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Getting the Most Out of Your School Grounds

Some tips and tricks to begin a successful outdoor play and learning classroom.

Kids run in the snow.

Published on February 01, 2019

The Limestone District School Board (LDSB) recently partnered with Evergreen to develop school ground greening guidelines. As part of this work Evergreen is helping to develop a set of guiding principles and design considerations that will support Loose Parts integration in school grounds. We drew from our collective work with educators, design associates and—of course—children to create this new content.

We found that Loose Parts could be crucial to the success of outdoor play-learning environments and bring educators outside. The following lessons will show how loose parts can add value to your space, whether you have an established loose parts program or you're looking to bring loose parts into your classroom.

Start Small and Keep It Simple

Some of the most successful loose parts programs we discussed started very small. A few natural materials (wood cookies, branches, leaves) and some tools (buckets, watering cans, trowels) were often the starting point. The key to these programs were establishing a routine for storing, monitoring and introducing materials to students. Once a solid foundation was established, programs grew and developed organically with more materials and more complex activities phased in over time. Further, as programs grew, educators were better able to identify what school ground assets were and what they needed to support loose parts programs.

Many agree that the more important element was storage. We found budgeting for a larger (usually bigger than initially needed) outdoor unit was a great investment. Even better if this storage was close to where the loose parts programming would take place. This reduced setup and cleanup times while providing extra space for programs to grow.

Flexible Spaces Were Key

Another key finding was that fixed components (seating, stages, shade structures, raised planters, activity boards) could limit the use of a space for programmatic activities and were cost prohibitive for many. This is especially true in urban sites and early years areas with limited space or larger rural sites with limited funds. Our experiences found that simple well-shaded spaces with a balance of hard (asphalt, concrete, unit pavers, limestone screenings) and soft (soil, mulch, lawn, safety surfacing, planting) surfacing were the most affective. The provision of unprogrammed open areas with suitable surfacing provided flexibility for the development of loose parts programs.  It allowed educators and children to create the spaces that best suited them by using moveable components. If given suitable materials (sheets, tarps, cardboard, wood planks, wood poles) children created temporary shelters, playhouses, walls and impromptu stages bringing the simplest spaces to life.

Additionally, plantings could be added using stock tanks, large planters and small pots to create temporary gardens, grow edible plants or provide structure to a space while allowing the flexibility to move, remove and redesign continuously. Further, having adequate storage allowed for folding tables, chairs, easels and other movable site furnishing that supported programs requiring stable working surfaces while not limiting educators from removing these items for larger construction projects.

So, focus on providing shade and adequate storage. Then start small with a few items to test out how children engage with your space and work with children to establish criteria for successful activities. As you and your students learn, what does and does not work, integrate larger and more complex loose parts. Then watch as your school ground comes alive!