Outdoors - A shared vision

How a major redevelopment of Oliver Thomas Nursery School’s outdoor space involved the whole setting. By Julie Mountain

After the makeover
After the makeover

The garden at Oliver Thomas Nursery School in Newham, east London is the product of two years of thinking, planning, tweaking and building. Since it was completed at the end of last year, children have been exploring every inch of the space, including parts that had been previously considered off-limits. ‘It’s been so successful, and the outcomes so strong – and our parents think it’s absolutely marvellous,’ says head teacher Nicola Hayden.

The story of Oliver Thomas Nursery School’s reimagined garden mirrors the importance of a ‘slow’ and mindful childhood – of savouring every moment and every opportunity, sharing experiences, reflecting on actions and choices, and being ready to take risks and make changes without fear. Ms Hayden and her team also truly understand the value of collaboration and children’s participation.

The journey began when the setting joined the borough’s Outdoors and Active programme, supported by Early Education. I made several visits as the programme’s facilitator, and worked closely with the adjoining Children’s Centre’s childminding co-ordinator, Sally King.


There were numerous problems with the old site and provision:

Parts of the school’s space were tired and consistently not being used by the children or staff.

The Children’s Centre space was tiny. A minuscule digging area, an outsized gazebo and an ice rink of decking made playing outdoors an unattractive prospect, meaning parents rarely ventured out there.

The two spaces were linked by an outdoor ‘corridor’ next to the two-year-olds’ room. This was shaded by two enormous trees, blocked by four surplus-to-requirements metal sheds and offered barely enough space to bring children outdoors, let alone any resources.

The main play space was large – particularly by city standards – but its timber equipment was deteriorating, storage was located inconveniently and Ms Hayden described the whole garden as ‘unchallenging, artificial-looking and unloved’.

Several intriguing nooks and corners were blocked off to prevent children accessing them, so my role was as much to challenge practitioners’ assumptions about outdoor play as to redesign the landscape.


Ms Hayden knew that her children needed big spaces to move about, freedom to choose their play and opportunities to develop communication skills, and following the Outdoors and Active programme, her staff really pushed for change.

Many children in the neighbourhood live in flats and have little or no outdoor spaces to play in; despite the borough’s multitude of green parks, not every child visits these regularly, so the outdoor space at nursery really needed to provide opportunities for connecting with the natural world and natural materials, and to allow young children to shape and influence its character.

These key objectives informed the meetings we had as a ‘design team’, and the landscape masterplan was pored over and discussed by children and staff alike.


Parents and neighbours were invited to a coffee morning and a community day, at which the plans were displayed, tours of the existing garden offered and suggestions invited. The event was an excellent way for governors to hear the thoughts of parents and staff to allay parents’ concerns about safety and risk-taking in the proposed garden.

Ms Hayden was able to explain more about what outdoor play offers in terms of learning opportunities – although she readily admits there is still more to do, as each new cohort of families joins the nursery.


The cost of the transformation was significant, and it took the setting three years to save the money. Governors and senior leaders at the nursery agreed that outdoors needed to be on the three-year School Development Plan, and it was therefore allocated funding, rolled over for several years to cover the cost of a total transformation.

Capital funds associated with welcoming two-year-olds to the setting also contributed to the total, and many of the fixtures and fittings were repurposed to control costs.


A project on this scale always presents challenges and does test everyone’s commitment. However, the project was characterised by a willingness to go the extra mile. Ms Hayden and her team embraced the many months of organised chaos, and were rewarded by children building rich imaginative play experiences from their close-up observations of the HOS Landscapes team at work.

The contractors made every effort to engage children, and Children’s Centre and nursery staff collaborated on a photographic journal to remind children of what had happened and how they themselves were involved.

Settings often want to carry out capital works over school holidays but, in fact, there is much to recommend sharing at least some of the process with the children who have been involved in the decision-making right from the start. In this instance, children helped plant trees and shrubs and found perfect spots for the Scottish pebbles in the water rill.

Landscape changes

The landscape changes include:

  • reshaping the topography to create a high mound and deep sandpit, incorporating the existing mature tree, introducing new planting, natural materials and a water pump and creating many routes over and around to cater for various ages and abilities
  • an undulating bound gravel pathway to offer additional challenge for wheeled toys and a smooth route for pushchairs
  • extensive loose-materials play to complement a large sandpit – tucked along the old ‘corridor’ and providing sand, loose pebbles and dirt
  • a pebble pit in the old sandpit
  • a story/fire circle, with beautiful hardwood bench seats (known as the ‘skateboard seats’)
  • an extra play space created by removing sheds and pergolas and planting beds and trees.

Management changes

The management changes include:

  • removal of gates and fences to allow two-year-olds to access the main play space as they choose – and, indeed, for older children to choose to play in the quieter, more intimate spaces
  • facilities to encourage greater independence; for example, handwashing stations outdoors, accessible storage and more time outdoors
  • the whole staff team plans outdoor provision together, and everyone contributes to the daily evaluations so that staff have a much better understanding of children’s needs beyond their own room responsibility. Ms Hayden says, ‘Staff getting to know all of the children has been so powerful.’
  • application of a risk-benefit approach, to enable high-quality risk-taking and adventurous play, rather than prevent it.


There is no denying that this way of working is time-consuming and complex – certainly compared with booking a ‘free’ consultation with a play equipment supplier and having them add ready-made ‘kit’ onto a sea of rubber surfacing. However, by exploring the context of the setting, by bringing together parents, governors, staff and children, it is possible to draw out a brief that will absolutely meet the needs of the children and be adaptable enough to change and mature in coming years.

As an example, sand escaping from the sandpit’s main access has created a small ramp, which now looks like a mini sand dune and has made access for play diggers and wheelbarrows much easier.

This process is made much easier with the involvement of a contractor such as HOS Landscapes. Ms Hayden described the collaboration as ‘crucial and valuable’ for the children as well as staff, who all took opportunities to discuss materials and layouts with the landscapers as the garden took shape.


For me as a facilitator and designer, watching this garden come to fruition has been a joy, not least due to the enthusiasm with which staff and children have embraced the new space.

The outcomes for children, which staff are beginning to observe, speak of the value of taking the time to engage in genuine dialogue with staff and children to ensure the significant investment really is targeted where it is most needed: children play together more, their language is richer and they are far more physically active and invested in the play space.

For Ms Hayden, opening out the provision so that two-year-olds and three- and four-year-olds are no longer separated has ‘really paid off: it’s a magical space!

‘A lot of our two-year-olds come in quite immature in terms of their communication and language and their physical development and their emotional needs. It’s wonderful to see them building that confidence to move out of the more protected area and see them finding their own level of challenge in the much bigger area.

‘Having this garden has really moved some of those two-year-olds on, the gaps in their development have closed far more quickly than we would have otherwise seen because of the challenge out there and the modelling from playing alongside three- and four-year-olds.’



Clear objectives and aspirations are essential for a project of this scale. Drawing out resonant words and phrases at the outset and linking these to the School Development [Improvement] Plan provided clear direction for me as a facilitator and designer:

  • Children should be more deeply involved in their play.
  • It should be a natural space with planting to allow connections with nature.
  • There should be lots of surfaces, levels and textures to challenge children’s movement skills and encourage them to be more physically active.
  • It should extend opportunities for children to explore, be curious and take risks both physically and intellectually.
  • The space should allow children to be independent and take responsibility in their play.
  • There should be spaces and features that enable children to develop a wide range of physical skills.
  • The outdoors should facilitate a smooth transition between age groups.

The school has children with complex needs and it was made clear that enabling challenging and accessible play for all children would underpin the project.


Transformation on this scale requires a clear and mutually agreed process of change, trust between the collaborators and an understanding that progress might be slow. This is how it worked at Oliver Thomas Nursery School (OTNS):

  • An advisory visit to audit the layout, use and organisation of the space resulted in a detailed report outlining potential changes to the fixtures, equipment, resources and landscape. The report also proposed changes to the way the garden was managed, including implementing a risk-benefit assessment approach, opening out ‘closed’ spaces and removing gates, fences and unnecessary storage units.
  • The team started to implement the report’s suggestions. However, says the head teacher, ‘it wasn’t terribly successful, because it wasn’t a comprehensive look at the garden – we could only tweak.’ She asked me to come back and create a masterplan for the whole site.
  • The school governors agreed a budget to allow a complete transformation of the outdoors, which was a key element of the nursery’s three-year School Development Plan and was, therefore, allocated funding for improvement.
  • Creating a masterplan involved two ‘residencies’ in the setting, each comprising several full days observing children at play, chatting to governors and parents, measuring and sketching the site, taking thousands of photographs and interviewing staff to determine clear objectives.
  • Two twilight outdoor play CPD sessions helped build staff knowledge and confidence in enabling and supporting exciting outdoor play – it also created a demand for a garden that would challenge children emotionally and intellectually, as well as physically.
  • The nursery team and governors approved the masterplan and HOS Landscapes was awarded the contract, owing to its quotation, and crucially its enthusiasm for the project and understanding of its objectives.
  • HOS Landscapes liaised daily with the head teacher, to tailor each element of the plan to the setting’s requirements. It also shared its progress with children, demonstrating equipment and involving them in planting and other appropriate tasks.
  • Once the construction safety fences were removed, the nursery and Children’s Centre teams introduced children to each element of the garden, taking time to explore the new surfaces, materials, levels and features together.

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