Getting started on improving your school grounds for outdoor learning and play

Looking to make improvements to your school grounds? Steve Moizer explains why a school grounds audit is the best way to get started.

The benefits of outdoor learning and play for children and young people are well evidenced, and school grounds play a vital role in supporting this. Maximising the potential of your school grounds can feel like a daunting task that requires specialist knowledge and skills. Life in school is busy, and time is limited — so where do you begin? In this post, Steve Moizer, Training and Development Officer, explains why the ideal first step in any development plan is a school grounds audit.

Steve Moizer, LtL Training and Development Officer, helping a child build a willow structure as part of improvements to the school grounds.

What makes for quality school grounds?

Although all school grounds are different, variety is key. Any outdoor area will have learning and play opportunities, but a more varied space will present a wider range of opportunities. So, what do quality school grounds look like?

As well as the basics (such as seating, shelter, and storage), the way the space looks, feels, and is cared for has an impact on the way in which it is perceived by the children and young people that spend time there. Dedicated areas for socialising and connecting with nature encourage children to interact with each other and their surroundings, as well as supporting the use of the grounds for outdoor learning.

For more than thirty years, staff at Learning through Landscapes have been supporting schools and early years settings across the UK to make the most of school grounds for outdoor learning and play through advisory visits, as well as our outdoor learning and play training. We advocate a four-stage, holistic, and participatory process for identifying improvements to support this. This approach ensures tangible value, lasting benefits, and long-term sustainability for your school grounds. There are four stages to this process:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How can we get there?
  4. Making the changes.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the first and arguably most important stage: carrying out an audit of your existing outdoor space.

Two secondary school girls examining a tree as they carry out a school grounds audit before making improvements.

What is a school grounds audit?

The LtL School Grounds Audit tool is free for all LtL members and covers all aspects of your space, including:

  • Outdoor learning opportunities – what spaces and resources are currently available to support this?
  • Play opportunities – do the school grounds offer a broad range of play experiences for children of all ages?
  • Opportunities to support wellbeing, including social and emotional health.
  • A review of the natural spaces available and the sustainable practices in place, such as composting and recycling.
  • Participation in developing, managing, and maintaining the grounds.
  • A review of offsite, local greenspace opportunities.
  • A review of current practice related to outdoor learning and play.

A school grounds audit is straightforward to complete and provides a great opportunity to involve pupils, as well as staff representatives. Many of the questions simply require a tick box response, and you can download and print the sheets to allow note taking. Once the audit is complete and the information has been added to the online version, the results are automatically collated and presented as a series of graphics that highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your space.

The results may highlight that more than one area needs addressing, and it might be that focusing on one area will benefit another. It is important to look at your grounds as a whole, even if you subsequently only focus on improving specific aspects.

Steve Moizer, LtL Training and Development Officer, smiling as he talks to school staff and pupils before carrying out a school grounds audit to improve the outdoor space.

Other ways to audit your outdoor space

Our school grounds audit is one of several audit tools available to members, each designed to support schools with a clear overview of the current situation in order to help identify change. Our Early Years Outdoor Practice Audit is designed as a simple reflective document for the Early Years staff team based on attitudes and skills, focusing on what works, what doesn’t, and opportunities for improvement. Our Primary School Outdoor Learning Practice Audit focuses on outdoor learning opportunities across the seasons, age groups, and curricular themes.

However, we also offer a number of free tools designed to help you survey specific aspects of your outdoor space. Our Natural Nations surveys will help you to evaluate the suitability of your school grounds for wildlife, and can be paired with the accompanying lesson ideas for a cross-curricular learning experience — discover our ideas for using the Natural Nations surveys as a whole school.

Finally, our School Grounds Climate Survey is designed to stimulate discussion and awareness around developing climate ready school grounds. Completing the survey with your pupils will highlight resources which can help you develop your space to be more climate resilient while also providing a rich curricular linked learning opportunity through the accompanying workshops and lesson ideas. The digital version of the survey will produce graphs to help identify priority areas for your school grounds based on the results you input. You can enter your results directly into the digital version of the survey using a tablet, or complete the survey on paper before entering the results back in the classroom.

An LtL Training and Development Officer laughing with children in the school grounds after carrying out an audit to improve the outdoor space.

Take your school grounds to the next level

If you are thinking about making improvements to your school grounds to help maximise the potential of the space for outdoor learning and play, undertaking a school grounds audit is the first important step in reviewing the current situation and working towards identifying areas for improvement that involve and benefit the whole school community. Gather together a survey team, download our resources, and you are good to go!

If you need further help or want to make your outdoor space go even further, the team at Learning through Landscapes are always happy to provide advice and support through our advisory visit service for schools and early years settings, as well as our outdoor learning and play training — just get in touch!

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Two primary school girls using science equipment in the school grounds during an outdoor lesson.