Creativity and movable playground equipment

Creativity has been earmarked as one of the most crucial 21st Century skills to teach students. It allows our students to be able to produce innovative ideas and valuable solutions, especially as our modern society grapples to solve complex, fast-paced problems (Robinson, 2011).

Providing opportunities to develop creativity can encourage flexible thinking, curiosity, adaption to change and improvisation (Garaigordobil & Berrueco, 2011), which have even been reported to contribute towards sustained creativity later in life (Ma, 2006; Tettamanzi, Sarotti & Frontino, 2009; John-Steiner, 2014).

Developed through experience (rather than genetics) (Tettamanzi, Sarotti, & Frontino, 2009; John-Steiner, 2014), evidence continues to unearth how ‘mobile school playground facilities' can enhance students' creativity by increasing the number of play options and variables available during outdoor learning (Hyndman, Benson & Telford, 2014; Hyndman & Mahony, 2018).

Mobile playground facilities can include everyday equipment found around the home and community such as tunnels, blocks, foam, pipes, crates, rubber, plastic parts and sports equipment (e.g. boards, bats and hoops).

Benefits of movable equipment

The links between providing movable facilities and creativity were first demonstrated almost 200 years ago when the first ever kindergarten was introduced using movable equipment such as tiles, blocks and beads (Garaigordobil & Berrueco, 2011).

In the 1940s, there was a push for Danish schools to use movable equipment for an adventure-type focus (Kozlovsky, 2007), with the movable equipment concept subsequently emerging across Europe, Asia and the United States from the 1950-1970s.

Reinforcing the concept of using movable equipment for ‘adventure-type' playground focuses in the 1970s, Simon Nicholson (1972) released a theory on loose parts. The theory was based upon how increasing the number of variables within an environment (e.g. these can be shapes, colours, sizes, types, locations, quantities) can empower a child's creativity.

With more variables within a student's play environment, this provides increasingly different ways students can generate and solve movement tasks and ideas through ‘creative flexibility' (Ennis, 1987).

Producing solutions, ideas and conclusions to address problems is vital for the brain. Students experimenting, exploring and pushing play limits are also closely aligned with the processes of learning (Garaigordobil & Berrueco, 2011).

Yet over the past 50 years, there has been a prevalence of schools focused on introducing large and expensive playground facilities that are fixed into a specific location which can become outdated (Chancellor, 2013).

This change reflected the “standardised playground” movement of the 1980s which brought about a focus on implementing fixed ‘superstructures' (e.g. slides, monkey bars) with surrounding hard surfaces (Frost et al., 2004).

Although movable play options can be perceived by adults as more risky than what is reality (Bundy et al., 2009), the standardisation of playground equipment structures were introduced due to injury concerns during children's play, alongside a move to implement national playground safety standards (Kutska, 2011).

The CREATE study

A literature review of recent movable school playground equipment research suggested that an indirect pathway to develop students' cognitive skills could be through physical activities (Gibson, Cornell & Gill, 2017). This led to the development of the ‘Creative Recess Engagement during Activities Time Exploratory (CREATE)' study (Hyndman & Mahony, 2018).

The CREATE study unveiled the creative possibilities that could emerge from providing movable equipment in comparison to a school with fixed school playground facilities. Until recently, the types of activities students develop within school playgrounds and how these align with creativity components had yet to be explored. The CREATE study involved almost 800 school playground observational scans across the school contexts.

Three common components of creativity (Mayesky, 1998) and details of how movable playground equipment can be useful for students to meet the components are described below:

  1. Modifying movements and differing ways to generate movement. The findings of the CREATE study highlighted strong levels of diversity and innovation from students modifying and producing alternative types of movement by rolling, landing, jumping, swinging and bouncing the movable equipment across different locations, heights and with varying combinations of equipment.
  2. Encouraging curiosity and showing initiative. Students used the movable equipment to innovatively position equipment to develop advanced stations of play equipment and obstacle courses that could be relocated, transformed and manipulated with ease.
  3. Discovering solutions to answers through interaction/collaboration and proposing ideas to investigate. The students were observed collaborating together to plan, design, negotiate, recruit and learn from each other during their play activities with the movable equipment for imaginative play purposes and constructing play areas.

Improving creative opportunities for students

It should be acknowledged that creativity can still be developed with school playground facilities or ‘superstructures' that are established into a fixed location (Hyndman & Mahony, 2018). Examples include primary school students using fixed facilities to follow the leader, jump across and over fixed objects, discuss with others how to perform skills, plan and develop more simplified movement sequences and decisions.

Yet the main differences identified from the CREATE study were that by providing students with movable equipment, there were many more opportunities for the students to better use expansive school spaces with combinations of equipment, have evolving play areas and develop more complex roles and decision making during their play. The ability to relocate equipment could allow students to move the objects to varying distances and heights to better meet their play purposes and needs.

A renewed awareness is returning across Australian schools of the multitude of play options movable equipment options can provide. The equipment can be modified to suit students' developing and changing play needs over time (Hyndman, Benson & Telford, 2014; Engelen et al., 2018), which is even more pertinent with a duration of seven years of primary schooling. This is compared to expensive facilities or ‘superstructures' that could be positioned in the same spot for over 50 years (Chancellor, 2013).

Movable equipment allows increased opportunities to provide more variety and open-ended play into school playgrounds and as a result, teachers are reporting play to be more engaging, purposeful and meaningful (Hyndman, Benson & Telford, 2014; Lester, Jones & Russell, 2011; James, 2012; Farmer et al., 2017). The increase in equipment variables can also ensure more divergent thinking (Nicholson, 1972), alongside also being a cost-effective and sustainable option (Hyndman, Benson & Telford, 2014).

We need opportunities within our society to improve creative opportunities available for our children. For most students, this means over 4000 recess periods to help develop the cognitive capabilities of our future generations (Hyndman, 2017).


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Engelen, L., Wyver, S., Perry, G., Bundy, A., Chan, T. K. Y., Ragen, J., ... & Naughton, G. (2018). Spying on children during a school playground intervention using a novel method for direct observation of activities during outdoor play. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 18(1), 86-95.

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Farmer, V. L., Fitzgerald, R. P., Williams, S. M., Mann, J. I., Schofield, G., McPhee, J. C., & Taylor, R. W. (2017). What did schools experience from participating in a randomised controlled study (PLAY) that prioritised risk and challenge in active play for children while at school?. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 17(3), 239-257.

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Hyndman, B., & Mahony, L. (2018). Developing creativity through outdoor physical activities: a qualitative exploration of contrasting school equipment provisions. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 18(3), 242-256.

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John-Steiner, V. (2014). Creative engagement across the lifespan. In Rethinking Creativity (pp. 55-68). Routledge.

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Dr Brendon Hyndman says that movable equipment increases opportunities to provide more open ended play into school playgrounds and teachers are reporting play to be more engaging, purposeful and meaningful for students.

What everyday items could you introduce to your school playground? Have you asked students about the kinds of equipment they'd like to see being offered?