Author Archives: Michael Follett

  1. The big catch up

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    Children in school uniforms playing outdoors

    At the end of last year, the Government announced £1 billion of funding to support children and young people to catch up on lost time following school closures. In her final speech as Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield said:

    “The major disruption to two years of education, alongside the limited opportunities to see friends and wider families, to play and enjoy activities and the worry about the impact of Covid on their families, will have taken a heavy toll on some children.”

    The Government’s Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, has indicated schools should take a broad view of catch up, stating:

    “I think we need to think about the extra hours, not only for learning, but for children to be together, to play, to engage in competitive sport, for music, for drama, because these are critical areas of learning, not just the academics but these vital areas that have been I think missed by many children and will be missed in their growth and development. We need to make sure that whatever we offer children is broad, is rich and doesn’t completely stifle all the other things in life that matter.”

    However, a trawl of primary school websites shows a wide range of interpretations of what catching up involves. Many only publish their ‘catch up curriculums’, these are lists of subject knowledge and skills in the core subjects. A few have a more whole-child approach, one saying: “When the children returned to school [in September 2020], we focused upon their wellbeing and physical health.” Others have defined their broad approach more clearly:

    “We utilise opportunities for outdoor learning wherever possible so that children can explore the outdoor environment, link what they are learning to the natural world, and take part in stimulating real life challenges such as gardening and building.”

    What have children missed out on the most?

    As one school points out: “Each school has been given £80 per pupil. This equates to £2 per week or 41p a day.” So, before schools make too many plans on how to spend their 41ps, we should pause to think about what children have missed out on the most. 

    As well as missing out on lessons, many children have spent a year with up to 14 hours a day screen time, and a huge or complete decline in most aspects of ‘real life childhood’; seeing friends, touching, playing, exploring, laughing, running, and having any control over anything other than their virtual lives.

    Play is the primary way that children learn

    Children are young primates. If you took young primates from another species, say chimpanzees, and for a year deprived them of access to nature, opportunities to socialise, stimulating environments, and opportunities to play in a pleasant well-resourced environment, what outcomes would you expect and how would you help them to recover?

    It is no coincidence that the more intelligent a species the more and the longer they play. Like other young primates in their primary years, children need a lot of primary experience to gather a huge amount of data or intelligence (in the military meaning) about themselves and every aspect of the world around them. Screen learning is mostly a secondary experience, it does not provide the opportunity to get on, go under/over, smell, feel, pick up, push, pull, hold hands with, hug, carry or do anything that only a real experience enables. 

    Is it us that needs to catch up?

    Longfield’s departing speech lays down a challenge:

    “I want to see the Prime Minister getting passionate about making sure that we don’t define children by what’s happened during this year, but we define ourselves by what we offer to them.’

    If we approach the catch up from the perspective of ‘How can we provide what children need most in their lives?’ rather than ‘Here is an extra list of things you don’t know; on top of the other ones you were going to have to learn’, we may not only have a hope of helping children recover better from the damage to their wellbeing, happiness and development, but also go forward with a stronger vision of what a good childhood means.

    Play is the way that children learn everything that cannot be taught. In my work as founder and director of the country’s largest not-for-profit organisation supporting schools to improve the quality of play for all of their children, I have seen the incredible impact that amazing play opportunities can have on children’s happiness, development and wellbeing.

    I don’t believe any primary school catch up plan is sufficient without addressing the quality and sufficiency of play for every child. And, if catch ups are about providing more play, you might even get change from that 41p.

    Michel Follett BA Hons Ed, PGCE

    Director, OPAL

    Author of Creating Excellence in Primary School Playtimes (JKP 2017)

    Discover the power of playtimes at our online open day on Tuesday 2 March. Find out more and book your free place today

  2. Has Covid-19 led to a reduction in school playtimes?

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    I was recently asked to sign an online petition to oppose the cutting back of school playtimes in response to Covid-19 arrangements in primary schools. I usually work in schools every day, but since lockdown I’ve only been into one. Before signing, I wanted to find out a bit more about what’s really happening out there. So we published a quick Twitter poll and out of 50 respondents, 50% said that playtime has been reduced in their school.

    This is obviously a small sample, but if it is even close to being representative of schools nationally then over 2.25 million children in England between the ages of 4 and 11 could have less outdoor playtime than before the pandemic.

    In her Blog Play in the Pandemic, Professor of Child Psychology Helen Dodd points out:

    “For social and emotional wellbeing, children need opportunity for all types of play, including play with their peers and physical outdoor play, both of which have been and, to some extent, continue to be restricted. This restriction is likely to felt particularly acutely by children without siblings who are close in age and by children who don’t have easy access to outdoor space.”

    In their 2018 paper, Moore and Lynch* concluded that wellbeing, happiness and play are intrinsically linked:

    “Findings illustrate the degree and complexity with which children understand the influences on their happiness (well-being) to be interrelated, highlighting an expanded view of play as a subjective aspect of childhood that is intrinsically connected to well-being and happiness.”

    What an OPAL school had to say

    I decided to speak to a school that will soon complete the OPAL Primary Programme to find out if they had reduced the time children get to play. Helen Easton, Assistant Head at Ivydale Infant’s in Islington, told me:

    “No not at all. From 10.15 onwards the playground is in almost continuous use. We had improved play at the school before the pandemic and everything got better, especially concentration, relationships and behaviour. The children know we take their play seriously and it is their right. Children need the quality of play we provide here more than ever now.”

    I was interested to know how the school manages the logistics of playtimes. Helen said:

    “Lunch time runs for 1 hour and 45 minutes. We make sure that every child has a full hour of playtime, plus they have two fifteen-minute playtimes in the day as well. We have five bubbles and five areas, we have tried to provide resources and key points of interest for each bubble, like the sand pit or the water play and rotate them weekly”.

    I was also interested to hear that not all of the impact has been negative. As a large school with a small space Helen observed:

    “It feels more manageable now, children have more space and there is less noise. New children have definitely formed bonds with their classmates quicker and there is more collaborative play than before within the class.”

    Trying to cope with logistics of socially distanced feeding and toilet breaks has pushed schools to their limits and, in many of our primary schools, outdoor play is likely to have been one of the casualties of the pandemic. Although this is understandable, it is counterproductive for children’s wellbeing, happiness and development. As we navigate schooling during this difficult time, we need to make sure that play is not forgotten.   

    Michael Follett, OPAL Director

    Do you have evidence of how primary school playtimes have changes due to Covid-19? Please share with us by getting in touch or Tweeting us @OPAL_CIC.

    *Alice Moore & Helen Lynch (2018) Understanding a child’s conceptualisation of well-being through an exploration of happiness: The centrality of play, people and place, Journal of Occupational Science, 25:1, 124-141, DOI: 10.1080/14427591.2017.1377105

  3. OPAL wins funding from Sport England and The National Lottery

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    Children enjoying playtime in an OPAL school
    Children enjoying playtime in an OPAL school

    Sport England, in their 2019 Active Lives Children and Young People study, found that the biggest motivator of physical activity in children aged between 5 and 11 is ‘Play’! Perhaps unsurprisingly playing was found by Sport England to be even more popular within this age group than team sports, swimming or any other activity. This is why Sport England and the Department for Education, which has a mission to reduce childhood inactivity, want to see every school improve their playtime provision as much as they can.

    The recently updated The PE and School Sports Premium guidance reflects this shift in policy. The first two of the five key indicators are now “providing targeted activities or support to involve and encourage the least active children”, and “encouraging active play during break times and lunchtimes.” 

    Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) CIC exists to support schools that want to permanently transform the quality of the playtime experiences they provide to pupils every day. This support is especially critical because, when playtime provision is good enough, play promotes learning, development and healthy physical and mental wellbeing in all children, and schools are a great way to reach children effectively in vast numbers!

    Around one fifth (typically 20-22%) of a school day in the UK is allocated to playtimes, yet, unlike the rest of the day, there is no policy drive to ensure that the quality of playtime provision meets any standard.

    No school would employ a teacher who didn’t have the necessary qualifications, training and skills to do an excellent job for every pupil. No parent would want their child to attend such a school, so why is it accepted in 20,000+ primary schools that the people who have responsibility with supervising playtimes are allowed to do so with no proper knowledge or training? The supervision of primary school playtimes is predominantly carried out by people on minimum wages, with no management and with no clear direction from school leadership. The cost to the nation is an estimated £750 million every year. Surely the least we might expect for this money is that staff are doing the best job they can, with the necessary skills and resources?

    The £245,600 of growth funding awarded by Sport England and the National Lottery to OPAL will, between May 2020 and December 2021, enable OPAL to recruit and train more Mentors located in every English region. So that all schools who want to improve their playtimes to meet the government indicators will have dedicated support available throughout their 12-18 month training programme. In addition to doubling the number of Mentors providing support to schools, the funding will enable the provision of on-line training, which will be freely accessible to all schools playtime support staff. 

    There will be new research published, networking and conference events, there will be lots of great ideas for staff to consider for the play environment, and there will be help available for parents and carers who want to boost play outside of school.

    If you have any questions about the funding, see our FAQs.

    Follow OPAL on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with the latest news.

  4. Protecting Play

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    Protecting play: Low resource ideas for supporting play during lockdown by Rachel Murray

    The coronavirus lock-down has meant life has changed dramatically for children and simple everyday activities present new challenges. If children are to thrive, as well as making sure our children feel safe and are well looked after, we also need to allow play to continue. In supporting children’s play, we need to ensure as much freedom of choice as possible for children.

    In normal times these freedoms include where and when they play, who they play with, and how they play. During lockdown, many of these choices have been lost or greatly restricted, as playgrounds are locked, friends remain at home and schools are largely closed. Parents, carers and children find themselves in new and unexpected circumstances. However, what has not changed is that play remains vital for children’s physical and mental health. It is still important that we try and protect children’s choices and let them play and be playful during this challenging period.

    We appreciate that different families are facing different issues at this time. Here are some low resource ideas to help support children’s play during lockdown. We hope there will be something of use to you, or that they may spark a play memory or an idea that you can make your own.

    Top tip – Use what you have
    Don’t be put off by Facebook posts of parents building entire wooden playhouses, of greenhouses full of perfect seedlings or 8 tier rainbow cakes with extra sprinkles! Work with the skills and interests of your own family. Use what you have in your house and within your means. Play does not have to be expensive – pots, pans, cushions, blankets, dried pasta and rice, felt-tips, recycled plastic bottles, clothes pegs, paper and washing up liquid are all great play items.

    Classic party and playground games – no resources needed
    There are a reason that some games persist through the years and can be classified as ‘oldies but goodies’. Here are some simple playground and party games that require no resources and can be played in or outdoors.

    Creeping games – Granny’s footsteps, What’s the time Mr. Wolf?
    Hiding games – Hide n Seek, Sardines. If you’re short on space, hide a toy.
    Clapping patterns and songs – pat a cake, See See my darling, A sailor went to sea, sea, sea. You might know some others. Some have nonsense or cheeky lyrics! Make up your own! The British Library have more info here:
    Rock-paper-scissors (or the more complicated Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock!)
    Guessing game classics –  I spy, Charades, 20 questions

    Low resource creative play
    Den building – use blankets, cushions, pegs, sleeping bags. Find more ideas here:
    Junk modelling – use recycled materials to craft unique creations and contraptions. If your house can cope with a little overspill and creative mess, creations can be added to over a number of days.
    Colouring, sketching, painting, printing – use what you have! Potatoes, fingers, feet, toilet rolls, brushes, feathers, Lego etc.
    Loose parts art – nature inspired if you can play outdoors (search Andrew Goldsworthy or James Brunt for inspiration; think sticks, stones, daisies, dandelions, cherry blossom). Man-made loose parts could be Lego, cocktail sticks, buttons, dried pasta, rice of beans, whole spices, sequins or just small squares of paper.
    Dressing up – it doesn’t need to be real costumes. Hats, ties, waistcoats, wigs, headbands – who are you going to be?
    Put on a show! – dance, sing, play instruments, learn the Cups song or The GitUp dance, pretend to be Simon Cowell, hand up a sheet to make a pop-up puppet theatre!
    Bubble play – washing up liquid and water will do. What makes a good bubble blower? Try out slatted spoons, sieves, flower pots, bend a paper clip, use a toilet roll tube. Or make a bubble-snake! –

    Low resource active play
    Obstacle course – indoors or outdoors. How can you stay off the floor?
    French Skipping – also known as Elastics. If you don’t have other people to play with, you can use chair legs to hold the elastic. Classic rhymes (England Ireland, Scotland Wales…), or make up a routine to a current tune.
    Target challenge – ‘shooting hoops’. Use a soft ball or a rolled up (clean!) sock and chuck it at a bucket!  Make up a points system, move the bucket further away or have several goals.
    Hopscotch – use chalk to mark an outdoor course; masking tape works well on laminate floor and carpet.
    Get outside for your daily exercise – if you can, get outdoors. Go for a walk, a scoot or a ride. Make your own ‘spotting lists’ or ‘treasure hunts’ before you go. Can you find a flying insect, a purple flower, a yellow car, a graffiti tag, a rainbow in a window?

    Community supporting playful ideas
    Draw a rainbow to display in your window. Mix it up – how about a rainbow Pokemon or a rainbow heart? How can you add your own creative twist?
    Window wonder – use your windows to help entertain others! Hide teddies for a ‘Bear Hunt’, or eggs for an Easter egg hunt. What else would the children in your neighbourhood like to see? You could leave positive signs for friends that walk past your house or draw their favourite toys and TV characters.
    Paint and hide rocks – use sharpies, paints, old nail varnish. Wash your hands before you paint. If you pick up a rock from outside, wash it for 20 seconds when you wash your hands.
    Make some noise – if you take part in a ‘clap for support workers’ event, you can make your own shaker or musical instrument to make some noise!

    Dig out old games
    Is there anything you haven’t played with in a while? When was the last time you played Snap? Or did a jigsaw? Have you got an old console that you haven’t used for a while? Have you got any toys tucked away that haven’t been played with for ages?

    Don’t worry, be silly!
    Talk like a pirate day– ooh arr!Have a backwards day – clothes on backwards, walk backwards, pudding before dinnerLet someone else do your make-up, and wear it out on your daily exercise
    Funky hair dos – let someone give you a funky hair style and wear it for the day
    Swap clothes with someone in your family
    Kitchen disco – turn the music up and dance, dance, dance
    and don’t forget…….THE FLOOR IS LAVA!

    Rachel Murray is a mentor for OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning

    A non-profit organization dedicated to improving play in schools

  5. Play in a time of lock-down

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    Play in a time of lock-down

    Play is essential to the mental and physical well being of children wherever they are. During the period of lock-down we will continue to support schools, parents and carers with ideas to enrich children’s play opportunities. We will do this by posting links to the many other organisations providing great ideas, posting bi-weekly updates of ideas from the OPAL team and linking with some of our national partners.


    The Conversation – A discussion on the value of play during lock-down

    Encourage Play – Ideas for play at home


    Play Scotland

    Youth Sport Trust

    Scouting Association

    Play Wales (Playful childhoods)


     (a variety of games, activities and resources to keep children learning at home).

    Zoo webcams

    Indoor activities

    Live shows, outdoor expeditions, Deadly 60  

    Website has lots of fun activities for kids that are reasonably easy to organise and fun

    Interactive learning through songs, art, videos and games.

    Music, exercise and activity

    PE with Joe  

    Go Noodle  (lots of songs with actions to keep fit)

    BBC Super Movers

    Cosmic Yoga

    Learn to dance with Oti Mabuse every day at 11.00 and at any time

    Our Partners

    Sport England Logo - London Sport

    Stay in Work out

    Ideas for keeping active from Sport England –

    The Daily Mile UK

    The Daily Mile at home – Ideas for keeping active during the lock-down

  6. Take the Play Challenge

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    Schools want to improve playtimes, they may want to improve behaviour, create happier playtimes, increase physical activity or mental well-being. But it is not a matter of simply laying some playground markings, putting in a trim trail or adding a few loose parts.

    Michael Follett set up OPAL – Outdoor Play and Learning – as a community interest company over five years ago. Since then, hundreds of schools across the UK, as well as schools in Canada, New Zealand and Australia have successfully completed the OPAL Primary Programme.

    Here, he explains how he persuades Headteachers to invest in play development.

    Read the blog on the Play England Website

  7. How to make playtimes excellent

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    A blog for PTAs and parents on the best way for parents to support better play in primary schools. PTAs like to raise money for brightly coloured playground equipment in an effort to support schools to improve playtime behaviour.

    In this blog Michael Follett describes how PTAs can use their hard-earned money to make a lasting difference to playtimes for every child in their school. 

    Read the blog on the Parentkind website