Looking for the great outdoors

Carol Raby

Trienna Combination play package, Pounds 2,249.83

Large pixie house, veranda and usptairs Pounds 1,170.05

Large sandbox with roof and posts Pounds 796.60

Enclosing panels Pounds 31.09

Age range: 2-5 years, Timberline, Foxwood Industrial Park, Foxwood Road, Sheepbridge, Chesterfield S41 9RN Tel: 01246 454484

Work and play, learning and pleasure can be brought together with the right playground environment. Carol Raby reports. How many of us remember the tarmac wasteland of our school playgrounds, where only negative conclusions were drawn from being put out to play in barren, boring conditions? Work and play were separated and the fact that play is an essential aid for learning, largely ignored.

Nowadays when planning the learning environment, we spend time, effort and money in developing opportunities for learning through play in the indoor context, but still tend not to place the same amount of time planning the outdoor environment.

Yet inspection schedule guidance emphasises the importance of nine key areas of experience, including the physical, and Her Majesty's Inspectors recommend that experiences should take account of children's appetite for play. It is essential therefore to provide an environment where children can extend skills, discover capabilities, investigate, co-operate, make decisions and refine motor skills.

HMI clearly states that there should be ample opportunity within the learning programme for very young children "to practice and improve the skills of running, jumping, climbing, balancing, using large and small apparatus with confidence and control".

This recognises that young children constantly experiment, develop the limits of their mental and physical world. Through play, they learn about life.

At the Montessori Nursery School in Sheffield, emphasis has been placed on providing a well-resourced outdoor classroom. Indeed, the passer-by cannot fail to spot its location as it is resplendent with the latest colourful, exciting equipment produced by Timberline. Headteacher Judy Fearnehough is fortunate in that her husband, Tony, is director of the company which produces Timberline equipment.

Moreover, it is here at the school that the latest range of playhouses, swings, slides, tunnels, swing bridges, climbing frames and sand pits can be seen. This is much to the benefit of the fortunate children and the delighted parents, some of whom selected their children's present school partly on the basis of the quality of its outdoor provision.

The most significant advantage of Timberline equipment is that it it is modular and has been modified and adapted to suit the needs of nursery-age children. It is constructed with the small child's needs very much at the heart of the planning and design process. As far as Tony Fearnehough is aware, it is the only equipment of this kind available for the very young child.

Another advantage for schools with restricted budgets is that of cost. Timberline prides itself on keeping prices competitive, but never at the expense of quality, durability or safety.

A specific example is the latest Trienna combination, scaled down for children aged two to five years and consisting of three towers, two lower platform dens (in which children enjoy hiding), two sets of five-tread steps, a three-metre slide, a swing bridge and a tunnel bridge all for under Pounds 2,000 including delivery and installation (plus VAT).

Timberline's Pixie House is also proving popular. Its main features are its spaciousness, an inviting frontage complete with garden veranda and a real "upstairs". A large sandbox complete with roof proves also to be popular. Children love the feeling of being in a house when making pies and cakes irrespective of weather.

Attractive marine-ply enclosure panels are a new feature and, placed around the perimeter of a play-bark area, not only invite children to play, but also have the decided advantage of keeping dogs and cats out. Incidentally, environmentalists will be pleased to know that all the hardwoods used (sapele, African mahogany and eucalyptus) are obtained from managed plantations with full replanting schemes.

It is pleasing to see small children contentedly absorbed in play. The session seemed to run itself entirely, enabling adults to interact appropriately while challenging, extending and supporting the children when necessary.

This is real proof that when the quality of play provision is high, well-suited to development and designed to provide sufficient challenges and opportunities appropriate to the abilities and needs of the children, a relaxed atmosphere of contentment exudes and learning takes place.

During the entire morning session, I saw not one act of aggressive behaviour. I interviewed the children when it was possible to entice them away from what had been totally absorbing activities, and asked them on what they had most enjoyed playing.

By majority verdict, tunnels, bridges, sand houses, slides and swings came top of the list. I left with enthusiastic youngsters still discussing their favourites, and heard Victoria, Jake and Elizabeth summing it up on everyone's behalf: "We like everything."

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