Play in schools is quickly becoming an endangered species with some schools having less play space per child than a prison cell. Urban Play is on a mission to revitalise school play spaces, one playground at a time.
Urban Play recently sat down with Associate Professor Brendon Hyndman to discuss the state of play in our schools. A qualified schoolteacher turned researcher and professor with a PhD in outdoor activity, he knows his stuff and we took the time to quiz him from everything from his favourite play activities as a child (nature play for the win!) to the impact of not prioritising play in schools.
1. What was your favourite play feature growing up?
I lived very close to a remote part of the Yarra River and one of my fondest play memories was creating a huge mud slide down the bank into the river. Mud play was so much fun in the middle of summer in the local dam too.
2. You’ve [previously] said that some schools have less play space per child than a prison cell – what attitudes and circumstances have led to schools losing space for playgrounds and play?
Australian student numbers are predicated to increase by 17% over the decade to 2026, creating a need for hundreds of new, mostly metropolitan schools and new classrooms in areas previously set aside for play. Enrolments have already been climbing steadily and urban spaces have been getting more crowded, that has resulted in school structures ‘going vertical’ in their developments.
3. We often speak about the importance of play in preschool and early primary school – what do you see the role of play in middle/high school?
These students need to be consulted on their interests and needs of what will challenge and engage them, with advanced play strategies developed accordingly. If facilities are not sufficient for such play interests and needs, then excursions can be made available to community recreation facilities.
Middle/high school students need opportunities to experiment, discover movement processes, and stretch the boundaries of movement possibilities, which is closely connected to learning. The most effective school contexts are suggested to provide sufficient opportunities to encourage curiosity and discovery according to developmental needs (which will likely be more developed than in primary school) with places for being, doing, thinking and feeling, alongside meeting students’ evolving play challenges.
4. What would you love to see in school playgrounds across Australia? (equipment, space, layout, teacher support etc.)
New, replenishing play opportunities are important for children. Some recommendations are timeless from the play literature and are more important than ever with play being restricted in many contexts and even being described as ‘endangered’. For instance, Dr June Factor stated almost 20 years ago that “Children need to be afforded opportunities to experiment with the furnishings, dimensions and textures of the physical features of their school playgrounds for their own adapted purposes.” This is important, as it has been recognised that children can often be more inventive, creative and generate possibilities for learning discovery according to the amount and kind of features that are available to them.
From there, the school children can develop their own unique meanings and ideas about the play features. Play can then be enhanced even more if a collective of children collaborate imaginatively with their own unique meanings and ideas for these play features. There needs to be ample opportunities for play to evolve over time such as from equipment features that can be relocatable or play features or zones that are not fixed for the long-term. Play areas that children are able to re-create or be re-themed to generate new ideas and life into school playground landscapes according to school children’s imaginations.
5. Has there been any research done into how a lack of play space impacts children/ what do you perceive the risks are of not prioritising play spaces in school?
Studies show that as play spaces per child are increased, so does more ‘health-enhancing’ vigorous physical activities. Limited play spaces can result in crowded play, reduced movement and activity clashes.
International researchers have recommended school spaces should ideally be increased to 15-25 square metres per student (where feasible), combined with access to a range of facilities that are based around encouraging students to be able to self-direct, relocate equipment and better evolve play for their own unique purposes.
School play is one of the remaining realms for children to have a degree of play freedom away from any adult-imposed pressures, schedules, classrooms, home regulations, confined, unsafe or polluted neighbourhoods. If play isn’t prioritised, then time dedicated to unstructured, child-led activity will be impaired.
This is harmful to kids, as play allows choice and creation to navigate their own social worlds, develop decision making, positive impacts on behavioural self-regulation, independence, wellbeing & academic development.
6. What are four steps that schools can take now to prioritise play?
I am still of the philosophy that I think schools need to follow what Wendy Titman outlined in an article from almost 30 years ago. For schools and parents to maximise children’s play, play environments should include:
- Play opportunities for children to think, to make discoveries, learn & be intellectually engaged.
- Play opportunities for children to do, to take moderate risks, undertake play challenges & extend themselves physically.
- Play opportunities for being, to be themselves away from and disconnected from the confines of classroom walls or overly restrictive class-based rules, regulations & routines.
- Play opportunities for feeling, to explore, independently embrace their senses, play decisions with a diversity of colours and features.
Uniforms also need to conducive and encouraging for maximising play behaviours and active exploration (not solid shoes, or long, restrictive dresses etc!). If schools want students to look formalised, perhaps this dresswear could be reserved for those specific days of school assembly.
A big thanks to Professor Brendon Hyndman for letting us pick his brains on all things play. More from Professor Hyndman can be found on the Charles Sturt University website and his twitter.
If you are interested in discussing play solutions for your school or to request a copy of our How to Build a Playground brochure, contact email@example.com.