Supporting School Improvement through Play

An Evaluation of the Outdoor Play and Learning Programme (OPAL)

Published by Play England/NCB 2011

Evaluated by Drs Owain Jones, Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell


Executive summary

This research reports on an evaluation of the OPAL play programme designed and delivered by South Gloucestershire Council as a way of enhancing children’s opportunity to play in schools. The evaluation draws on a two-phased research process. The first phase considered documentary evidence from 19 primary, infant and junior schools who participated in the programme during the initial stages from 2007-2009 and then interviewed head teachers and lead staff from ten of those schools. The second phase consisted of interviews and focus groups with staff and observations of play times at three of the ten schools. Key findings from the first phase of the evaluation were presented in an interim report. This final report builds upon that by combining the findings from both phases into an overall synthesis and evaluation of the programme.

Overview of OPAL

The basic aim of OPAL is to enhance opportunities for children’s play in schools. Within the programme play is defined as behaviour that is ‘freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and personally directed’, a definition drawn from Playwork Principles (PPSG, 2005).

The justification for OPAL as an intervention recognises that play, based on this definition, is a right for children (UNCRC, 1989). This recognises the evidence on the benefits of playing outlined in the literature review in Section 2 of the report, as well as the understanding the barriers to play in schools through curriculum demands and the culture of testing, risk aversion among school staff, parental anxiety and poorly designed and restricted play spaces.

The OPAL project has developed a thorough, practical, step-by-step guide to developing the conditions to support play in schools. This includes comprehensive support materials, evaluated in section 4 of the report, which offer key guiding principles for an approach to improving time and space for play and an audit process which establishes a collaborative working relationship between the school lead for play and the South Gloucestershire Council Play Adviser (SGC Play Adviser) to guide and support the school to improve and enhance existing approaches to children’s play. The audit process offers a degree of quantifiable progress as the system includes initial (scored) audits and then follow-up audits.

The design of OPAL, although listing universal and aspirational indicators and criteria in the audit process, acknowledges that schools will have different start points in terms of the physical environment (buildings, grounds, perimeter structures, geographical location); size; community catchment area and relations; head teacher priorities; financial resources; staff culture, and more besides. Given this, the application of OPAL is not an absolute approach but is responsive to local conditions and what happens, and the nature and pace of change varies significantly across schools. This precludes the identification of any standard approaches and comparison across the OPAL participants. However, the review of documentary evidence, interviews with Head Teachers and results from the case studies do identify some key themes which have emerged through participation and these are further explored in the main body of the report.

Key findings

The evaluation highlights the considerable benefits that have been gained from participation in OPAL. This includes:

  • changing the attitudes and culture of the school’s understanding and position on play (particularly in relation to risk, adult control and all-weather play)
  • imaginative and creative alterations to the school grounds in order to open up more possibilities for play
  • changes in children’s play patterns, greater variety of play behaviours, and wider use of time, space and materials for child-initiated outdoor play
  • increased children’s enjoyment of play times with an associated reduction in perceived disruptive behaviour
  • teaching staff who valued the instrumental outcomes of the enhancement of playtime, particularly in terms of learning and social development.

The first phase of evaluation showed that all schools had made some progress in changing conditions for play. The second stage confirmed this and in addition highlighted the diverse and creative ways in which children use all the available space for playing. In the most successful schools, progress was transformative, changing the play cultures in schools very markedly, through involving people in the development of a play policy, providing training and mentoring for teaching staff and Lunchtime Supervisors, and embedding play into other aspects of school planning and practice. Other changes included redesigning the outdoor space, introducing flexible materials (loose parts), opening up areas and licence to play in a variety of ways and weathers. These changes led to children playing in more varied ways and engaging in a wider range of play forms, with fewer incidents and accidents reported during playtime, as children were ‘too busy playing’ to report minor events. Alongside this, training of Lunchtime Supervisors meant that they were able to respond to issues as they arose and incidents needing to be dealt with by teaching staff or the Head Teacher at lunchtime reduced dramatically (in some cases disappeared altogether). Teachers reported that children returned to the classroom ready to learn, with fewer playground arguments spilling into class time, and some Head Teachers felt that the changes had contributed to enhancing the overall performance and culture of the school.

This high level of success results from a number of factors including:

  • developing or enhancing existing play policies in order to frame cultural change and strategic planning
  • the presence of an enthusiastic and consistent Head Teacher who can bring staff, governors and parents with them
  • school grounds with existing potential for play
  • available finances
  • schools which do not have to focus on other priorities (where other standards are generally high).

For some schools progress was slower, with contributory factors which include discontinuity of leadership at the school; the school’s land, buildings and infrastructure being less amenable to the changes; or where the school may have had other pressing priorities of improvement in the school (for example, test results, behaviour or building improvement).

Alongside the overall culture change stimulated by the OPAL programme, three elements are worthy of closer attention to encourage play in school:

  • opening up areas for playing in all weathers through arranging for the provision of outdoor coats and boots and creating all-weather routes throughout the outdoor space
  • the use of scrap materials in plentiful supply that can be played with in any number of ways by children and that are readily replenishable
  • challenging the prevailing culture of risk-aversion amongst both teaching staff and Lunchtime Supervisors.

Staff responses to these changes were somewhat mixed and contradictory: all recognised the value of risk-taking in play and the principle of low intervention and free-ranging play, but some existing values and habitual practices that inhibit play are deeply embedded and will take some time to shift. For example, rules such as ‘scrap-on-scrap’ for play fighting were useful; their implementation by Lunchtime Supervisors was contingent on circumstance, suggesting a flexible approach.

OPAL in action

Following the introduction of the programme in 2007 the OPAL system has gone through a number of refinements in the light of experience of working with a range of schools. The evaluation team feels that, overall, the OPAL pack and system currently made available to schools are highly effective in providing a sound basis for implementing changes to the conditions to support play. However, a further round of fine tuning of some elements is merited in some respects. It is also the case that as the political and socio-economic forces and trends that shape schools continue to change, OPAL as a process needs to have the flexibility to adapt to changing school cultures. In other words, OPAL is pursuing a moving target.

The OPAL programme has an extensive range of materials and documents to support schools; however, it should be stressed that this is not a paper-driven approach. Merely following the audit sheets and support literature will not lead to the changes that have occurred. What the evaluation reveals is the significance of the external function of the Council and particularly the role of the South Gloucestershire Council Play Adviser. Having someone external to the school providing the initial spur to action, followed up with authority from the council, supporting documentation, a council award scheme and so on, is essential for perceived legitimacy and the ability of Head Teachers to sell the programme to staff, governors and parents. In addition, the particular strengths of the SGC Play Adviser’s approach need to be acknowledged. In interviews, Head Teachers have consistently spoken of the SGC Play Adviser’s enthusiasm and the inspiration and motivation they have drawn from this.


Evidence from the evaluation suggests that the OPAL programme can deliver on its overall aim to promote play in schools. It was evident in all participating schools that the interventions made by OPAL to both the physical and human environment enhanced, and in some cases transformed, opportunities for playing. This shows that the OPAL system can and does work in practice to achieve its stated goals. However, variations between schools in the extent to which physical and cultural changes have been made and sustained, together with the unevenness of take-up of the programme across the South Gloucestershire, show that there are challenges to the successful realisation of the OPAL aim in all schools. This evaluation identifies some of the factors that can contribute to successful realisation of the aim.

Given the importance of play in children’s lives and current concerns about children’s opportunity to access time and space to initiate their own play outdoors, there are considerable benefits for children, parents, schools and the wider community from participation in the OPAL programme. The design of OPAL establishes some clear guiding principles and strategies for initiating changes to playtime. The programme is thorough and practical and has been trialled, developed and modified through implementation with schools. The results can be transformational and spectacular at best, and show progress even in more challenging school environments. Changes are not exclusively reliant on large capital investment and encourage creativity and responsiveness to local conditions and needs.

OPAL supports schools in developing a cultural shift in thinking about and supporting children’s play. Its success emanates from a series of interrelated actions, with continuous specialist support from the South Gloucestershire Council Play (SGC) Adviser, that embed play in policies and practices. It is this feature that is likely to sustain the approach beyond the initial impetus and keep play at the heart of school developments.

Schools, as local community based provision in which children spend a considerable amount of time, are responsible for the education and wellbeing of the whole child and, given the importance of play in children’s lives, have a responsibility to ensure sufficient time and space is made available for play within the school day and beyond. Given the reported benefits from participation, the OPAL programme is also worthy of consideration for wider application across South Gloucestershire and other Local Authorities, independent schools and academies.

Policy implications

In the current public spending climate, and given the Coalition Government’s moves towards devolution of power and community-based budgeting, we feel it is important to note that:

a) OPAL does not require large amounts of (central) funding, and many of the improvements it can engender can be achieved at little cost (for example, changing the rules about how children use open play areas in school grounds or making use of old or decommissioned school and household resources for play). A range of funding sources has been used by schools, from school budgets to fundraising by parents and other local funding possibilities.

b) OPAL is very much about pump priming school capacity to become self-sufficient and self-directing in how they support play in schools rather than imposing a central system on them. What is important is the culture change; changes to physical features and time and space made available for play need not be costly.

c) Schools are significant community resources and, for some schools, participation in the OPAL process has both increased parental involvement in schools through involvement in design, contributing materials and so on and also offered a valuable play space for other organisations, with, for example, grounds being used for community-run holiday playschemes and after-school clubs.

Research shows that play contributes to children’s physical and emotional health, well-being, approach to learning, and enjoyment of school. Projects like OPAL, that pay attention to the conditions that encourage and support children’s ability to play in schools, can reap benefits for children, schools, local communities and society more generally.
Dr Owain Jones – University of West of England
Dr Staurt Lester – University of Gloucestershire
Dr Wendy Russell – University of Gloucestershire