Engaging Children In Design – Loose Parts used in school grounds design projects

“Felicity really helped us all to understand the practical implications of the decisions we were making through a hands-on and engaging process.” – Deputy Head

Loose parts can be used very effectively to engage children and staff in school grounds design projects, both as a problem-solving tool and as a way to find out the key needs of the children.

Children in playground Children in a small group
Using loose parts to set up experimental zones in large-scale design projects.

In one major re-design project at a primary school, loose parts were used for an ‘experimental playground’ day where all the children and staff were involved in a complete re-imagining of play and playtimes during morning break and lunchtime. The children were asked to use any of the resources to play. A wide range of non-specific loose parts were used (such as boxes, tubes, mobile frames, chairs, stage blocks, rugs, carpet tiles, tyres etc) as well as fabrics, props, books, games mats etc…Sufficient for the whole school at lunch break!

Carpet tube archway
Loose parts used as construction resources to ‘problem solve” and design small-scale interventions. Here, carpet tubes were used to make a threshold archway to define the entrance to a quieter playground zone.

No other prompts were given, but careful observation and conversations with the children aimed to find out what sort of places they needed in this hitherto barren featureless tarmac play space. Territoriality was frequently observed, and the creation of quiet chat spots, or group gathering places (with associated imaginative play) along with physical challenges etc. From this and further engagement with children and staff the KPIs for the re-design were established, (within which regular loose parts play could also be provided of course) At a later date the principle zones of the design itself were also mapped out for a week (see photos) so the school could get a feel for the spaces created before committing to major changes.

Planning markers on the ground
Using PE cones and hazard tape used to plan, imagine, discuss and make decisions about paths and new features in a woodland garden.

Grils planning new play structure
Planning a new play structure, how much space will it take up? How many children can play on it? Lots to think about, measure and discuss…

In smaller projects loose parts are also frequently used as ‘problem solving’ resources, where children experiment with ideas, and test solutions to issues they have identified in their playgrounds. For example, in one school a quiet area was anything but quiet! Children used it as a ‘had’ home base disrupting any chat or other social play that was going on there. Experimenting with loose parts led the children to the solution of creating some boundaries to the place, and a variety of ways to access the space that slowed children down and were also fun, (such as a stile). This is just one example of many.

Yr 5 water workshop Yr 5 water workshopThe problem here was water flooding into the school building, so the task was to experiment with ideas for how to prevent this. Much wet fun was had by all, lots of cooperation and team working took place, a bit of science was learned too! Result! Wet one side and dry on the other (almost)


To develop your outdoor learning and school grounds get in touch
with Felicity on 07968 771582 or email info@landscapesnaturally.co.uk

Brackenbury Primary. ‘Chatterboxes’ – A case study in curriculum delivery through grounds development

“When children are involved it helps to engage all the school community – parents and teachers are more aware of the details of a project because of what they see the children do. ” – Headteacher

Identifying problems, designing solutions, safe use of wood carving tools, 2D and 3D shape recognition, social and emotional development, habitats and plants, microclimates, insulation, and more… Learning outdoors to deliver a ‘real world’ project engaged the children enthusiastically. “We are one of the luckiest schools on the planet.” said a Year 4 pupil.

Using Lego for problem solving Wood carving with Felicity
Using Lego for problem solving – Wood carving with Felicity


This grounds development, at a London Primary school, was delivered through the active involvement of Year 3 and Year 4 classes in the design and implementation of the project. The grounds required a “Master Plan’ for development over several years, as the funds available were small. The school was very keen to ensure that they spent the money wisely and within the context of an overview of the long term so each small project fitted into a coherent plan.

Inspecting the sedum before installation Testing wind protection ideas
Inspecting the sedum before installation – Testing wind protection ideas


Landscapes Naturally worked with the whole school community to develop the brief and generate a shared understanding of their aims and aspirations for outdoor learning and play. Agreeing priorities for first stage delivery involved a good degree of debate!

Children in school council were also involved in identifying key issues and opportunities in the grounds, and were actively involved in developing solutions, such as wind protection planting around the stage, as well as new fencing to improve the functionality of this place.

Year 3 and Yr4 were key classes involved in curriculum linked tasks that contributed to the implementation of the scheme.

Green roof shelter Shady chatterboxes on a sunny day
Green roof shelter – Shady chatterboxes on a sunny day


“I am sure you will all agree this is an exciting and wonderful experience where learning becomes fun”…So began a speech by one of the children when they spoke at the ‘opening’ event to celebrate the completion of planters, mini forest, stage, shade, & play resources. These quotes from the children’s presentations at the event illustrate the difference it has made to the children involved in the project. “It’s fun learning outside’ “We can eat what we grow for healthy snacks’ ‘The wood carving for the stage area was hard and fun’ “Now we have more places to chat together’

Staff have been delighted with the outcomes of the project the ‘ownership’ of the children, and the changes to play and behavior at break times now that there are a variety of quieter areas for social and imaginative play.

Finished chatterboxes stage and plants Carved posts ready for installation
Finished chatterboxes stage and plants – Carved posts ready for installation

An evaluation conversation with Head and Deputy Head at Brackenbury Primary school, 2015

A long term supportive relationship over several years has guided some significant changes in the playground. Here’s what they said about Felicity Robinson, Landscapes Naturally.

What do you value about the support I give to your projects?
An expert’s eye! Whilst we will have a clear idea of what we want to achieve with a space (the need it will fill, for example) we don’t always have the skills or knowledge to design it in detail to maximise the impact on pupils. Having worked with lots of other schools, your experiences of things that have worked (or not!) help us to reach final decisions. This may include planting, materials, communicating with parents – any of the far-reaching implications of project design and management. Not least, helping with the applications for grants.

I have worked with you over a number of years, what has been the impact on the children, over time, of the changes we have made to the playground?
The biggest impact is that our playground is used more for outdoor learning by teachers and pupils. The changes have made it more interesting and interactive for pupils. The focus has been on creating attractive, durable, versatile areas that can be used for both independent play (such as at breaktimes) and for adult-led activities (such as when a teacher takes a class outside for their lesson). The children have also been consulted and involved at different stages and therefore feel an ‘ownership’ of the changes.

How would you describe what I do, to other schools?
Creative, practical design and engaging the children in outdoor learning. You listen to what the school’s needs are and help them to implement projects that will develop their playgrounds.

To what extent has the engagement of the children been a useful addition to the process?
When children are involved it helps to engage all the school community – parents and teachers are more aware of the details of a project because of what they see the children do. ‘Pupil voice’ is very important to us as a school, so involving them in the consultation and design stages are a way of reinforcing the message that this is a community school where all opinions are valued. The wood carving workshops were fantastic because we have pupils playing on and around equipment being able to say “I made that!”

Staff quotes

To develop your outdoor learning and school grounds get in touch
with Felicity on 07968 771582 or email info@landscapesnaturally.co.uk

Nature Lab Scientist in Residence project

“This project was particularly successful in its impact on the children’s learning” Leesa Shoonerman” – Headteacher


The purpose of the project was to engage a class of children in a hands-on project to turn an unused, forgotten space into an outdoor Nature Lab for cross curricular use that would benefit the whole school. We were keen to involve the children at all stages of the project including site surveying, assessment, identification of issues and generation of solutions.

For the project to be successful it was essential that the children also took an active part in decision making and practical tasks to transform the space – after all this was their project!


The budget for the whole project was £10,000 – this was to include the workshop fees, materials and bought in labour for some small elements of the scheme that required it.

Landscapes Naturally’s role was to lead and support the key teaching staff, team teaching as far as possible. We devised the lesson plans in full consultation with staff, set up and ran the sessions (team teaching as appropriate) and helped to provide the resources to deliver each lesson.

Every fortnight was “Nature Lab Wednesday” and this soon became a day that the children looked forward to immensely and over the duration of the project we built up a close working relationship.



Throughout the project they learnt key aspects of science, numeracy and learning skills. Things like…

  • Vocabulary and concepts – use of materials, rocks, erosion, changing state of materials (making concrete), layers in soil, rainbows and the refraction of light, indigo, violet, colour mixing, camouflage, food web/chain, friction and much more!
  • Skill development – problem solving, evaluation, negotiation, measuring, decision making, use of tools etc…


But don’t take our word for it, here is a selection of comments from Year 6 (spelling has been altered):

“I enjoyed experimenting things outside. It is lots of fun and it is exciting.”

“I learnt that every action has a reaction. It was fun because it was very exciting. The only thing I didn’t like was the smell!” (Vinegar)

“I leant about forces, and I liked the bottle races.”

“It was very fun and I want to do it again.”

To develop your outdoor learning and school grounds get in touch
with Felicity on 07968 771582 or email info@landscapesnaturally.co.uk

From Design to Reality Case Study


The project (which ran over 1.5 years) was to develop the long term Master Plan for the school site and to deliver phase 1. The key to success here was a school that is committed to using the whole process of “design & build” to engage the staff and children and to deliver hands-on practical and purposeful learning embedded within the curriculum.


Surveying , assessment and measuring


“It is amazing how everything she does with the children is part of the real design. She is taking the children’s ideas, really studies them and makes them into proper professional plans. I think it is very very good.” SMT comment quoted from Creative Partnerships Evaluation.

Many schools have a clear “wish list” already but most also need some additional support to explore new ideas, and to discuss the implications for how the site is used, (play and learning), maintained and managed. This project engaged the whole school community to develop the long term Master Plan through a series of workshops, modelling and experimental sessions. Phase 1 (prioritised democratically by the children) was to design and build the adventure/physical challenge area.

The photos give you a flavour of the work undertaken..and the quotes give feedback on the impact of this work.


Design and Experimentation


Building (thanks Touchwood!!)


“This whole project has exceeded my expectations. We wanted the children to have a voice , but they have had much more than that. Felicity has engaged them in the whole process, from site analysis, needs assessment and design, so they, and the staff too, now have a better understanding of “place” and the benefits of questioning and experimenting before making design decisions.”


Enjoying the finished adventure & den area

“The result is a purposeful, rich learning and play environment that we are continuing to develop. We have not had the grounds done TO us but WITH us and this process has made us work collaboratively, governors, staff, children, parents together.”

“It’s been brilliant working with Felicity because she has the knowledge to design and build outdoor spaces but also she takes the children along with her making them part of the whole process from designing to building. That’s a rare skill; it brings the children at the heart of the work.”

“For more about this story please click the “Model for Success!” article.

To develop your outdoor learning and school grounds get in touch
with Felicity on 07968 771582 or email info@landscapesnaturally.co.uk

Modelling ideas and PSHE Case Study

“Felicity understands how children learn” – Senior LEA Learning and Teaching advisor


Schools often identify issues in their grounds, from playtime behaviour problems, “quiet areas” that are not quiet, football dominating the playground, the need for shade/shelter etc. Landscapes Naturally can help you develop solutions to issues, layouts and designs using modelling to make the process easier and more inclusive.



Children and staff together develop and test ideas in a fun outdoor workshop supported by Landscapes Naturally, an experienced landscape architect. The budget for this can range from a few hundred pounds for one day advice and workshop with school council, to a series of workshops over a longer time scale involving all teaching/support staff, children and the whole school community.

Children of all ages use a wide range of materials provided by Landscapes Naturally, and gleaned from the school site, to address a specific need, or discuss experiences that are missing in their play and learning environment and start to develop ideas to making changes to their site. Every workshop is recorded with a photo story and/or video to contribute to the next steps in the decision making process, which Landscapes Naturally also supports, as required.


Experience to date shows that SMT members praise the process for its creativity in engaging the school community, the children have fun and the staff feel listened to and valued. Specific curriculum content is often included in the workshops, planned in advance with class teachers.

Using modelling is an effective vehicle for encouraging verbal expression of ideas and opinions – from design solutions to PSHE and SEAL applications. Whatever the scale of your project this approach gives you inspiring ideas and solutions to fit your budget.

“Felicity encourages co-construction of learning… there is always some flexibility if a child spots something of interest she will follow their lead” – Evaluation – Creative Partnerships

To develop your outdoor learning and school grounds get in touch
with Felicity on 07968 771582 or email info@landscapesnaturally.co.uk

Shelters – Where, what type, how big, how do we want to use them?

“Felicity worked very effectively with the children and staff to develop a solution that we are now enjoying using.” – Playworker


Many schools find that they need to make physical changes to their grounds, frequently adding shelters. After a while some schools find that the chosen structure is not always appropriate or in the right place.



Landscapes Naturally has helped several schools and play settings to explore options before making investments in new structures in the grounds. This helps to ensure a cost effective use of limited funds.

A range of resources are used to discuss and try out options using resources provided by Landscapes Naturally and from the school. The results are documented and the best solutions identified. (Landscapes Naturally can also help you to find suppliers or contractors to implement the scheme)


Design and location decisions made with skilled site analysis and on-site experimentation tend to lead to cost effective results. Children work together, solve problems, practice dexterity and take price in working with professionals to help to make these decisions.

To develop your outdoor learning and school grounds get in touch
with Felicity on 07968 771582 or email info@landscapesnaturally.co.uk