The Value of Play in Schools

Wednesday July 1, 2020

Children spend much of their waking week in school. From previous research we know that where schools work to develop opportunities for play, children value this and speak more positively of their time in school than do children whose schools offer little by way of opportunities to play.


In this post we look at the value of play interventions in schools. The post provides an overview of the outcomes of some playtime/recess intervention projects, followed by a fuller discussion of the findings from Ben’s research into one particular project on the Isle of Man.

Much of the following report explores the benefits of loose parts interventions at school recess/playtime facilitated by a playwork approach. Playwork can be understood as an approach that resists adult control and direction, instead seeking to work in such a way that children themselves determine and control the content and intent of their play. For playworkers, playing is seen as a beneficial outcome in and of itself. Playworkers also recognise that playing brings about other benefits and contributes to other outcomes (Beunderman, 2010). Playworkers try to create environments that are fit for play, they practice various forms of intervention that serve in different ways to protect, maintain or extend children’s play. Playworkers were very early adopters of Simon Nicholson’s Loose parts Theory.

Simon Nicholson (1972) first coined the term loose parts play, in his theory; the relationship between the creativity and innovation that can be experienced by children in their play is directly proportional to the variability and flexibility inherent in the play environment. Loose parts or scrounged materials come in many shapes and sizes and can include tyres, cardboard boxes, carpet tubes, rope, wheels, material, plastics, wood, pallets, natural elements, anything that isn’t by its nature unreasonably hazardous or dangerous. Children are inventive and these open-ended resources that are often free and of little monetary value are wonderful resources for their play.

The research suggests that interventions facilitated through a playwork approach, incorporating loose parts, can have a significant positive influence on children’s experience and enjoyment of play time, and of their school day. These interventions also have a positive influence on school staff’s experience of play and more significantly on their orientation towards their work with playing children as well as their educative practice. Furthermore, the research identified a range of positive experiences enjoyed by the whole school community, including:

  • equality of access to opportunities for play
  • increased complexity in play
  • reduction in marginalisation and isolation of children in the playground
  • a reduction of accidents and of perceived disruptive or unwanted behaviours
  • a related reduction in applications of discipline
  • improved relations across the school community
  • improved positive regard to the whole school experience.

Playtime interventions

Permanent environmental modifications to the school outdoor environment

Children’s physically active play and their vigorous, and moderate to vigorous, physical activity can be increased by physical activity interventions that involve playground markings and permanent environmental modifications. However, maximum effects achieved are reported to be short lived (they have a low maintenance effect) occurring from the point of intervention and being sustained for a maximum of six months (Armitage, 2005; Hyndman, Benson, Ullah, & Telford, 2014).

Directed and undirected physical activity in the form of sports and organised games

Physical activity and participation rates for both sexes record increases with interventions based on directed and non‐directed physical activity in the form of sport and organised games (Hyndman, etal, 2014; Kriemler, etal, 2011; Ridgers, etal, 2005). However, these tend to suffer even more rapid cessation rates than do interventions based on permanent environmental change to school grounds (Hyndman, etal, 2014; Ridgers, etal, 2006). Furthermore, lower physical activity rates are present during these sessions due to the time spent being directed (Mackett, 2004). Moreover, they do not afford the same holistic benefits achieved in free play (Hyndman, etal, 2014).

Free play and loose parts interventions:

These sorts of interventions return more complex results and as such are presented in more detail than the previous two intervention types. Five studies are considered hereafter:

  • The Lunchtime Enjoyment Activity and Play (LEAP) project
  • The Sydney Playground Study
  • South Gloucestershire’s Outdoor Play and Learning Programme (OPAL)
  • Loose Parts Play and Physical Activity Project in 3 Wrexham Primary Schools
  • The Isle of Man ‘Play Bins’ Study.

The Lunchtime Enjoyment Activity and Play (LEAP) project

The LEAP project introduced non‐directive, scrounged materials, and ‘loose parts’, to school break time. Lunchtime supervisors were instructed to only intervene in children’s play if they had serious concerns for their safety. Children’s physical activity was noted as significantly increased at seven weeks post intervention, with this significance being maintained over baseline at an eight-month post-intervention follow-up.  Moreover, an increased complexity in children’s play was reported as children engaged in higher forms of play as a result of the introduction of ‘loose parts’ (Hyndman, etal, 2014)

The Sydney Playground Study

Anita Bundy et al. (2009) identified similar findings to the LEAP project but also found improved levels of intra‐psychic behaviour (self-reliance) amongst the children.  Children sought less external resolution interventions in the form of enforcement of behaviour management for undesirable behaviours from the supervisors and teachers in play squabbles.

The loose parts play and physical activity project in 3 Wrexham Primary Schools

In Wrexham’s Loose Parts Play and Physical Activity Project (Taylor, Tawil, & Baker, 2014) playworkers introduced loose parts to three primary school playgrounds and levels of physical activity were measured against baseline over a three-day period. Maintenance effect was not measured as a part of this small-scale study. The study found ‘loose parts’ play increased health enhancing physical activity levels against baseline levels of physical activity. Furthermore ‘loose parts’ play had a greater effect on girls and significantly increased the amount of health enhancing physical activity their undertook.

The benefits of self‐directed, physically active play may be more far-reaching than a simple panacea to concerns regarding children’s health and fitness. The value of a ‘loose parts’ style project affords inexpensive intervention with potentially long‐term, wide‐ranging benefits. However, for optimum benefit, whole school engagement may be required together with significant attitudinal and cultural shifts (Taylor, Tawil, & Baker, 2014).

Outdoor Play and Learning Programme (OPAL)

The OPAL project looked to improve the experience of play and school for teachers and support staff. Seeking to affect systemic change through the development of policy, practice and provision. This was done through on-going development meetings between the OPAL team and the school and its beneficiaries.

Importantly the project reports success in changing attitudes and culture in respect of:

  • the school’s position on play (particularly in relation to risk, adult control and all‐weather play)
  • altering school grounds imaginatively and creatively opening up more possibilities for play
  • changing children’s play patterns
  • encouraging a greater variety of play behaviours and wider use of time, space and materials for child‐initiated outdoor play
  • increasing children’s enjoyment of playtimes, with an associated reduction in perceived disruptive behaviour
  • teaching staff to value the instrumental outcomes of the enhancement of playtime, particularly in terms of learning and social development (Lester, etal, 2011)

The Isle of Man Play Bins Programme

The Isle of Man Play Bins study explored the influence of a playwork led, loose parts-based school lunchtime intervention project. Like the OPAL project the team worked with schools over a period of time to influence policy, practice and provision of opportunities. Usually this support aspect took place over one month and included: the play team providing some limited training to school staff, working with the head teacher to ensure policy supported the intended practice, and most significantly the play team took over the management of playtimes, modelling playwork orientated practice, enabling school staff to watch and learn and to engage in some peer reflection, before handing responsibility for playtimes back to the school staff.

The study looked at two schools (names anonymised) – New School, new to the project having delivered it for one year and another, Old School, in its third year of delivery. Ben carried out a combination of interviews and focus groups with the playworkers initiating the project, head teachers, teachers and lunchtime supervisors responsible for continued delivery, and school pupils from each school aged nine to eleven years of age.

Quality of play provision

The experience of playtime/dinner break was improved for all in a range of ways. As an outcome of the programme there was much more freedom and that was linked with more and improved play; “it’s just more fun, we just used to walk around now we play” (Child aged 10).

Put simply the project resulted in more children playing more of the time. School staff regularly observed children particularly over lunch, discussing, negotiating and planning what they would do when they got out to play. A reduction of boredom was reported by children and lunch time supervisors from both schools. New School children suggested that school was now mostly better than other places for play, “school was boring, no one wanted to come, now we get here early” (child, age 9). While Old School children agreed that they were never bored anymore.

Inclusion and integration

The project brought about significant benefits for inclusion in both schools. The Headteacher of Old School said that it “broke down cliques immediately” and talking of the loose parts approach said: “the non-directive nature of resources reduces elitism and promotes inclusion and cooperation”. Children at Old School suggested that “a playful school has to be better for children coming into reception, helping them make friends quickly and settle into school life”.

Headteachers, teachers and lunchtime supervisors of both schools reported that there were no longer any isolated children due to the inclusive nature of the programme. Furthermore, they reported improvements in inter-age play, children playing with one another right across the age range of the school community; this includes boys and girls of different ages playing together. These points were validated by the children at New School: “having stuff means we can do stuff, and do it together and do different stuff every day” (Child, 11), and children from Old School: “I used to be a really girly girl and now I play with everyone” (child, 9).

The quality of experience of playtime

The Head Teacher of Old School said, “It’s joyful to see the kids in purposeful and rewarding activity”, whilst the Head of New School has begun taking their dinner outside on the playground most days, remarking “it’s just magical watching them”. This notion of ‘magic’ and ‘joyfulness’ was continued in responses from the teaching staff at New School who, as well as identifying that they no longer “hide in the staff room anymore”, said they found playtime “so entertaining, watching the children, they’re so immersed they don’t even notice you watching and listening to their discussions,” and “it’s a joy to be on playtime duty”.

Teaching staff at Old School reported that children were calmer and happier and, as a result, they were too. Lunch time supervisors at both schools found dinner time much more enjoyable and were quite adamant that if the programme was to be discontinued, they would look for another job.

This new found love of play time had not escaped the children’s observation:“There was so few of them (staff) before cos they didn’t like it and it was worse, now they all come out cos they like it and it’s better” (Child, 10, New School).

Incidents, discipline, accidents and injury

All participants agreed there were fewer fallings out at both morning playtime and lunch times. Children at both schools identified happiness as a significant contributory factor and that the choice of opportunities meant there wasn’t the same level of contest over few resources as there had been prior to the programme. They also reported that at times of disagreement it was easier for those involved in a disagreement to find alternatives in their play and that there were alternative playmates to engage in that play with.

The Headteacher of Old School reported a “massive reduction in behavioural difficulties and the amount of disciplining [they were having to do] immediately the programme started”. The Headteacher of New School also reported “a huge reduction in bad behaviours and reports of bad behaviour”, with teachers similarly reporting “we don’t do much discipline but equipment (loose parts, tree swings, platforms etc) provides opportunities for deep sanctions”. Play times were now a thing that the children valued very much and if sanctions were ever needed then the denial of some, rather than all opportunities for play was now a much stronger incentive than it ever had been before.

Finally, prior to the implementation of the programme, accidents and injuries were commonplace. Mostly this was children using the occurrence of the smallest of injuries, and sometimes feigned injuries, as an excuse to get into the school building and avoid spending time outside at playtime. Lunchtime supervisors at Old School reported there were no longer “any fake injuries or toilet excuses” and in respect of the minor accidents and injuries that can be expected during playing, they noted that “children would rather have a little tender loving care and get back to playing as opposed to getting out of play time”.

Creativity and learning

“Well, we learn more playing out now, because we couldn’t learn anything when we had just sticks and stones, that we weren’t allowed to play with!” (child 11, New School)

The Headteacher of Old School believed that it was the non-directional nature of loose parts that promoted imaginative and creative play as the nature of the resources left the creativity and problem solving to the children.

Teaching staff at both schools identified more imagination being used by children, acknowledging that the loose parts enabled them to create and then resolve problems creatively. Children at both schools also reflected that they used more imagination and creativity since the start of the programme, noting that they are constantly changing and adapting the environment, creating new spaces for play. The Headteacher of Old School felt that children used higher level thinking skills in the sorts of play they now engaged in.

The levels of perseverance, determination and cooperation were observed as being “amazing” by the Head of New School, whilst the Head of Old School noted how well the children managed their own behaviours and in particular how well they managed risk taking in their play. Children at New School echoed this, acknowledging that they learn more in play than they used to and that they learn from their mistakes.

Headteachers and teaching staff of both schools recognised that they were learning more about individual children because they could see their play preferences and the competencies they exhibited in their play. Teaching staff at Old School noted that “in terms of meeting learners needs it has been a revelation, just watching and learning from children how they can, with permission, enable their own learning.”, adding, “in terms of learning to learn behaviours, it’s like a building site and they’re building themselves as socially, emotionally and cognitively competent people, and we have all the right stuff for them to do it with”.

Teachers at New School also noted, children that perhaps don’t shine in the classroom environment often did in the play environment and as such, they maintained engagement with school life. Teachers from Old School valued the opportunities afforded for play as they saw they complimented the learning that was on-going in the classroom and were often used to consolidate that learning.

In respect of the benefits experienced in the classroom, teachers at both schools noted that children were calmer and concentrated more in class. Children from both schools also said that they were likely to be more active back in class because they’d had a good break.

Teaching staff at New School noted, “we used to have to give very clear instructions, now not so much” and that, “reflective writing tasks done this year, based on play experiences were rich and expressive” also, “there was no fear in the first swimming lesson, more kids are more ambitious and confident in gym” and that, “grouping children in class for group activities (something fraught with interpersonal complexities previously) was no longer a problem”. These teachers were reluctant to claim any direct link between the project and these observations but couldn’t help reflecting on the stark differences they had noticed since the commencement of the project.

Teaching staff at Old School said: “it’s a third classroom, it provides inspiration, or we can be inspired and then just use it”.

Pic Credit: Isle of Play

Orientation to educative practices

A significant outcome reported by adult participants was how much the programme had changed how they thought about children and as a result, how they acted towards children; this was also reflected in children’s observations of adults.

All adult participants recognised that the project had influenced the way they thought about children’s abilities and furthermore what it is they can be allowed to do, this quote from the Headteacher of Old School being reflective of their views: “I used to stop them doing things all the time, for no reason really, just habit.” And another from a teacher of New School, “how cruel we were, having all that space and not letting them use it”, further lamenting on how embarrassed they were about their past attitude to play and children, “reprimanding children for picking up a stone to play with”, “making children bend down to touch the grass on the playing field with their bare hands” and (on establishing it was damp) telling them, “see, it’s wet, you can’t play on it”. The Head of New School acknowledged they had “become more relaxed, more flexible, there’s just no need to be as inflexible as we used to be”. At Old School the ancillary staff agreed, “We don’t really have rules now, we just decide as we go along, it’s just flexible with limits, we just dynamically risk assess as we go” using their knowledge of the children and of play to inform decisions about intervention.

The teaching staff at Old School acknowledged that the programme had influenced the way they view children, and that they are more reflexive, constantly questioning their approach. The same staff say they now see children as capable, skilful and determined: “it makes you step back and think what help they need, what help you can be. Before stepping in to do things for them”.

Finally, the change in adults was noted perhaps most profoundly by the children who readily recognised that for school staff it had taken time for them to relax, for risk aversion to reduce and for staff to stop worrying, for staff to view children differently and to become happier in their relationship with playing children:

“teachers used to think that everything was dangerous, now they see it isn’t.” (Child aged 9, New School);

“less for teachers to worry about, they are happier” (Child aged 8, New School);

“they got used to us, they aren’t scared anymore”, “they trust us a lot more now” (Child aged 11, Old School)

And Finally,

“they take more notice, they are more aware of what you’re doing, and they are thinking about it, and so are we!” (Child aged 10, Old School)


We would like to thank ‘Isle of Play’ who supplied all the photographs for this post, and to commend them on their amazing work, inspirational. Check out more of their work over on their site:


Armitage, M. (2005) The influence of school architecture and design on the outdoor play experience within the primary school. Paedogogica Historica, 41(4&5), pp. 535-553.

Beunderman, J. (2010) People Make Play: The impact of staffed play provision on children, families and communities. NCB for Play England.

Nicholson, S. (1972) The Theory of Loose Parts, An important principle for design methodology. Studies in Design Education Craft & Technology, 4 (2).

Bundy, A.C., Luckett, T., Tranter, P.J., Naughton, G.A., Wyver, S.R., Ragen, J. and Spies, G., (2009) The risk is that there is ‘no risk’: a simple, innovative intervention to increase children’s activity levels. International Journal of Early Years Education, 17(New School), pp.33-45.

Hyndman, B., Benson, A., Ullah, S. & Telford, A. (2014) Evaluating the effects of the Lunchtime Enjoyment Activity and Play (LEAP) school playground intervention on children’s quality of life, enjoyment and participation in physical activity. BMC public health, 14 (New School), p.164.

Kriemler, S., Meyer, U., Martin, E., van Sluijs, E.M., Andersen, L.B. and Martin, B.W. (2011) Effect of school-based interventions on physical activity and fitness in children and adolescents: a review of reviews and systematic update. British journal of sports medicine, 45 (11), pp. 923-930.

Lester, S., Jones, O. D. & Russell, W. (2011) Supporting school improvement through play: An evaluation of South Gloucestershire’s outdoor play and learning programme, London: National Children’s Bureau.

Mackett, R. & Paskins, J. (2004) Increasing children’s volume of physical activity through walk and play. London, UK: Centre for Transport Studies, UCL (University College London).

Ridgers, N. D., Stratton, G., Curley, J. and White, G. (2005) Liverpool sporting playgrounds project. Education and Health, 23 (4) pp. 50–52.

Ridgers, N.D., Stratton, G. & Fairclough, S. (2006) Physical activity levels of children during school playtime. Sports medicine, 36 (4), pp. 356-371.

Tawil, B. (2017) How a play intervention programme influenced two primary school communities: A realistic evaluation. Leeds Beckett University: Leeds

Taylor, S., Tawil, B. & Baker, S. (2014) Evaluating the effects of loose parts play on physical activity in Wrexham schools, Wrexham: Glyndwr University.

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