A divide-and-rule play plan

Splitting playgrounds into zones can aid childhood development

We used to have a pretty normal playground set-up at our pre-preparatory school in Sao Paolo. But, back in 2010, we decided to revolutionise it.

In order to allow more opportunities for play, exploration, creativity and critical thinking, which are key to childhood development, we addressed the quality of provision for play in our school grounds.

Over several months, the staff met frequently. Using the book Positive Playtimes: exciting ideas for a calmer school (Jenny Mosley and Georgia Thorp, 2005), we shared ideas on how to transform the playground into a more child-friendly and play-orientated space.

Eventually, we came up with a plan. We would adapt the playground to provide areas in which children could play freely, but we would also include zones focused on different types of play and exploration. We settled on 12 zones:

traditional games zone: contains a box of toys and a booklet of games and activities;

quiet zone: an area where children can calm down, read books and play board games;

mark-making zone: contains tables where pupils can work on a variety of creative projects;

action games zone: for the playing of active games;

craze-of-the-week zone: an area offering different toys for children to explore;

role-play zone: does what it says on the tin;

costume zone: for dressing up;

healing zone: where children who are feeling unwell can sit and rest;

four free zones: apparatus includes sand and water tanks, houses, climbing frames and slides.

Once the playground had been overhauled, we tasked teachers and assistants with observing and interacting with children while they are at play - valuable information about their social and emotional well-being can be gleaned from these moments. Other adults are on duty to supervise the children and ensure their health and safety, enabling teachers and assistants to get on with their task.

Six of the zones are continually monitored; the member of staff on duty teaches children how to get the most out of the activities. We allow pupils to explore the whole playground during playtime. They can choose where they want to go and move freely between all areas and zones.

Honing the zoning

We did experience some teething problems. It soon became clear that we needed to teach the children what each zone was about; it was also necessary to establish rules of behaviour for every zone. To solve these problems, we produced a handbook describing the playground area, the zones, the resources and the rules. We revise the handbook on a yearly basis.

Another issue was staff engagement. We now understand the need for a culture of learning among staff. Next time we embark on a project such as this, we will ensure that staff share a common vision about the purpose of the project and its role in the development and well-being of the children - and its role in the teachers' own CPD.

Four years on, and with these issues ironed out, our aim of creating a safe environment that promotes essential childhood development has, we believe, been achieved.

Anne Taffin d'Heursel-Baldisseri is head of the pre-preparatory school and Cristina Polisaitis Oliveira is pre-preparatory PE teacher at St Paul's School in Sao Paolo, Brazil

10 ways to play

1 Olympic effort

Host an Olympics in your playground using these ideas from Send a Cow Education on how to create games out of recycled materials.


2 Literacy in the Hood

Adapt these clues to suit your school grounds, then reinforce positional language as pupils explore their surroundings in search of Little Red Riding Hood.


3 Woodland wonders

Combine outdoor learning and play with this Teachers TV video on class trips to nearby forests.


4 Rules of play

Support children with social and behavioural difficulties at breaktimes and lunch with this playtime success kit.


5 Provision aplenty

Display these extensive planning and information documents in your playground to inform staff and students about outdoor provision.


6 Retro games

Do away with all the equipment and go back to basics with these flashcards, which offer ideas to bring old favourites back into the playground.


7 Take the lead

Encourage independent learning and promote participation with these documents that cover outdoor environment planning - with a fairy-tale theme.


8 Al fresco arithmetic

Are your students in need of a breath of fresh air? Take maths and numeracy learning outside with this selection of activities and strategies.


9 Child's play

Use these templates to plan ideas for child-initiated enhanced provision for outdoor learning.


10 Keen observers

Inspire pupil observation with this comprehensive resource for exploring local habitats.


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