Bringing nature play to urban primary school

Date completed: November 2017
Location: St Josephs Primary School, Bristol
Sectors worked with: Education
Play types encouraged:

Exploratory play

Exploratory play icon

This happens when children decide to investigate their physical surroundings, exploring new spaces and ‘ranging’. What they require are places that provide spatial diversity and interest, opportunities to move into unknown territory and environments that stimulate their curiosity and imagination.

Imaginative play

Imaginative play icon

Playing pretend allows children to stretch their imaginations, create their own worlds and explore real life situations in ways that are manageable for their stage of development. They need flexible environments that they can adapt for their own purposes and which stimulate all the senses.

Quiet play

Quiet play icon

We all need time and space to be still and relax. For children this time is vital for integrating the many sensory impressions they encounter throughout the day. Quiet play allows them to rest, dream and refuel their brains and bodies. They need spaces that feel safe, comfortable and contained.

Social play

Social play icon

Making friends, sharing stories, learning the rules of a new game - children are social beings and play is a perfect way to learn about yourself and other people. In social play children can explore relationship dynamics and learn how to express their needs, establish boundaries and resolve differences.

Physical play

Physical play icon

Children’s minds and bodies grow in relation to their physical environment and require experimentation and challenge to reach their full potential. Physical play helps children understand what their bodies are capable of and allows them to take the necessary risks required for healthy development.

Loose Parts play

Loose Parts play icon

Banging on pots, making mud pies, building dens – these activities teach children about the physical and textural qualities of materials and how different elements fit together. Loose parts play offers sensory pleasure as well as developing hand eye coordination and problem solving skills.


When St Joseph’s Primary got a new head teacher one of the first things she noticed was the need and potential for an exciting play space in the school grounds. They had an enormous underused tarmac space in a very urban setting with few play opportunities. It was a space calling for a vision.

Her goal was to create a rich play environment for all ages: lots of loose parts, appropriate physical challenges, opportunities for creative expression and quiet areas for children to eat their lunches, read and rest. She also wanted to green the school, softening the area with more trees and bushes.

There was one big limitation: the school is a church school which is used as a car park on Sundays, so in certain areas we had to stick to the edges of the space to not interfere with parking. We found out the maximum area we could occupy for play and worked right to that edge.

The Design: We created a corner stage with a wooden backdrop they could attach things to and a seating area for the audience which doubles as a teaching space. The children can test their physical limits on the log net and tyre climbing structure.

Multiple types of play

For loose parts play we converted an unused wooden gazebo into a denmaking space by attaching eyebolts to the legs of the gazebo and providing the kids with lots of ropes and tarps that they could attach to the eyebolts to make their own structures.

We built a big sand pit under an old bike shelter to provide rain and sun cover. To conceal less aesthetic features and provide a softer, greener play environment we created a border of tyre planters with bushes and plants that would climb all over the fence and building. These provide an important habitat for wildlife habitat, while also reducing air pollution and noise bouncing around flat hard surfaces.

In what was once a messy disused corner of the playground we made a quiet area with big wooden picnic tables and planting.

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