There was a time when outdoor play equipment meant metal structures, long slides and swings. While there is still a place for this, especially for older children, outdoor equipment for the very young should stretch the imagination as well as the body, say the experts.
Colourful engines, tunnels, boats and houses linked with slides, walkways and climbing poles have replaced sterile metal frames in city parks and in the past decade this equipment has also started to appear in nursery school playgrounds. Scandinavian and German designs in particular are popular and with increasing focus on nursery education and the growth of the nursery private sector, it is a market which looks set to grow.
Fifteen years ago the London borough of Barnet fitted its four nursery schools with a range of large play equipment by Kompan, one of the market leaders in the field. Similar equipment is available from several manufacturers.
One school, Hampden Way nursery, installed an engine at the time and a few years later added a carriage and a castle, a structure which contains a hut, slides and a space with built-in benches and a table, plus other little hidey-holes. Even though the equipment is expensive, the current acting head, Ann Savage, thinks it is a good buy. "Children get a lot out of it," she says. "It becomes anything they want, not just a train or castle, and they use every nook and cranny."
"Outside play is just as important as inside," she adds. "Work done inside is also done outside in a different way - on a larger scale."
She emphasises the importance of "large-scale movement" which is encouraged by such structures. "There is more and more evidence that children who don't have experience of large-scale movement, which involves the whole body, will find finer movements, such as those used in handwriting, harder."
The wooden engine at Hampden Way is now showing signs of rot, but 15 years is not bad for a piece of wood constantly exposed to the elements. In retrospect, Ann Savage thinks the school could have paid more attention to maintenance. (Kompan advises regular cleaning and checking and recommends that if something should go wrong, the buyer come back to them).
Down the road, St Margaret's nursery school is equally enthusiastic about its engine and castle. "They encourage just about every kind of play and are good for physical development and socialisation, as so many children can play together on them," headteacher Jennie Scott says.
She also finds that their size and solidity challenge the children physically, more than equipment which is brought out from inside. This to her justifies having fixed equipment. But she points out that the major commercial companies are not the only source of large fixed outdoor play equipment.
St Margaret's recently acquired a large, two-storey, chalet-style playhouse, built by a local craftsman. It cost just over Pounds 1,400 compared with around Pounds 2,400 (plus installation) for the Kompan engine and Pounds 3,700 for the castle. On the day I visited, there was certainly a lot of imaginative play going on inside the child-size house. Two small "batmen" had saved a baby (doll) from a villain and brought her there safekeeping, while elsewhere two children were taking tea.
Jennie Scott is confident that the playhouse will last for years, as it was made by a master craftsman with experience of large structures for children. But in terms of safety and wear, Elsa Davies, director of the National Playing Fields Association, advises schools in general to be careful of the "do-it-yourself" approach.
"Equipment has got to be well structured. Safety is paramount and you have to make sure that entrapments (gaps in which children could get their head or other parts of their body caught) are not built in." The NPFA offers advice on play equipment and will do safety inspections for a reasonable fee.
Products from the commercial companies seem very expensive, she says, but their trade body works with the NPFA on setting safety standards and the companies are probably more aware of safety issues. Moreover, many products were designed for use in parks where they were subject to much more intensive wear than in nursery schools and to a much greater risk of vandalism.
Either way, schools should be careful. The recommended safety standards are set out in British Standard 5696:1.2.3 (l986), which suggests a code of practice for installation and maintenance. Impact-absorbent surfaces should also be provided at least around items from which children may fall. A well-illustrated wallchart highlighting the essential aspects of this standard is available from SMP Playground Ltd.
"Children get the most value from this sort of equipment if they have the freedom to express their imaginations," says Elsa Davies. And she adds a warning: "Most importantly schools should still allow a lot of room for children to run and play."
* The National Playing Fields Association, 25 Ovington Square, London SW3 1LJ. SMP Playground Ltd, Pound Road, Chertsey, Surrey KT16 8EJ.