The great outdoors

Using outdoor spaces in innovative ways can help schools in need of extending their facilities without expanding their overall size

Official government forecasts published last year suggest that schools in England will need to accommodate 8,022,000 pupils by 2023, a 12 percent increase on the current academic year, with 880,000 extra places to find.

The Local Government Association says the cost of creating these places could push schools to breaking point, particularly in London and the South East, with finances and space facing unbearable strain. To accommodate these rapidly escalating pupil numbers, the premium on teaching space means that schools will come under increasing pressure to extend their facilities with additional buildings, classrooms or extensions, often without the option of expanding the footprint of the school.

Inevitably, this puts school playgrounds, playing fields and other outside spaces under threat. At a time when rising child obesity and physical inactivity threaten children’s health, wellbeing, quality and length of life, this is the worst possible time to limit children’s access to high-quality provision and facilities for outdoor learning, play, PE and sport.

Forward-thinking schools are already approaching this pressing problem creatively and many are working with play companies from the Association of Play Industries (API) to develop innovative outdoor spaces using rooftops, embankments, covered disused swimming pools  and purpose-built concrete platforms, amongst other things. Others are exploring Forest School certification, developing disused, overgrown or wooded areas to extend opportunities to take learning and play outside. With creative design expertise and the resourceful use of multi-purpose equipment, even the smallest outside space can be transformed into a valuable place to deliver the national curriculum outdoors.

Rooftop playgrounds are the leading trend in unusual outdoor spaces. With full consideration of health and safety measures, such as appropriate high secure fencing, this kind of learning and play area can be a great advantage to schools, particularly those in inner-city locations and with space constraints. API members say that given the number of new play areas and roof gardens now in place, it would seem planners are being more agreeable to this type of development when they pay due consideration to planning issues. Meanwhile, limiting factors such as weight bearing and access can be overcome through product and play space design and the use of innovative materials.

Unusual locations, however, may require a bespoke approach and schools will need to get proper advice and guidance on the issues and challenges of installing learning and play spaces in such places. Factors which need to be taken into account include planning permission, health and safety, in-house product design, access, supply, installation, maintenance, inspection and repair.

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