The power of play during the school day

Marco Boi, founder of Playinnovation, says an innovative mindset will allow your school to engage all children in play

Although schools are becoming more open to investing in less traditional and more forward-thinking sport and play areas, there’s still work to be done to change an outdated perception of play in the education sector, and for teachers and governing bodies to realise the full range of health and social benefits that can be achieved by going beyond the status quo.

What upsets me is that when I walk past a standard multi-use games area or ball court, it’s usually being used by a small minority of children, mainly older boys. My view is, if we can think innovatively to create sport and play areas that are fun, vibrant, interesting and truly inclusive, where all ages and abilities feel welcome and can enjoy being active together, it will have some extremely positive effects on pupils’ health and wellbeing.

By placing social outcomes at the heart of the design and equipment selection process, sport and play areas can also have a profound impact on the most vulnerable students in our schools.

The children who are already very sociable, confident and outgoing find it easy to engage in physical activity; what we need to be doing is looking for ways to raise participation levels amongst less confident children. To achieve this, it’s important to offer multiple spaces around schools to create diverse environments for play, where every child can find activities to be involved in, whether by themselves or in a group – learning skills in their own time, at their own pace.

Games within innovative sport and play areas can be used by teachers and sports coaches to provide an equal platform for pupils to show their talents

When I had the opportunity to start my own company and create my own games, I regressed to how I felt as a shy 12-year-old with low self-esteem, and thought about how amazing it would have been if there were a number of target-related, skills-based games dotted around my school that I could have played at my own leisure without needing a team, and that I could have learned by myself as part of a graduated challenge; it would have done wonders for my confidence and wellbeing.

Games within innovative sport and play areas can be used by teachers and sports coaches to provide an equal platform for pupils to show their talents regardless of how introvert or extrovert they may be, with the potential to have a transformative effect on their self-esteem. Target-based games with educational outcomes – which can be played by taking turns – are a great way for pupils who lack confidence to demonstrate and grow their skills outside of team-based situations in less intimidating environments.

Level playing field

At school, I was a member of the football team, but I rarely played. I wasn’t the tallest or the loudest, so I was often overlooked for a starting position. What if, before picking the team, the coach had used one of the target games positioned around the school to test the players’ shooting accuracy, rather than doing this in a game situation or team drill where other social factors are at play? Suddenly, everyone’s on a level playing field, with the ability to let their feet do the talking.

With such clear benefits, schools should be encouraged to select more innovative sport and play items that offer a different type of engagement, develop a wider set of skills and can be accessed by all ages and abilities, rather than simply following the prescriptive route and choosing familiar equipment such as trim trails and climbing frames. However, it’s not an all-or-nothing exercise. Traditional equipment can be combined with the highly innovative to maximise the value of sport and play areas for all pupils.

Target-based games with educational outcomes, where pupils take turns, are great for less-confident pupils to grow their skills

Although budget has a strong bearing on the creation of new sport and play areas, and schools have a responsibility to spend their money wisely, teachers and governing bodies must be given more flexibility during the tender process to avoid creating roadblocks to innovation and, consequently, positive social outcomes.

The way the current system works is that schools must go out for three like-for-like quotations, essentially for the exact same thing. The option schools tend to pick is the cheapest, because this appears to be good value, but what they’re actually getting is something identical to every sport and play area around the country, which can be uninspiring and less inclusive for children. 

I believe that the focus of the tender process should be on receiving quotes that match the school’s ambitions for a new sport and play area, which could result in three completely different concepts being put on the table. I think this is a healthy approach to take.

I urge the education sector to start thinking differently during the planning process. Some of the primary questions that schools tend to ask are, how much does it cost? How low-maintenance is it? How many children can play at once? It’s a bit of a cookie cutter exercise. But to realise the true power of play, the first question should always be, what positive outcomes do we want to achieve by installing this equipment? Usually, this will involve engaging all children in play, especially those susceptible to falling below the radar. Only then will you be thinking with an innovative mindset, and only then will you be delivering sport and play areas that truly benefit pupils’ lives.

To find out more about Playinnovation, visit their website: 

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