As the Mad March School Budget Holder hares towards the end of the financial year, the race often involves a task that under different circumstances would be a real pleasure: spending money.
That last minute rush to spend left over budget - yes, even in these seriously straitened times, some schools and settings have a little bit of underspend - is rarely fun, because lurking in the back of the mind is the fear that by immersing yourself in catalogue and website panic buying, you might not be purchasing resources that will really make a difference to outcomes for your children.
In our experience, it’s often outdoors that feels the ‘benefit’ (I use the word advisedly) of the underspend, with Headteachers and Managers gazing critically at the playground or garden and wondering whether a fancy-pants piece of play equipment could answer their outdoor play and last minute budget dilemmas in one fell swoop. Top tip: it really won’t be.
Let us instead offer a practical and realistic process to help you focus on ordering outdoor resources. This list is by no means a substitute for a proper, well thought out and carefully paced development programme – which ideally would involve talking to children, exploring the way your site is used in some detail and over several weeks and undertaking consultations and investigations to identify where the gaps in provision are, outdoors. But these ideas could help you concertina some of this work into an intense period of research followed by a sensible, purposeful campaign of last minute spending that will result in the delivery of resources and materials that will make the most of the potential of outdoors.
Put a temporary halt on the buying
Inventory what you already have outdoors
If you can get hold of a plan of your site (a Google Earth aerial view would do) print it at A3 and mark on the resources and features you already have – such as storage units, planted areas, play equipment, sandpits, etc.
Make a list of the resources available for outdoor play, noting down whether they ‘live’ outdoors (for example in a shed or in the grounds) or are brought outdoors from indoors.
Identify what children are doing outdoors.
Use an observation tool you are comfortable with (feel free to try ours!) to observe and record how children are using the space and the resources available to them. Think about affordances– how children use places, spaces and equipment in ways other than those they were ‘designed’ to be used for.
Analyse your observation notes and photographs: what did children appear to be enjoying the most? Where did conflict arise – and why? Which areas are over-popular and which are barely used? Why? What sort of condition are the resources and spaces outdoors in? What does this tell children about how your school or setting values their play spaces?
Ask yourself, “What do I want children to be able to DO outdoors?”
And don’t ask, “what do I want them to have?” – at least, not yet. Examine the objectives you have for this cohort of children. What are you trying to achieve with them? What are their and your goals? Where are there gaps in provision? What could outdoors provide that indoors simply can’t?
List the types of activity or play or learning you’d like children to be able to experience outdoors – for example you might identify that mark making is weak and that outdoors could contribute to improvements. Or opportunities to be agile might be few, so places and spaces to balance, climb, jump, build strength and co-ordination might be needed. Could your children benefit from places to play in small groups, or to act out stories, or reconnect with the natural world? Do they need somewhere to make noise or exercise their whole bodies? Are there elements of your curriculum that could be enriched by being taken outdoors?
If you can, encapsulate this in a sentence that describes your aspirations for outdoors – what you write shouldn’t be too dissimilar to your school or setting’s overall aspirations. After all, outdoors should be contributing to children’s development, learning and wellbeing in the same way indoors is expected to do.
Establish how you could meet these needs with new resources (and specifically, resources you can order very soon!) and make a ‘long list’.
Examine each item in your list of activities / learning you’d like children to be able to experience outdoors. What kind of resources would lend themselves to supporting this learning or play? Think about the development of key skills and where there might be opportunities for resources to meet more than one set of needs. Open ended resources such as loose parts items are more likely to do this than items with fixed or specific uses.
Brainstorm two or three different ways you could fulfil EACH of the needs you identified above. As an example, if the priority is to develop children’s communication and language skills, or their creativity, resources to enable role-play outdoors could meet this need. So a timber playhouse would help, but so would a really excellent den building kit, or a CD player and basket full of clothes, fabric, storybooks and props sourced from jumbles sales and charity shops. These options come with very different price tags!
Research costs and logistics for your ‘long list’ of resources.
Okay, you can return to the catalogues and websites now! But this time you’re armed with a clear vision for what you need to buy – and importantly, WHY you need to buy it. Knowing the rationale behind your spending spree means you are far more likely to end up with resources you’re still using in six months’ time, a year’s time, five years’ time.
Think about open-ended resources; think about sharing resources with colleagues; think about storage (Where will all this ‘stuff’ go? How will children access it?); think about sustainability (Will it need to be replenished? How often, and how much will it cost?); think about maintenance of the resources (How do we care for it? Who will do this? How much will it cost?); think about their management (Should I risk benefit assess this resource? Does its use need supervision?)
Check with colleagues that you aren’t doubling up on resources you could possibly share (or that they already have). If you’re ordering several of something or lots of things from one supplier, be cheeky and email or call the them first and ask for a bulk discount – as we say up north, ‘shy bairns get nowt’. The worst the supplier can say is ‘no’.
Now order your goodies and enjoy!
That’s something of a whistle stop tour of tragedy-free catalogue ordering, but it should be possible to do all of this over the course of a week. The inventory and observation bits will take longest and it is important to get them right, as they provide the foundations for your decision-making and subsequent spending. You might also find PLL Jules’ book The Little Book of Free and Found useful, as it’s all about making use of begged, borrowed, acquired, donated and home-made resources.
These two excellent advice notes by Learning through Landscapes – one for Early Years settings and one for Schools – will help you think about making better use of outdoors, whatever your budget.
If you are in the enviable position of not having to spend a budget in the next two weeks, and would like to explore outdoor learning and play at a more measured pace, please do get in touch with us. We would be delighted to talk to you about how we can help you, your colleagues and, vitally, your children make the most of the potential of outdoors to contribute to better learning and play outcomes.