A NEW initiative aimed at helping schools create more child-friendly playgrounds is calling on head teachers to ditch expensive climbing frames and use a fallen tree instead.

The partnership project between Grounds for Learning – a outdoor play charity – and the Forestry Commission, allows schools looking for fallen trees to register their interest online, and encourages landowners including Forestry Commission and local woodland managers and local authority park departments to inform them if they have a tree – felled due to storm or other damage – available. Schools can also search for contacts on an interactive map.

Project co-ordinators claim that the initiative will not only save schools thousands of pounds, but also help children play more creatively, reconnect with nature and better learn to manage risk. Reports by the National Trust and others have suggested that children’s lack of contact with nature is negatively effecting their health and education.

Matt Robinson, training and development officer at Grounds for Learning, said: “We were approached by the Forestry Commission, who commissioned us to work on this project. They had a lot more schools approaching them to ask if they had any logs they could use. And they were aware that Grounds for Learning was very keen on promoting the use of natural materials in school playgrounds so it all came together.

“The aim is that local tree surgeons will get to know the schools who are interested so that everyone benefits.

“There is a real cost saving here. A small climbing frame costs £5k or so but a large one can be up to £100k, which means it is out of reach for many schools. Large logs are not completely free but we are looking at just a few hundred pounds.”

Fallen trees can be used for climbing, sitting, den building and used as a focus for outdoor gym or Parkour lessons, according to the project team, who have also created a guide to “tree safety” in recognition of the duty of care that schools have to adhere to. However Robinson claimed a key benefit was letting children find their own limits and learn to manage risks for themselves.

David Hume, head teacher at Thornlie Primary in North Lanarkshire, where a large fallen tree is the centrepiece of their “wild” playground, says he would recommend all schools consider the approach.

In his playground – which also hosts a firepit, large sand area, and loose materials such as milk crates and old tyres – the tree has been used for climbing on, jumping off and even for a staff meeting.

“Children are no longer allowed to roam as freely and there are fewer public spaces, such as waste ground, for them to explore,” he said. “Now those spaces have houses on them. The council’s response, quite rightly, is to create designated play areas. But it’s not the chutes and the swings that you remember when you grow up. It’s the wild spaces.

“In our playground we have rough terrain, there is wood, water and sand to help children play freely and connect with nature. It also aids learning. When children are learning about science they are genuinely working with wind, rain and fire; not sitting inside doing worksheets.”

Ali Hammerton, who teaches outdoor learning at Speyside High in Moray, said that schools could be creative about using natural materials in the playground no matter what age their pupils were.

The school recently had to chop down a lime and sycamore trees to make way for an extension but used them to create a variety of art works, with some of the wood used to make playground seating.

“I teach sustainability and it’s really important that our young people learn about the importance of wild habitats, which matter to us in so many ways and are crucial to our wellbeing,” added Hammerton.

“The young people were actively involved so that they have an affinity with wildlife and also develop their skills.”