Play strategy for Scotland: our vision

Scotland's first national play strategy.


All learning environments, including nurseries and schools need "free play".This is commonly defined as "behaviour that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated". This form of play has the potential to contribute powerfully and positively to some of the most significant areas of school life, from early years to secondary, and mainstream to special schools.

Play supports the development of social skills and collaboration. It stimulates physical activity and the development of important physical competencies. It encourages creativity, imagination and problem solving. When children have access to natural spaces for play, it fosters a sense of close connection with and respect for, nature. Staff in early years have an important role to play in maximising outdoor play experiences for children. Many learning establishment practitioners recognise the potential of the outdoor environment and use it as creatively and positively as possible.

Teachers who have closely observed free play in schools have identified a wide range of curriculum experiences and outcomes that are being delivered without any formal input from teachers. Schools that provide rich outdoor free play environments report happier children, better break-time behaviour and children who are better able to concentrate in class. These experiences are important for all children and young people, including those with additional physical, behavioural or learning needs.

Learning through play is widely acknowledged as a key component of good practice in the early years, both indoors and outdoors. In early learning and childcare settings, Pre-Birth to Three Positive Outcomes for Scotland's Children and Families promotes the importance of planning and supporting play. To support play effectively practitioners need to be knowledgeable and sensitive about the timing and nature of interventions or interactions. One of the most important aspects of supporting play is ensuring that children and young people have the time, space and freedom to initiate, plan, lead and conclude their own play. When practitioners are reflective and intervene appropriately they are able to take account of children's interests and prior knowledge and make provision for next steps and new experiences.

Child wearing a red jacket with their hood up

From early years and onwards Curriculum for Excellence promotes playful learner-led approaches in the classroom and outdoors in nursery, primary, secondary and special schools. However, the greatest potential to develop free play in schools is outdoors before and after school, during break times and, through out of school care.

Recent years have seen positive developments for play opportunities in Scottish schools and early years settings. Approaches such as nature and forest kindergartens typify how free play in nature can be integrated into the curriculum on a frequent and regular basis throughout the year, in almost all weathers.

Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning encourages the creative use of the outdoors as a context for helping children and young people to develop their skills for learning, working and living in a complex and changing world. Outdoor free-play offers a powerful way of providing some of these enriching outdoor experiences on a daily basis.

Some schools through the Rights Respecting Schools award recognise and value children's right to play as part of their ethos. Innovative playful approaches have become more widespread within the curriculum such as digital games-based learning which motivate and engage many children, helping them to understand key concepts in many subject areas.

Most children and young people have access to a safe outdoor play space at school. This is important for all children and young people but particularly for those who don't have access to a private garden, nearby park or a safe street to play in. Nursery gardens and school playgrounds are accessed by children on a daily basis: during, before and after nursery and school.

Most children and young people will spend around 1500 hours of their life in their school playgrounds; for many this will be more than in any other outdoor play setting. School grounds are also places where children and young people can take an active role in developing and looking after their play spaces, building a sense of ownership and active participation. In some areas school playgrounds are accessible out of school hours to the wider community, providing thousands of extra hours of play opportunities for children and young people.

There is a need to build on these successes so that regular free play becomes a reality for all children and young people in every nursery and school, particularly outdoors, embracing play in all weathers and ensuring ongoing maintenance and stewardship of outdoor play spaces.

Greater recognition and understanding of the concept and value of free play and playtimes is needed, particularly in primary, secondary and special schools. The importance of outdoor play times for disabled children and young people with complex healthcare needs specific proactive attention.

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