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


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 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

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.

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