Developing Sustainable Creative Learning Environments

"How can we deliver a sustainable, creative, stimulating environment to enhance investigative play in the Foundation Stage and especially challenge more able children?" Working with children and teachers across two Foundation Stage classes at Athelstan Community Primary over the period of 3-4 months, I initiated child-led, exploratory, creative activity both indoors and out.

The project aimed to develop a creative approach to challenging, investigative, play-based learning, which would enhance the children’s confidence to become enquiring, risk-taking learners: self-motivated and engaged: active and with an ability to reflect on what they had learnt.

The children were offered a very wide range of creative stimulation as follows:

  • Exploring the senses - touch, smell, sight and sound, incorporated into simple story-telling and story-making
  • Outdoor den-building, prompting rich imaginary responses and varying levels of communication
  • Mark-making, developing shape, patterns, lines, using different mark-making tools
  • Colour mixing - exploring paint through selected colour combinations and paint consistencies
  • Using interesting everyday materials and unusual objects to initiate child-led exploration of the senses, construction and creating props for music, role-play and imaginary responses
  • The promotion of the extension of the classroom outdoors, e.g. initiating large-scale mark-making, construction, role-play activities outdoor


Where possible, activities tied into month-long themes identified by the teachers such as 'weather', 'toys' and 'Africa'. However, the emphasis was on identifying and responding to children's interests in sessions, working with those who expressed a strong motivation to continue working in a particular way. Although, I was mainly leading activities in each session, I recorded key observations and quotes, filmed activity and transcribed dialogue between myself and the children. I also encouraged continuous dialogue between myself and the teachers throughout the project. This mainly took place through email conversations as teachers often had little time to commit to reflecting upon observations and planning the next session face-to-face.

Towards the end of the project, I accompanied teachers during a CPD research trip to the McMillan Nursery School, Hull. Recognising that the McMillan Nursery's outdoor spaces had a lot to offer, the teachers identified the need to improve and extend their outdoor provision. They returned to their school and began discussions concerning the extension of their outdoor space. We identified the need to offer different activities and opportunities for investigative play outdoors. Therefore my final task before finishing the project was to initiate this re-development.

Through observations of the children's interests during outdoor play, spaces for role-play and performing, hiding, exploring the senses and mark-making were identified. I therefore installed a series of hooks and rope networks across the canopied outdoor area, which would provide the means of suspending different fabrics, lights and materials (both at adult and child height) to create different, interchangeable play areas. I also presented the teachers with a kit of resources, materials and ideas, which staff members would hopefully go on to use after I had left the project.

Key impacts:

  • An increased interest and confidence in children to use different tools for mark-making, construction and manipulating materials (exercising both fine and gross motor skills)
  • Children were engaged with problem-solving and some began to demonstrate the confidence to solve problems independently or working together, as well as with adults
  • Children's enthusiasm and excitement towards using key materials was noted through verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Some of the children were able to demonstrate a rich, imaginary response to situations, which led to the beginnings of story-telling and role-play
  • A rich variety of verbal and non-verbal expressions and responses to activity was documented throughout the project (see examples below)

Examples of observations:

'E was shown a Chinese paper dragon puppet and she took it for a walk around the classroom to show her friends. She returned to show MF that the dragon had got slightly “hurt” so they decided to leave him to recover in hospital (above the white board). As the session progressed she would come back to inform MF of the dragon’s progress. She also began to suggest different creative ideas. “Let’s go outside, we need a big cardboard box to make a car!” she kept telling me.'

J picked up a China tea box and wrapped some elastic bands around it to make a guitar, which he pulled to make a snapping noise. He was quite happy with his creation, although he then began to consider ways to lengthen it so that it would look more like a guitar! He also found a cardboard tube and inserted this into the box. He asked me to help secure it with the electrical insulation tape, choosing the colour carefully so it would match the foil on the tube. As he opened the other end of his guitar-box he discovered that he could look down the entire length of the tube. “I’ve made a guitar telescope,” he told everyone and proudly demonstrated how it worked. He later added red cellophane to one end of the tube to change the colour of his viewfinder.'

'MF laid out some lining paper and sprinkled some dry powder paint onto the paper, then introduced a measuring jug with water and also brought out some pipettes and a water spray, demonstrating how to suck up water and then squeeze droplets/spray water onto the paper. … The children had to learn how to squeeze the pipettes in the water, in order to extract droplets to squeeze on the paper. They also had to learn how to hold the water spray carefully upright, in order to spray water on the paper, whilst at the same time not spraying each other. Some could do this more easily than others and S and K were particularly quick to develop this skill. The children also respected each other and didn’t try to squirt water around! They also began to learn how to take turns as they passed different tools around.'