5 unusual gifts for kids who love adventure

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true story…

I have shared the objects listed below with my 3 adventure loving boys. Immediately you’ll spot that they’re quirky and unusual (the objects and maybe the boys too). But, having watched my boys with them, I know that they offer opportunities for open ended play, risk and challenge.

They have been part of play that showed increasingly extended levels of concentration, fine motor skill building and triggers to prompt imaginary scenarios. Plus, losing the grown up speak, they have allowed for hours and hours of fun.

please note this…

Above all, please exercise caution when using these objects. You know your children best and know their limits.

The Holy Grail of best ever toys…


Certainly, the very best toy you can ever give your children is a big old chunky cardboard box. It’s almost worth stalking delivery trucks in your neighbourhood to see if you can snaffle one from a fridge or a washing machine. Next, you insert your children into the box, add a packet of (washable) felt tips and let episode 1 of the great box adventure commence.

Follow this with window and letterbox cutting, lunch served inside the box, postal deliveries and the addition of a medical kit and all their favourite cuddlies and you have the makings of a marvellous day / week / month. Who knows.

Ultimately, there’ll come a time when you accept the box as part of the furniture and possibly spend some evenings in it with your significant other.

Our favourite box inspiration book is This is Our House by the wonderful Michael Rosen & Bob Graham

Bit weird but stay with me…


We went to Woodfest – a gorgeous festival of all things wood, set in the heart of the National Forest in Leicestershire. There I met 2 inspiring ladies who offered Forest School based childcare out in the woods. Bring it on Red Riding Hood, says I and asked them run a birthday party for biggest boy’s 8th birthday. They were to make their own bows and arrows. Our incredibly calm Forest School guides showed us the way. They selected suitable branches from the surrounding hazel coppice and handed one to each child with a vegetable peeler.

Peeling a stick with a vegetable peeler. Outrageously satisfying.

It took mere seconds for a group of non-plussed children to start industriously peeling. They learned to hold the stick at an angle and peel away from their top hand. The bark peeled off in really pleasing curls and the sticks were beautifully smooth and white underneath.

From stick to bow…

The adults used knives to cut a groove a hand’s width from either end around the sticks. A piece of string, the same length as the bow, was wound around the groove and knotted. Next, the children were encouraged to bend the stick to form a curve. This was a job for 2 pairs of hands! The string was wound and knotted around the other groove and… voila! We have a bow. Which we took home to Nottingham. Robin Hood, where do we sign??

take a bow with your bow

So where do you go from there?…

A recent project has been to make drum sticks for Daddy.

whittled drum sticks

My oldest son was12 when he made these by whittling (there’ll be another post on that). For removal of the bark the process began with peeling. I requested that the peelings were collected so the plan was to catch them on a tray. And then our dog, in his very special way, came to help.

The most helpful dog in the world

Vegetable peelers are now an essential part of days out. Choose one that has a big fat handle.

peeler with a big fat handle

They require you to set a few ground rules. I aim for these:

1) Always peel AWAY from your hand.

2) Bring the peeler up to begin a new peel SLOWLY. (This way knuckles don’t get peeled.)

3) Don’t touch the sharp edges of the peeler. (Even though it’s really tempting now you’ve been told not to.)

4) Clear up your peelings. Bin or compost or make art from them.

5) Hand your peeler back to an adult at the end.

6) peeling the end of the stick into a point (for arrows) needs to be supervised by a responsible adult. Discuss how it can be used safely.

Cue the comedy huge eye…


A great tool for looking at the details of bugs, bark, leaves and snails. Is it worth setting a timer to see how long it takes to discover that it can also be used to concentrate the sun’s light onto some tinder and start a fire?

Fire guidelines are essential. (click the blue writing)

Any adventures the boys have had with fire have been closely supervised. The fires have been in a contained area (We used an old metal wheelbarrow and a barbecue tray.) To avoid any toxic fumes, they could add only natural products could be added to the fire. We kept a bucket of water next to the area.

like something from Diagon Alley…


This fantastic little device is a more child friendly alternative to matches and lighters. This nifty little flint and steel contains 3000 strikes and can be used by children and adults alike. Especially those adults who had a go at Bushcraft firelighting and had to be handed the junior flint and steel (you know who you are…)

Beat this John Wayne…


These were a fantastic purchase. I bought 72 glue sticks and 1000 lollipop sticks at the start of our summer holidays. I also collected the insides from toilet rolls and paper towels and good shaped boxes. Beware, once you start looking at boxes in these terms you might have to set your own limits on how many you have stashed. Cue the production of mini boats, tables, marble roller coasters, dragons, flowers, bridges… you get the idea.

Glue gun boat creation

My personal favourite…


Each boy got a ball of cotton string in their stocking from Santa. All sounds a bit like Dickens; a lump of coal and a clip round the ear and we’re grateful ma’am. However, their stocking also included a book of knots.

Bedposts, cuddly toys, stair rails. Nothing escapes the knot treatments. Also, the boys extended the gorgeous cable car kit from the myriad catalogue and set up delivery system from the deck to the garden. All they needed was a willing servant to keep loading it up with treats.



Should we get a dog?

Chapter 1 (if the answer is no this’ll be a short story)

Along the unpredictable journey that is parenting I could feel life getting easier. On a trip into the big smoke on the bus, when the boys were 6,9, and 11, I said to them all ‘right, next stop we get off the bus.’ The bus pulled over, all 4 of us got up and we all walked off the bus. Just walked off. No buggy. No nappy bag. No supplies of snacks, spare clothes, entertainment, no stopping because there was an interesting piece of litter on the floor … this was as close to swanning out with a credit card and lipstick as I’d been for years.

So I relished the newly evolving chapter. Liberty. The physical haul of little children seemed to be over. So what flowed in and filled this increasingly peaceful space? … Smallest boy has been campaigning for a dog ever since he could woof. It was a step that didn’t even get as far as the ‘ to consider’ list. We had 2 chickens. Enough, enough. But in it crept. The dinner table discussion kept finding its way to the subject of dog. Over a number of weeks we covered : Do we all like dogs? What is your ideal dog? e.g. size, colour, hair length, breed What do you want your dog to do? eg catch a ball, run with you, sleep all day. How much does a dog cost? How much are vets fees? Will we need insurance?How will we go on holiday? Will the dog come? How often and for how long do you walk a dog? How do you train a dog? Where do you get a dog from? Who scoops the poop? So the time passed and I found myself thinking that it might prove a good thing for us to have a dog. I drew up my own ideal dog list:

Non shedding.

Medium size.

Female (I live with 4 fellas – a bit of balance is needed I feel.)

Interactive – will give affection and play with toys.

Travels near and far became a chance for dog research. Dog owners, delightfully, will spend more time than you can imagine waxing lyrical about their hairy friends. I started researching Cockerpoos, Miniature Shnauzers, Border Terriers. The rest of the team were researching greyhounds, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers (a what?), googling cute puppies and repeating the word ‘collie’ from sun up to sun down. All was progressing. However, you’ll notice I don’t say progressing nicely. There was a big chunk of me that was trying to put the brakes on. I wasn’t sure. That feeling of life getting a little easier felt threatened by the idea of dog ownership. I could hear dog owners saying things like ‘ it’s a bind,’ and ‘ you’ll have to take it in turns to sit outside the nice warm cafe, in the Winter and hold the dog.’ I could feel myself wanting to back pedal. I was having doubts. Even as far as the wish list. It felt a little too like choosing a living thing from a menu. When I had my babies I didn’t want to know their gender. I didn’t need to have the options pinned down and organised. We chose to have 3 children. We’re outnumbered. We don’t fit in restaurants with fixed chairs. There aren’t enough hands to hold each child. Insert your own personal quirk here but I admit, I like the elements of surprise and whilst being responsible, I sometimes feel that there are greater forces at work that are beyond our control.

So recoiling a little from the shopping list approach I began a regular visit to the website of our local RSPCA. Each dog had a few notes attached to their profile: Sadie has not had the best start in life and needs understanding owners who can help her to overcome her anxieties, … Tigger becomes anxious around other dogs and needs experienced owners who can help her to socialise. The guides to potential families said children 10 +, adults only… this dog will eat your babies. (not really but it was reassuring that such caution was applied by the RSPCA.)… and then up popped the face of Buster.

red fox labrador retriever dog

He was male. He was old. He medalled at hair shedding. And then came the legend Guideline for families: children aged 3 plus. He was rock solid. So off we popped one Saturday afternoon to the local shelter. Just to see who was there and maybe to glance at Buster. Yep, I can hear you. Had I already made a decision? Was this going to happen? I couldn’t dangle this in front of my children and then just whip it away. That would be cruel all round. I knew that if we all agreed, this was going to happen. So we were all introduced to Buster. 3 visits later, following a home inspection by an RSPCA officer, home he came. But before he came we had to prepare: First we read this poster and we still refer to it:

poster of how kids should NOT interact with dogs. Cartoon examples of children hurting humans and hurting dogs.
How Kids should NOT interact with dogs

We got him a bed, the food recommended by the RSPCA, the stair gates came out again – he was to be a downstairs dog. So on my wedding anniversary we welcomed a new family member.

Coming next:

The realities of getting a dog. The pros and cons of adopting an older dog. How you think that you’re doing this for your whole family but really your heart has turned to mush over your new friend.

Chapter 2

And just like that we now had a dog. An older, more male and hairier version than was in the original plan. But he looked at us with hope in his eyes and we signed up for the adventure. We clipped Buster into his seat belt in the boot of the car and set off for home. For those of you with children, do you remember that first journey home with your precious bundle? We couldn’t quite believe that this little life was handed to us and off we drove, very slowly, into the big world. Was every knock at the door Social Services coming to relieve these winging it parents of this real live baby? Surely driving our new doggy home couldn’t feel quite that enormous, could it? Well, no of course it didn’t. He was a living creature but ultimately he was just a dog. She said in her best matter of fact Mary Poppins voice. Oh hardy ha ha read on.

‘Come in Mr Buster’ we invited and so he proceeded to investigate this world of new smells like us when we walk by LUSH in town. With an air of anxious goodwill we had treats on tap. Please love us, please don’t scare the pants off us, bite us on the bum or eat the telly. What slowly became clear is that what was needed was time. We needed to get to know each other. He had a personality just like … a person. ( All animal welfare learned from 1970s TV. Johnny Morris has a lot to answer for ).

boy with ginger hair and ginger dog close together

So, starting from page 1 his name was Buster. I thought he was more of a Henry or a George but a senior gentleman of 12 years is not to be disgruntled. He’d a​​lready experienced indignity of being neutered at the age of 12 by the wise people at the RSPCA. He could keep his name. He was a medium sized, Red Fox Labrador which would not rank on his ​​pedigree certificate but as he colour coordinated with middle boy, he would offer solidarity to his fellow red.

We excitedly took him out for his first walk. We were advised to use a harness with him. It kept the lead up on his back and meant that he didn’t dance the CanCan as the lead wrapped around his legs. We took the obligatory 3 hours to work out who should hold the lead and for how long and off we went. Totally dedicated to all aspects of dog ownership everyone had a dog poo bag in their pocket. All 3 boys were totally prepared to scoop the poop – if they were the nearest (cue small boys sprinting for the hills).

So while we’re on the subject of the rear end of the dog, Buster apparently had a bladder of steel. Total respect she says 3 babies later . He could hold on for 14 hours hours overnight and then eek out all those wees over a walk – marking the spot where another dog has had the audacity to relieve itself. How very dare they, thinks Buster, and stakes his claim. He so owns that hood.

We kept him on his lead as we didn’t know how he would respond to other dogs. We soon found out. Every day for him seemed to be like starting a new school. He’d go and greet another dog enthusiastically, they’d do that special doggy thing and sniff each others bits. His hair would stick up on end. Now I knew where a dog’s hackles were. Then after the introductions he’d either walk away or he’d try a little polite chit chat. This generally didn’t go well and ended in him rearing up and having a good woof at his new acquaintance, with us hauling him away on his lead.

Walking him became quite an anxious enterprise for all of us. Until, that is, one day we met a lovely black labrador called Bear and his pet human. I shared with Bear’s human that I was concerned about Buster’s stress and in reply Bear’s human gave me this really kind if somewhat unusual offer. ‘Let him off’ he said ‘ and if they scrap I’ll wade in and separate them.’ So Buster was reassured, unclipped and had his first play date. They sniffed. They circled. Then something magical happened and they proceeded to show each other their best bounce. ‘Look at that’ said Bear’s human as I tried to remember to breathe. ‘His tail is wagging.’ My eyes turned a little misty. Buster had made a pal.

So armed with a pocket full of treats to encourage him to stick nearby, our walks could now involve a little lead free time. The small amount of history the RSPCA could give us about Buster was that he was fly ball trained. We nodded knowingly and went home to ask Mr Google. He told us this: Who knew?! For us this meant we had a ball obsessed, very fit, old dog. And I finally got to own one of those ball flinger things. Result! He could run and retrieve a ball for over an hour and when he’d had enough running he’d walk along with the ball in his mouth like a dummy.

The first few days of walks felt like a chore. Just think what I could be doing instead with this time. My house could be clean and tidy. I could plan and shop for a week of meals in advance. I would be totally on top of all admin and I could trawl pinterest to make my children’s lunch boxes a culinary masterpiece. Herhum. Welcome to reality. By week 2 of the walks I was in. Deep.

He had absolutely no lane discipline and walking with any other person involved Mr B criss-crossing his lead across their path and stopping for a good sniff like a really badly choreographed episode of Strictly. Off the lead he’d often choose to walk just in front of me but had to keep looking back to check I was there, dismissing out of hand the idea of walking beside me. Or he’d stop suddenly as he discovered a rich seam of smells and a quick body swerve was required or I’d trip over him.

But being obliged to take him out into the green things every day became a total delight. Gradually I’d become part of a community of dog walkers who wave a cheery hello or stop for a chat. There was a silent understanding (possibly only in my own head) that we were there with our hairy friends, often walking the same routes, day in day out and what might be perceived from the outside as tedious, repetitive and dull was actually an addiction of the healthiest sort. So dog walkers, we stand together as junkies of fresh air, nature, community and happy hormones… who also pick up poo and slowly but surely start to look a bit like their dogs.

owners and their dogs who resemble each other

As our days together grew in number we learned that Buster was a combination of…

waldo and stadtler, 2 muppet puppets who are grumpy, comical old men

A fairly self contained old fella, fairly set in his ways, he preferred a particular place to sit and tolerated the adoration of the boys with patience and gravitas. Not a great one for affection but he gradually discovered the joys of ramming his head between your knees for a massage behind his ears – slightly disconcerting for visitors but a nice if somewhat socially unconventional way to connect with him.

He was also a poor undernourished starving waif who had to beg for food as we kept him on starvation level rations. Or so he told us. So starving was he that he was forced to counter surf for the merest scrap. We sprayed morsels of food with a bitter cherry spray which was supposed to discourage this behaviour. Let’s just say there’s a nearly full bottle available to any neighbours if they happen to own a dog that doesn’t double as a hoover with no taste buds. We learned to clear tables really quickly and the boys created a barrier with their chairs to stop him launching at their dinner and making off with a tasty morsel.

We tried praising the good. Rewarding the positive behaviour. He’d take the treat, sits like an angel, lull you into believing you can have a relaxed meal time and then … whoosh … your sausage was in the jaws of a Great White Shark. Well, a ginger one. So if our neighbours heard the woeful woof around 6 pm of a starving hound in a back garden, we’d ask them to please bear with us until we’d cleared the table and let Mr B in to do a thorough inspection of the kitchen for the merest spec of a scrap to ease his perpetual hunger.

Initial fears that he would make life really difficult had not been completely unfounded but we found ways to adjust. Our lovely neighbours would take him out for a spin if we had to be away from the house for a longer stretch. He’s also spend the odd night in the Pet Hotel, thinking about his behaviour until we’d arrive back to collect him so that he could knock us all sideways with his tail in overdrive.

The biggest change was definitely learning to live with hair. Tons and tons of it. No amount of hoovering seemed to hold back the tide and the small boys wore their school fleeces lightly coated in dog hair almost as a badge of honour. Thankfully my Mum was a very wise person who equipped me for life in many respects. Not least being the gift of this essential tome…

Let’s just say my family looked forward to Christmas with some trepidation … So, was this the end of the tale? Did our senior gentleman carry on living the Life of Riley, gently snoozing in the sun on the sofa, next to his pristine dog bed??? Well the answer is…. yes mostly.

But then I got a phone call I really wasn’t expecting….. Coming next: Everyone carries some baggage with them …

Chapter 3

Buster chose us to be his family using his Jedi mind beams. This is the dog you are wanting, take me to your home and let me fill it with my special wet dog fragrance and coat it in my fine ginger hair. Yes Sir oh doggy we responded and he became part of our family.

The Grandparents braced themselves for our visits as we seem to have adopted the equivalent of a child reared by wolves who brings a mighty, smelly whirl to their peaceful and ordered existence. The Lego wielding, screen loving, stair sliding down grandsons are actually small fry in comparison.

When we did our initial visits to Buster in the RSPCA, whilst he considered whether we were up to his standards, we had an unexpected bonding moment. He’s hurt his paw out on a walk and had taken to his bed to contemplate life and all its intricacies and was it time for dinner yet?. He tried to get up to greet us but oooo oooww, instead he decided to invite us into his humble abode. So we went into his cage and sat with him, looking out through the bars. He managed to wag the tip of his tail but then lay on his bed to write his memoirs and nurse his poor sore paw. We sat a while a looked through the bars, sighed a sigh and promised him we’d be back soon to liberate him.

The lovely Laura at the RSPCA advised us about all of Buster’s charms. She told us his story, that he came from a house that had 30 dogs in it, he’d been kept in a cage and he’d been really good at flyball in his younger years. I had notched up about zero experience of all 3 of those elements. I braced myself for a learning curve. He’d been at the rescue centre since April and we adopted him in August. The reality for us meant that we were now guardians of a fit, old dog who loved chasing balls and carried one in his mouth at all times like it was his soother. A few weeks into our new life together I was dedicating hours of my life to that enriching force that is facebook. We have a local on line news feed and up popped a report about a court case involving a large number of dogs. It also appeared in the online version of The Telepgraph (click the link.) The Sun and the Daily Mail. (Other reads are available.) My cogs did a brief whirr. Those dates seemed to fit his story…30 dogs in a house – what a coincidence. I pointed it out to my family. We said ….oh…., tickled B dog behind the ears and got on with life.

He wasn’t in the photos.

Then, a few days later I received a phone call from The RSPCA. Hello, said a friendly voice as she introduced herself. How is Buster? Nicely done I thought, knowing he’s a senior citizen it’s good to check on his alive status before launching in to anything. She went on to ask had I seen the reports of the court case? Oh look at that says I, it was him. She’d phoned to invite us to bring Buster to the RSPCA to meet with some of the other dogs that had been rescued and re-homed from the house of 30. There would be a photoshoot. Nice, I thought, still a little bemused. I know every Mother sees the beauty in their own child, but was he really that much of a looker? Oh and err he’s a dog not a child. I have that distinction absolutely clear in my own mind. Completely.

I was informed that the costs for bringing the court case were set at £40,000. Cue more cog whirring. And these had to be met by the RSPCA. Blimey. That is a lot of money. So on a rainy Wednesday afternoon in June, me , Buster and his 3 pet brothers piled into the car and headed for the glamour of the RSPCA Radcliffe on Trent. We met with his fellow rescuees and although the new owners all seemed a little nervous, the dogs seemed up for being polite to each other.

group of people with various types of dogs on leads. Under a wooden shelter
baby photography nottingham

We promised Buster wall to wall treats if he could turn on the charm and he decided to adopt the pose of a quizzical senior:

Red fox labrador dog with red harness looking quizzically at the camera
baby photography nottingham

These photos were used in the following film which was used to promote the work of the RSPCA and to raise funds. Just as a health warning, if it upsets you to see animals in distress maybe skip the film. Or skip to the end. You’ll see Buster with his poorly eye and later you’ll see his woeful looking face next to his kennel mate as they look out from their prison. Even if you own the hardest of hearts, the edges will soften when you see this. (Make a cuppa, prepare tissue / sleeve) Click on the link. RSPCA FILM – look what a difference love and care can make. CLICK!

Right, have you gathered yourself? There’s just one more little layer to add. At the get together we met a nice person called Emma Mason, a dog welfare assistant at the Jerry Green Dog Rescue who set up a Facebook page called Flyballers Stand Together In Aid Of RSPCA Radcliffe. The aim was to have a site where all things related to this case could be posted including fund raising towards to the costs of the case. If you search the page on Facebook you’ll see that there’s a whole other world out there of people and their dogs who are dedicated to the sport of flyball and who are absolutely horrified by the cruelty of this case and the negative impact it has had on the perception of their sport and the care for the dogs who play it. This small act of support has had a brilliant response and this site has raised nearly £7700 so far. It’s incredible.

When Emma posted the picture of Buster comments were made about his influence on those around him and mystically there seemed to be someone who could get Buster to come when called. I suspect that person’s real name was Dumbledore. Then it turns out that Buster is a Daddy! There are baby Busters out there. So I’m looking at him curled up the sofa now, gently snoring and twitching his paws as he dreams about chasing balls through long grass and stopping for a light lunch of bread in a plastic bag and he melts my heart. I love having him in our family. He has brought such joy and warmth. So if you’ve gained any pleasure from reading Buster’s story or even used reading it as a completely legitimate reason for not doing your work / homework / housework / etc could I ask you to consider a couple of options? If you are asking yourselves ‘should we get a dog’? please consider that there are lots of lovely, older dogs out there who would love to bring their particular delights to your life. And if you have any money you would like to set free to support the RSPCA in their work, please click on the link below. Thanks for reading. Woof. #RSPCA#gettingadog#adoptinganolddog#redfoxlabrador

The Final Chapter

Our lovely gentleman Mr B lived with us for 4 glorious years. He gradually became slower and I used his ponderous walks as cover for checking out all the skips in our neighbourhood. And so, in May, when we were all in Covid 19 lockdown he planned his grand finale and I’ll spare you the details but the lovely emergency vets at the PDSA said old fella, you have turned enough hearts to mush; your work here is done. And we said our farewells.

And after a little pause and a few more tears when we realised we could have a bin on the floor again…we started to wonder…should we get a dog?…

Creativity Learning Play

What do we need from a play environment?

9 points to help you plan for your setting.

A school with a super supportive parent group can often fall into the Heffalump trap of fund raising for 1 large piece of play equipment. We need to ask what do we need from a play environment? Taking the time to read this article could mean you develop a richer environment for all who use it.

Having come from a school background and re-trained in garden design & horticulture, it was so refreshing to look at different approach to planning a play space at a more considered level. The 9 points in this piece are quite theoretical but it’s definitely worth going through these steps as the outcomes will be of a much higher, richer and more sustainable level for your setting.

Children spend their days in a variety of settings and the environment and spaces offered to them set the scene for so much of their development. In these spaces children experience friendships, group activity as well as solitude, adventure, fantasy, mystery, physical activity… the list goes on. A play space is where children can exercise power and control, where socialisation, fun and learning go hand in hand and where children can influence and be influenced by their surroundings.

So, if you are fortunate enough to work in a setting with children, if you home school or if you wish to consider your own home and the way you organise it, then here are some considerations for you.

Before reaching for catalogues of manufactured equipment, use these 9 steps when planning an outdoor play area. It is hoped that you can create a much richer environment than that which is typically offered. I have included some further considerations for children in the setting who may have Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD.)


Confusion can arise when the environment does not provide cues about what is accessible and what is not. Access issues can direct time and energy away from facilitation of play activities. Children spend too much time learning what they can and cannot do and teachers spend too much time ‘policing.’ Having a visual or tactile cue e.g. cobbles or a painted floor or a line around a storage shed, can make boundaries simpler for all children. Children are low to the ground – changing the surface can act as a cue, define and clarify potential activities. Offering the opportunity for children to be elevated is not a view normally available to children.


Outside does not necessarily equal vigorous or active play at all times. There is a need for an area in which to be still and relax. This ensures that ‘letting off steam’ is a choice, not an expectation. The typically bright colours of off the shelf play equipment may lead to over stimulation. Consider calmer colours.


What is challenging for one child may prove a hazard for another, particularly for children with an ASD. As a child with autism may lack the ability to generalise information, there are major implications for safety. Learning that jumping off a small bench may be an enjoyable experience but for children with an ASD jumping off a higher structure may only involve the pleasure element, without a consideration of the dangers. Although it is important to include risks this must be provided without physical danger. For example, play structures must be surrounded by appropriate flooring to minimise injury from falls. The opportunity for well supervised repetition also needs to be added in so that there is a chance to practice a growing competence when it is no longer a risk e.g. using trike / bicycles.

2 swings, side by side on a frame

A combination of all of these elements can be found in SWINGS. In risk assessments they offer a high risk for accidents. However, if a setting is willing to embrace the risk swings offer many learning opportunities. Swings set side by side offer an opportunity for interaction, but rejecting this offer will not cause play to halt as it would on a see saw. The rhythm of swinging is appealing, particularly for children with an ASD who may readily pick up on this. At a more complex level swings offer a chance for physical and social problem solving: can you swing independently? How long is a turn? What determines a turn.

small boy in woodland peeling the bark from a stick
Peeling the bark from a stick.


Soft e.g. thick pile rugs, grass, pillows, rabbits.

Hard e.g. Cooking, painting, stacking blocks, wheeled toys.

If the hard environment dominates, resistant to the human imprint, it appears impersonal to those who use it. Such settings become easier to maintain but less responsive to the overall needs of children. A child with an ASD may respond to tactile stimulation and may repeatedly run their fingers over a particular brick or cloth. Providing a range of textures can introduce a variety of experience.

Differing textures on the floor can also promote physical development e.g. moving across a cobbled area requires more physical agility than a smooth surface. Some children with an ASD demonstrate a desire to be tightly enclosed. Special needs resource suppliers sell weighted vests which children enjoy wearing. Others enjoy the sensation of wearing a man’s heavy coat or hiding between sofa cushions. Consider providing both hard and soft environments which offer this opportunity.


There is a need for a balance of access to:

Natural World Exploration: plants, stones, life cycles, bark, wet fur, leaves.

Man made exploration: a chance to tinker with things e.g. wheels, ramps Safety considerations may come from children who like to put things into their mouths to further explore them. Planting plans and products used need to be as non-toxic as possible.


OPEN = no specific end product. The emphasis is on the process e.g. sand play, dressing up, water play.

CLOSED = a specific outcome e.g. puzzles, basketball and hoop, computer games (although games such as Minecraft have opened this up.)


Through change we can clarify a question for ourselves. It is a way we can solve problems. Routines, their change and permanence can give structure to our lives. Children with an ASD can rely heavily on routine as this can provide security in a setting. Changes in this routine, especially if unexpected, can prove unsettling. The outdoor environment can provide opportunities for permanence in its structure but introduce opportunities for change within it. e.g. a maze may offer a set path to a goal. The ‘prize’ at the centre of the maze may change.

Landmarks within an environment can offer a sense of place. This can offer a sense of security in its permanence e.g. a school may have a tree which offers security in its permanence yet change as it changes with the seasons. Other features that offer a sense of place might be a water fountain or a school cat. Landmarks help children know where they are, negotiate where they are going and organise their pathways of exploration.


It is positive to have a time to choose who to be with and when to be alone. Privacy comes from an ability to control the environment. In a group you can learn to understand your place as an individual within the whole. Children with a higher functioning ASD may long to be part of a group, but struggle to understand the social codes that allow this. Opportunities in a school environment to be part of a group are essential so that these codes can be taught e.g. a see saw.


Simple units e.g. a swing, slide or trike have one obvious use. A sponge, a bucket of water and a trike create a complex environment. As always there is a need for choice. Simple play offers structure and direction. Complex play offers the opportunity to play in unpredictable ways. In her book Landscapes for Learning, Sharon Stine suggests that the dominant focus of outside space planning is on play structures. However, she suggests that an outside space needs to be analysed according to the presence or absence of a range of dimensions. The Playing Fields Association offer the following acronym to influence the creation of a rich play area:


Social interaction

Physical Activity

Intellectual Stimulation

Creative achievement

Emotional Stability

Funding has always been a issue for play areas. Much planning starts with catalogues of manufactured play equipment – which can be very expensive. Using the above 9 elements when designing an outdoor play area it is hoped that a richer environment can be provided rather than that which is so typical: all the energy and funding going into one single use play structure. A consideration is that a school or play setting may benefit from working with a designer in their planning to offer alternative thought processes. #play#playstructures#outdoorplayenvironment#childrenandplay#schoolplaygroupnds#landscapedesign#childdevelopment#EarlyYears#FoundationStage#NationalCurriculum#playandlearning

Learning News Play

How is play about learning?

After 7 years working as a Primary School teacher I retrained in horticulture with garden design. This was a fantastic chance to reflect on the play environments in which our children spend most of their time. The first stage in this was to look at the key element that is central to being a child: that of PLAY

The United Nation Declaration of the Rights of the Child was written in 1959. Article 7, paragraph 3 states: 

“The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.”

(photo by Mi Pham ||

A common reflection amongst parents when their children start school is that the child is not really learning anything. They are just playing.

However, there is no just about it. In fact play is the key to all learning  and is central in the development  of children. If you recall a special place in childhood, 9 times out of 10 it will be outside. You may view your memory of this place with a hint of nostalgia, but the fact that it is remembered is because you made a connection there, something shifted in your existing understanding and marked that place as special.

In child created worlds children experiment with power and control. (Stine 1997) Messing about in special places is more that ‘just fun.; it’s how children learn about the world and their place in it. (Cobb 1959)

Children spend a lot in time in places over which they have no control e.g. on a car journey. This is a passive and visual experience. This does not match a child’s active way of being in the world. Children seek direct stimuli. They seek tactile, auditory, oral and olfactory experiences. This is generally through direct and often disorderly body contact to experience their world. i.e. PLAY

Quite rapidly it becomes clear that children will play wherever they are and with whatever resources they can find – even if it’s a tin can. However, as providers of play settings, teachers and designers have an influence over the quality of the play that occurs in that setting. Jones and Prescott (1978) wrote that the type, quality and diversity of the physical setting we create for children directly affects the type, quality and diversity of the child’s play. 


Stine S 1997 Landscapes for Learning : Creating Outdoor Environments for Children and Youth. John Wiley and Sons. 

Cobb, E 1959 The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. Columbia Press

The next post in this series will think about creating play environments and the elements required to encourage all of the different ways that children can play.


Hello world!

Welcome to the little nook of the world that is the Knitted Swimsuit website and blog. Here you can click through to the Knitted Swimsuit shop to stock up on handmade dressing up clothes and accessories for children. Or you can have a mooch through my blog where I talk about all this play related, tell stories, sew things for children and adults and generally ponder on what I make of all the mullarky around me. Nice to have you here.

Gerry x