Top Tips for outdoor play

Teachers recommend…

Knowing what works best for children and young people in your setting is important for getting the most you can out of outdoor play. These tips from education professionals may provide you with inspiration for your own practice.

  1. Start the day by playing outdoors – we have found it settles the children in better and is much less stressful for everyone.
  2. Create ‘safe spaces’ outside where children can sit if they need some time out of the busy environment.
  3. Teach children the language they need to join in play and resolve conflicts.
  4. Take frequent 10 minute outdoor action breaks throughout the day.
  5. PE is a good opportunity to rehearse prerequisite skills and teach playground games.
  6. Try sensory circuits outdoors.
  7. Bring seasonal resources back into the class for discussion and creative activities.
  8. Involve your class in creating the rules and policy for outdoor play.
  9. Include outdoor play in long, medium and short term planning and regularly observe the children at play in order to gauge their interests. 
  10. Upskill and train staff on the use of equipment.
  • Advice for designing outdoor play sanctuaries for autism

Riverside School in Antrim have been developing sanctuaries for outdoor play. We spoke to Vice Principal Shona McCann about the process. 

How did you design the sanctuaries to fit the needs of the students?

All classes completed happiness audits – we used this version adapted by Richard Hirstwood. We used this to create 5 zones through a staff led focus group. Staff suggest activities for each zone and create resources on appropriate use of areas. Pupils have access to a range of activities and the activities that are used most by pupils are offered more often.

We have done a lot of work to co-create the area with pupils from the art work you see in the photos (below) to the equipment we have in the areas.

We have visual boards in each area and have started using QR codes for staff so they know what to do with the equipment. We introduce one piece of equipment at a time to staff (e.g. the swiss ball) and take one month to upskill staff on its use (a week each for calming, alerting, organising activities plus a final week of creative ideas). This has really helped effective use of individual equipment and ensures pupils get a variety of ideas. 

What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?

The main obstacles were:

  • Funding for equipment – we fundraised through Cash for Kids for this. 
  • Providing the right sensory input for pupils –  we undertook training and collected evidence on engagement to map what is effective for our pupils. 
Tactile Zone

What role do the sanctuaries play in the school day?

Some pupils are on individual schedules which include time in the sanctuaries. We have a group of Classroom Assistants who take pupils out 1-to-1 as part of our afternoon timetable. They provide sensory input through the sanctuaries and then measure engagement using the engagement profile. We plan to roll this out to more pupils and classes next term by providing more resources and more training for staff. 

Movement Zone

What types of activities are the sanctuaries used for?

There are 5 zones – movement zone, relaxation zone, tactile and visual zone, aqua zone (messy play and water play), and proprioceptive (heavy work) zone. Pupils access areas according to their likes/dislikes and sensory needs. They always finish in the heavy work zone. We are currently getting this information from observations and hope to develop an audit tool. 

Heavy Work Zone

What has the impact been on students?

It has been dependent on the pupil. Most have had a positive impact; some we have found it has heightened, but we have explored different sensory input for these children. Our plan for the future will be to include pupil voice and use social stories to increase their understanding of the impact for them. 

Sensory Garden

What training did staff undergo?

  • Sensory processing training with Middletown Centre for Autism.
  • Internal training on positive behaviour approaches.
  • Training with Richard Hirstwood on the Happiness Audit. 
Sports Sanctuary

What are your future plans for developing outdoor play in the school?

In the future we plan to:

  • Add more structure to spaces we have. 
  • Create specific outdoor play areas for juniors (to include messy play area).
  • Develop sport sanctuaries in school and promote the use of sports and other age-appropriate activities for senior pupils.

Further information on developing sensory and sport sanctuaries can be found here.