Esh Winning Primary School

Name: Caroline Hodgson

Position in School: Headteacher

Name of school: Esh Winning Primary School Durham

Still in programme or award level: Still in programme

Why did you begin your OPAL journey?

Our OPAL journey began in 2015 when our previous deputy headteacher heard about the positive effect OPAL was having in other schools. Playtimes and lunchtimes were very basic with not many opportunities for the children to participate in good quality play which led to many disagreements and accidents on the playground. Our lunchtime supervisors were constantly having to deal with unwanted behaviour. This was also then impacting on afternoon learning due to having to resolve lunchtime disagreements.

We knew we were fortunate to have the space to be able to create a play environment where the children could thrive, so we contacted the OPAL team, and our journey began.

What were playtimes like before OPAL?

Prior to OPAL, play was very different at Esh Winning Primary. Each key stage had their own part of the playground and children could not mix with different age groups. Resources were very limited, key stage one had a trim trail and some markings on the pavement, and key stage two had lots of space, however, it was not used in a way that the children could have a choice of where to play. This led to many accidents and disagreements on the playground as there were lots of children in one space. Staff were dealing with incidents more and more each day.

There was also a ruling at one point (prior to my time!), where children were not ‘allowed’ to run outside due to the number of collisions that were occurring.

What impact has OPAL had on your children’s:

  • Mental Health
  • Physical Development
  • Social and emotional Development
  • Skill building
  • Resilience

OPAL has helped our children to build their confidence and develop their resilience. Every child now enjoys active playtimes, and all children have many opportunities to build friendships with different age groups. Providing a rich play environment allows the children to develop skills and evaluate their own risks.  Our playground is a hive of activity which aids the wellbeing of our children.

What has the impact been overall on your school community?

As a whole school community, we are delighted with all aspects that OPAL has brought to our school. Witnessing all our children being immersed in good quality play and developing vital skills is very rewarding. Children feel they have a voice and it is listened to, which creates a sense of belonging. Playtimes are very enjoyable for children and staff.

Can you share an example of the positive effect this has had on a child’s life at your school?

Our children look forward to break times and lunchtimes. Providing an environment where each child can have free choice has built their confidence. One specific child does not like noise or crowds within school. They tend to shy away from other children. The first day we introduced boom box Friday this said child was on the field, singing and dancing with all the other children. They led a conga line through the playground. The confidence this child had shown was unbelievable.

Our children have built a rapport with our play team. They do not see or value them any less than the teaching staff within the building. A very anxious child explained to one of the play team about worries they had, as they felt they could talk to them in confidence. This led to the play team member of staff discussing the child’s concerns with their teacher which then led to interventions taking place.

Have attendance levels improved at all during this period?

As the national picture shows, attendance continues to be a country-wide concern.

Has the behaviour of your children improved?

Yes. The children now have space and equipment to play with which keeps them engaged throughout the whole of lunchtime/playtime. This has resulted in a change of behaviours prior to OPAL.

Teaching staff have commented that the children are more focused and ready to learn after play which benefits everyone. Our play team is now able to play and engage with the children rather than having to ‘police’ the playground as the children's behaviours are now focused on play rather than disruption.

Have you seen a decline in accidents and incidents at playtime?

Before OPAL was introduced the children had limited space which led to many bumps and disagreements. Now they can access all our grounds, each zone does not get overcrowded which has led to a decline in accidents. It is a playground, so accidents are going to happen, but since OPAL was introduced there has definitely been a decline in how many accidents occur.

How do your staff feel about playtimes?

Playtimes and lunchtimes used to be a source of anxiety, where children and staff were on high alert for negative engagements.

However, there has been positive feedback from our teaching staff about how our outdoor times are more relaxed and enjoyable. Our lunchtime play team is fully on board with our OPAL play. They enjoy lunchtimes as much as the children do.

Do you feel your play offer is inclusive? If yes, how?

Absolutely. Our OPAL working group regularly meets to discuss each aspect of play we provide for the children ensuring our play environment is inclusive to all. The children can fill in our OPAL suggestions slips, which allows them to suggest items or equipment they would like to have in the playground. Our school council members collect and discuss these suggestions with our play leader on a weekly basis.

There are no restrictions within our school grounds. Each child can freely choose where they want to play and who they play with.  We have created an enriched environment where the children are the driving force behind every decision.

Do you feel your parent engagement has improved?

Yes! We are very fortunate to have parents that support us with OPAL. Our parents understand why we facilitate the play process and what benefits it has for their children. We invite parents/carers to come to family learning days where they can see what our playtimes entail. We are now at a stage where our parents/carers understand their child may come home dirty, but they understand how much enjoyment their child is having at school. It is fantastic to hear parents/carers talking about their children being involved in OPAL and being able to assess their own risks!

What has been a firm favourite play space?

Every time we introduce a new area or provide new equipment, this becomes the new favourite thing to do. Our MUGA is very popular to play sports and our large field with the loose parts is usually very busy. We have recently introduced ‘Feel Good Fridays’ where we bring a huge speaker outside for the children to dance to music which, now, is a firm favourite. Our wooded area is also very popular.

As an OPAL honours school you have managed to maintain sustain quality playtimes, how has this been possible?

Communication is key to making sure our OPAL play is continuously being developed further. Having strong, enthusiastic staff who understand why OPAL is such an important part of our school day is vital. We are pleased to say OPAL has changed all our outdoor space and the way we think about play as a whole school.

What would you say to a school who was thinking about starting OPAL?

Do it! OPAL has transformed our whole school. We would recommend the OPAL Primary Programme to other schools that are wanting to ensure all children get access to good quality play. It does have its challenges, but the impact has been phenomenal. Take it a step at a time and don’t expect everything to happen overnight. Eventually it will all come together.

Communication and shared responsibility are key. It is amazing how many different staff become involved in OPAL and the continued determination to ensure this high-quality provision is embedded. Share the vision with all of the staff, pupils, parents and governors and keep revisiting the aims and objectives so that, even through the more challenging of times, everyone can see the enormous and lifelong benefits of OPAL.

What does being an OPAL honours school mean?

Being an OPAL honours school shows how we value and appreciate play. It has taken us many years, but we are overjoyed that we are now recognised for the play environment we have created which all our children experience every day. This remains a commitment from all of our staff, governors, pupils and parents and we are very proud to have achieved this award.

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