Outdoor Makeover – on a budget!

abc doesBoys Learning, Environment, Outdoors6 Comments

I have spent a great deal of time over this last week outside for one reason or another. On the domestic front our tortoise Ned has gone AWOL from his enclosure. Tortoises are the masters of escapology and he has done this a couple of times before but we have always found him. This time there is no sign!

I have searched in bushes, under stones been prickled, nettled and rained on but the elusive Ned is still eluding…

When not hunting for tortoises I have been working with a settings planning their outdoor area and got invited to the opening of another that was part of a cluster of schools who were granted some funding to improve their outdoor space and I did some initial training with them all.

I turned up to Marlborough Road for their opening ceremony along with torrential rain and hurricane strength winds. You would think someone who spends a great deal of his time in outdoor areas would have worn his wellies – but no! I turned up in my smart, slippy, pointy fashion shoes. When I was outside exploring in the rain and the mud I ended up looking like an overgrown pixie who had mistakenly entered Dancing on Ice!

Despite the wind and the rain, I was very impressed at how much Natalie and her team had managed to do with very little money. They were able to link all of the areas they had created to opportunities for learning and skill development. They had also stuck to the original brief which was to keep it natural.

 As you come out into their outdoor area they have this funny little dark alcove on the left.


Ideally you would roof it but there just wasn't the budget so they came up with this instead.

IMG_0208It is a huge fishing umbrella (well secured at the back and base). It can be put down and taken out of its base at the end of the day. I first saw these used by Jo in my post about  Penguin Pre School in Timperley.

As with all good outdoor areas there was plenty of opportunity for open ended mark making, with large spaces at child height to support all of the stages of upper body development.

A very plain wall became a very purposeful one.

IMG_0221With a large marine ply chalk board that was fixed away from the wall to allow the children to attach paper if they wanted to paint instead of chalk. You can of course use it for a variety of things…

IMG_0200 Luckily, at Marlborough road they have a very handy man who will have a go at pretty much anything. This has been made out of ply wood and decking. The decking has made the sides and the ply has holes cut in the top that allows you to drop the pots into it. In the middle there is a hole for a washing up bowl. It has endless possibilities but on the day I visited the children were experimenting with fabric and colour…NICE!


The largest part of the outdoor area also brought with it the most challenges. Not only was it long it was also very uneven with a good few steep slopes for the children to navigate. The back fence was very overlooked by residential flats and there was also a lots of patches very hazardous planting that filled with rubbish aswell and prickly and dangerous things!

                                  IMG_0222    IMG_0226
When you haven't got a any cash then you have to make your 'problem areas' work for you. What you have got here is a corner at the bottom of a slope and a woody area that needs some significant reduction to make it safe. So, in the corner what better than a pulley system  - great for problem solving, hand eye coordination, upper body development, knowledge and understanding of the world…. the list goes on…

IMG_0215There is a post at the back with two pulley ropes attached to it. These are connected to two other posts at the top of the slope. You can attach all sorts of buckets and pots to transport  your messages or materials. You can change the contents of the and box depending on which skills and experiences that you are trying to develop. This was a version of the same thing produced by Infinite Edge for a school in the North East.


Slopes are also very good for making things travel in a downward direction so when you are developing outdoor water play, where better to start?



Anyone who has heard me speak will know that I am always extolling the virtues of a piece of guttering. It is cheap, portable and has a myriad of uses. Not only does it make a great chalk or pencil holder under a outdoor board, they also make brilliant planters for plants with shallow roots and jazz up a bare wall or the side of a metal container.

GuttergardenThere was lots of cutting back to be done at Marlborough road so that left them with lots of wood that they could use as part of their makeover. 

You can get some really effective short term effects with real wood. When I say short term, we are talking years, but they certainly wouldn't last for ever.

Use a rubber mallet to knock smaller sticks into the ground (at least a third of the stick needs to be under the soil) to make a path border or define an area.


You could back fill this area with bark, shingle or pebbles to create areas of different texture.

When developing language and personal social skills outdoors it helps to have as much open ended role play as you can fit in. Natalie and the the team used larger branches to create 4 posts to which bungee ropes and camping washing line could be attached for den making.

IMG_0212There is a nice wooden trough in the background for sensory planting or a small world habitat station.

The size and space of the area inhibited it's use as it was difficult to manage and supervise so what the team decided to do was to separate it into two and develop each separately. 

Now, as you will know if you have ever looked into the cost of fencing it is not cheap! That is unless you can lay your hands on a good few large sticks and take your inspiration from history by creating a wattle fence. This is something you could easily do with the children.

IMG_0213Good recycling and it looks brilliant.


There is lots of information on the internet about how to do this. It is a really simple process and just requires a stick and a rubber mallet!

If you don't have any sticks to hand your Local Authority tree surgeon is usually only too happy to provide some.

The other bit of recycling that formed a large part of this project was the building of a tyre wall. This was constructed along the length of the fence to make the area a lot more private. 


The tyres are tied together with wire and then filled with soil which makes them very heavy and secure.

IMG_0203I appreciate that it looks a little 'stark' at the moment, but part of the beauty of it is that you can plant it up and by this time next year it will look like a completely different thing. Usually, any sort of tyre replacement centre will give you as many tyres as you want for free.

I also had the joy of slipping and sliding in my fashion shoes through a lovely big digging pit,


an large scale construction area

IMG_0207small world habitat stations…


IMG_0210and more.

It was a real pleasure to be involved in the initial concept of this project and then fab to go back and see it finished. When I say 'finished' what I really mean is 'just started'. The thing that is good about this outdoor area is that it was designed with purpose in mind. It also has lots of room to grow as the needs and preferences of the children who play in it change.

It's openendedness and ambiguity will be its strength. If we had created a design that was a wooden pirate ship, a train or Goldilocks's cottage then we would have been limiting opportunities for real creativity, thinking and exploration.

Good job Natalie and all of your team who I know sweated blood (and dug holes) to get it done.

One last idea for you to have a look at… 

Ideally every outdoor area would have lots of opportunities for climbing. Apart from being the best fun, climbing develops SO MANY of the early skills that children need. Having said that, climbing frames and structures ca be very, very expensive. there are some brilliant ones out there on the market like the ones I have featured before from Infinite Edge


 But, I though this was a great idea that I saw when I was out with Fee and the boys at Lyme Park. If you haven't got a tree trunk then of course a wall will do but this allows you to climb trees without actually climbing trees!


Relatively speaking a climbing wall set is much cheaper than a climbing frame. You can also decide how high you are going to let the children go. They take the weight of most adults too!

Have fun planning and scheming…



If you have any brilliant outdoor ideas – send me a photo and I will share them.


6 Comments on “Outdoor Makeover – on a budget!”

  1. Looks and sounds fantastic 🙂
    Just wondering how did you make the habitat areas in the tyres. Did you line them at all?

  2. Thanks for the nice write up! The children have really enjoyed it so far! We can’t wait for the nice weather.

  3. Has anyone got any ideas for an outside area with no grass or soil at all? We only have a tarmac area thats too small for even bikes or trikes. There is no chance for expansion and we also have no money!!
    Help Please !!

  4. loving those home made fences, will have a go at that with the children shortly.i’ve got some past it chinese import willow fences so i might upcycle them into the mix! thanks pete

  5. WOW!
    What fantastic ideas! Bet the children LOVE exploring all the areas…I know I would!!
    Always great to see resources that have been completed on a ‘budget’ too.
    Thank you for sharing, I have been inspired by your website once again…
    Gill Aspinall

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