Article on Hull Collegiate School

Published in Independent Schools Magazine

Written by Head teacher Antje Kell

Our Outdoor Play and Learning (Opal) journey over the past 18 months has been utterly transformational for everyone involved. Our starting point was a rectangular stretch of the playground that ‘contained’ Years 3 to 6, and accommodated two football ‘pitches’ (to keep the peace), chase games, table tennis and, sadly when we reflect back, lots of children around the perimeter who ate their snack and counted down the minutes left to go until they were back inside in the warmth and put quite simply... didn’t thrive at or enjoy playtimes.

Fast forward to this point in the journey and our playtimes are unrecognisably better. Transformation has been enabled by the unparalleled drive and enthusiasm from key groups within our school community: ‘The HCS Opal Team’, providing strategic leadership. The ‘break time supervisors’, now with the much more relevant title of ‘play leaders’, cheerfully and willingly putting their new playwork theory and knowledge into practice. The backing and support of our parent body, site team, DT department, cleaning team and excellent leadership, guidance and CPD from our Opal Mentor Ingrid.

The days start with a different feel. Children arrive in the morning and can’t wait to get outside. All children from 2 to 11 now have wellies and waterproof trousers and coats in school all year round, allowing them to explore the endless awaiting adventures. Children of every age and stage are: scooping out and chopping pumpkins and seasonal vegetables, making banquets with flowers, herbs and piping bags in the huge mud kitchens at every age. Racing kayaks down the bank, rolling and rescuing each other out of the lapping water that surrounds and engulfs their imaginations! Den building using duvet covers, tarps, wigwams, pillows and even sofas! Using donated everyday home objects and pallets to construct endlessly transforming hideaways, vehicles and obstacle courses. Co-creating new features including tree swings, a ‘mud jacuzzi’, and a water play area for 7 to 11-year olds. To top it off, climbing the trees across the school site to a safe height is now allowed, ‘safe’ being discussed and determined by the children.

Now, the only children that are on the old asphalt playground are there for the wheeled play -racing go-karts and second-hand scooters around tracks set with tyres and zooming around on ‘Heeleys’ and bikes.

Yes, there are still balls – rugby, football, cricket and netball are still played – but they no longer dominate play now we are taking full advantage of the huge site the school is lucky to have. By changing our supervision to a ranging model and being much more robust about an all-weather ethos, the space available to children is 8 times larger than before.

We rarely come into the building with clean hands, footwear or coats! This has meant a huge shift in mindset. It doesn’t mean that pupils don’t leave the site without mostly-clean uniforms and our traditional boater/felt hats; they still represent the school outwardly, but hands-on contact with the earth and mud is welcomed at Hull Collegiate. Celebrating nature and spending time in the fresh air, is crucial to our children’s mental health and wellbeing and in today’s world and the Covid-19 crisis, its importance is only magnified.

We have come round to the idea that children’s clothes should help not hinder their access to the wonderful natural world outside of our clean and sterile classrooms. We have adapted our school uniform from white socks to allow navy, school-issued gloves from woolly ones to the option of any from home that are waterproof. Welly boots are a must-have item. These modifications are about putting play and our children’s well-being before anything else.

We know that the road to improvement is never without difficulty, but now we don’t have any children looking forward to playtimes being over. Having seen the tremendous benefits to the happiness and wellness of our children, we are looking forward to experiencing our second Winter with Opal, despite the fact that it will be decidedly, and is honestly, more challenging! We are committed to continually improving the quality of our play offer and aiming for the highest-level award at our accreditation with Opal, later in the year.

We recommend the journey unreservedly!


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