Written evidence submitted by Outdoor Play and Learning (CYP0072)

Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) is the world’s leading structured programme addressing poor quality playtime provision in primary schools. More than 500,000 pupils in 500+ primary and elementary schools across the UK, Canada and Europe have seen their experience of school life enhanced simply by the school addressing all the factors (including culture, management, permission, attitude, safety, skills and resources) that influence playtimes for good or ill. Staff at OPAL client schools report seeing better behaviour and increased attention in class, while pupils report full engagement in play and significantly increased levels of self-reported happiness, sense of wellbeing, and enjoyment with school life.

OPAL is concerned that the proposed White Paper is currently missing out on a huge opportunity to dramatically improve the general mental health of millions of primary school-age children.

Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL)[1] is concerned that the Government-commissioned Wessely Review is too narrowly focussed just on detention issues and inpatient care as they relate to children’s mental wellbeing, and not on the broader recommendations contained within the 2017 Green Paper as well as further actions which would have a significant impact on children’s lives, especially as we emerge from the pandemic and seek to ‘catch up’ children’s life progress, not just academically but also socially and in terms of health and wellbeing.

Speaking in July 2018 of the Green Paper proposals, the Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP said that he was determined to drive this programme forward as quickly as possible with the ultimate ambition for national roll out.

Undoubtedly, detention issues required addressing and those proposals have been well received but this impacts only on a minuscule number of children and young people when compared to the widespread and growing mental health challenges affecting so many children, young people and adults today.


This government believes firmly in increasing the liberty of its citizens says the White Paper, and yet the liberty of children is so often a neglected afterthought, unnoticed until they become problematic. To address the rising tide of child mental health issues on a national level, a prevention is better than cure approach is absolutely crucial.

It has long been known that Play and access to nature have a markedly positive effect on all children’s mental wellbeing, especially for those children suffering with heightened levels of anxiety, or from ADHD.


In the 2020s, people will not be passive recipients of care. They will be co-creators of their own health. The challenge is to equip them with the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to help themselves. (Advancing our health)[2]

Proactive provision for children’s primary needs may prevent the need for reactive coping strategies. Enjoyable, engaging and absorbing school playtimes can empower children in their own health, giving opportunities for them to equip themselves with 21st century skills, knowledge, resilience and confidence.


In the 2020s, we need to work towards ‘parity of esteem’ not just for how conditions are treated, but also for how they are prevented. We must help all children get a good start in life. (Advancing our health)[3]


Recent pandemic restrictions have thrown into relief the disparity between children in their home lives and subsequent access to playful, engaging and social experiences that may positively affect their mental health. School playtimes, however, have the advantage of being available to almost all UK children, for a significant one fifth of the school day, to which all pupils have easy access, no matter what their socio-economic environment. If schools are prepared to allocate twenty percent of the day to playtimes, with all the other time and performance pressures they face, they must surely see real value in doing so?

93% of parents agree that children’s learning would suffer without opportunities to play, and 95% say that, without play, children cannot reach their full potential.[4]

Mental and physical health have been shown to be inextricably intertwined; for good mental health, physical activity is vital, and freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivate play (as opposed to adult led activities such as lessons or organised sports) is crucial to children’s mental wellbeing. Removal or restriction (whether by time, space, resources or permission) of play has been proven to be damaging to children’s mental wellbeing.

School playtimes offer children chances to choose how to be active in a way that they enjoy and are therefore likely to repeat over and over every day – the same cannot be said for most other forms of physical activity which exclude many children and are often difficult or unaffordable to access.

Play is central to children’s enjoyment of the school day, including their mental recovery from long periods of concentration and the many pressures of the classroom. Diverse play environments encourage all children to want to play more, to move more, to mentally ‘disengage’ and to interact with others more, always on their own terms.

Additionally, where well-strategised playtime intervention has taken place, senior staff in OPAL schools across the UK, Canada and Europe have reported observing better social and problem-solving skills, focus, self-regulation, creativity, spacial awareness and risk awareness, self-confidence and attention restoration, all alongside notable reductions in anxiety levels, boredom, behaviour, inactivity and play-related injury.

We will continue to ensure that the voices of young people and families are listened to as the Government considers its response. But it is also vital that we see greater investment in early intervention, so that more young people receive support in their communities before they reach crisis point.[5]

Positively managed and strategised school playtimes which promote unstructured, self-organised play can offer children a multitude of opportunities which are essential to children’s physical and mental well-being as well as being transformative of schools’ cultures. 

              Provision of mental health support in schools


‘Promoting positive mental health for all’

117. A significant driver of transforming children and young people’s mental health is to increase the focus on prevention and the wider determinants of mental health.’ Green paper p31

138 ‘The evidence shows that schools and colleges can play – and in many cases, do already play – a particularly important role in providing this support. We want to build on the existing work they do, and take it further’ Green paper p35


Schools are ideally placed through their already established (funded and staffed, if not properly trained - except at 500+ OPAL schools!) playtime provision, if appropriately supported, to offer significant benefits for children’s mental health. Schools already contain children in a sufficiently safe space, often with grounds which offer (or have the potential to offer) a richer environment than many children can access in their immediate neighbourhood.


To address the rising tide of child mental health issues on a national level, a “prevention is better than cure” approach will be necessary.

It has long been known that play and access to nature have a positive effect on mental wellbeing, especially for children suffering heightened levels of anxiety, or from ADHD. Schools offer a good opportunity to increase children’s contact with nature, and there is a growing international movement to green school grounds. Unfortunately, many schoolchildren are missing out on vital opportunities to boost their mental and physical wellbeing because of poor staff understanding and constant budget pressures:

Survey of schools in 2018-19 by M Follett, Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) CIC, undertaken just before the schools start the OPAL Programme.

Results show that a typical primary school will:

a) Use their playing fields for play on just 8 - 12% of the available days in the school year. The rest of the year, the pupils are confined to crowded Tarmac playgrounds.

b) Let individual children access just 5 - 15% of the useable, playable space possessed by the school.


OPAL also found that, amongst the schools which had previously completed the OPAL Programme to Platinum Award standard;

1) 100% of girls are now active and engaged every lunchtime play session

2) Behaviour improves by 80% and reported injury rates decrease (improved spacial awareness, resilience & risk adeptness)

3) All teachers say they have gained 10 minutes extra teaching time after play because pupils are happier, satisfied with their play experiences and ready to learn

4) Children’s self-reported happiness increases

5) 97% of children report full engagement/absorption in play, eliminating boredom

6) staff say they feel happier, more engaged and confident

7) Parental support has grown


With schools being so well placed to be a significant positive contributor for children’s mental health it is imperative that this opportunity is not wasted due to issues such as school staff’s misplaced fear of legal repercussion or lack of subject knowledge. A transparent, inclusive, strategic approach to children’s freely chosen play, understanding the risks and benefits, must be considered crucial for all children’s mental health.


Government should use this White Paper opportunity to introduce policy and actions which aim to improve the mental wellbeing of millions of schoolchildren through transforming the school playtime environment nationwide.



March 2021



[1] https://outdoorplayandlearning.org.uk/

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/advancing-our-health-prevention-in-the-2020s/advancing-our-health-prevention-in-the-2020s-consultation-document


[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/advancing-our-health-prevention-in-the-2020s/advancing-our-health-prevention-in-the-2020s-consultation-document


[4] https://www.dropbox.com/s/cm03acwz92o1kzb/Muddy%20Hands%20Global%20Report%20November%20%5B5%5D.pdf?dl=0

[5] https://youngminds.org.uk/blog/the-mental-health-act-review/#our-view