play with some one that keeps getting angry and spoiling the game.

According to the emotion regulation theory, play is, among other things, the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact in close quarters with others, without succumbing to negative emotions. The idea that the learners engage ‘in just enough’ risk to make it exciting, and not usually enough to cause serious harm or death, made me less likely to panic the next time Jack came zooming past me on the wooden reel.


Now we were cooking - Jack’s prowess on the reel led to other learners wanting to do the same, I was fascinated to watch the learners who attempted this and I noted that only the learners who had some skill at balancing attempted it ie they only attempted what was reasonably within their capabilities to achieve.





As you can see from the movie the two girls are at different levels of capability when it comes to balance and risk taking, it was so great to watch them learn from and help each other. It really affirmed for me the idea that learning and teaching doesn’t just happen in class time.


The other thing I was beginning to regularly observe was that the learners were working out conflicts and learning to negotiate independently of the learning coaches.


The following video is one I took whilst on duty - I stood and recorded while the learners resolved the situation for themselves. The game they were playing at the time involved ‘four factions and a zombie apocalypse’ ) their words not mine - the deep level of engagement at the thinking, negotiating and collaborating that went into the game really made me reflect on my own children and their experiences of a playground being ‘just one more slide’

At first glance the loose parts playground can look like a chaotic mess - learning coaches have been known to make comments along the lines of 'I had to step in they were "attacking each other" ' however look closely at about 12 seconds in - it looks like a learner charging around whacking everything in sight but when you look closely you can see he's actually being very controlled - the tears which start around the 18 second mark had nothing to do with the 'zombie killer' but were around ownership of certain loose parts - I love the way that one of the older learners takes charge of the situation and is able to negotiate a solution.

The learning they get from authentic negotiation, problem solving and collaboration is huge, not to mention the learning they get from the actual building of the structures, just think of all the applied maths and science they are automatically doing as they create the amazing structures that were until last week 'faction headquarters' I've no idea what they are called now - I must go and investigate.

Yes it can get messy, yes there are tears and we've even had a few splinters. The learners bring us the pieces they deem to be unsafe and one of our learning coaches checks the loose parts for nails which are sticking out. I'd have to say though it's the best run playground I've ever seen in action over decades of teaching and I truly think that's because the adults have stepped back and have stopped being so 'teachery'

As an aside our ELL Team Leader went with some of our senior learners to visit MOTAT. She observed that while all the learners were really excited about the ‘real playground’ and couldn’t wait to try it out,  once they got on it they only lasted a few minutes and struggled to find something about it to engage them.


  • If you’re looking for more about PBL I’d highly recommend reading Peter Gray PhD His book ‘Free to Learn’ is one of my go to books.
  • I also love the work of Celia and Jason Hilkey they run some really good webinars around play based learning and developing happy, confident kids.
  • Below are more links to some more articles and informations you may find helpful











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