Page last updated at 10:56 GMT, Monday, 24 August 2009 11:56 UK

Rain stops play - but should it?

By Hannah Richardson
BBC education reporter

Farley Nursery children make a camp
Let me out! I need to play

There's nothing quite like a rainy day to make a parent's heart sink.

The thought of being cooped up with our little treasures all day long can be as gloomy as the weather itself.

We dash to the playground between rain showers - terrified we might get a tiny bit wet. But why do we let ourselves be penned in so by the rain?

If a small child sees a puddle their first instinct is to jump in it. Perhaps, in a sense, that's part of the problem.

Are we spoiling their fun or even their learning just so we can cut back on washing?

Mother-of-two Dr Perdita Barran recalls the sheer delight of her two-and-half-year-old son, and his friend, at being caught in a thunderstorm during a recent trip to Edinburgh zoo.

"We had been trying to coax the children on from a covered playground in a sandpit to see the lions and then the heavens opened.

We have a mud pit area and it is in use come rain or shine
Helen Hurford
Farley Nursery School

"While we sheltered under the roof, feeling rather frustrated, the children became absolutely fascinated with the rain pouring off the playground roof.

"They caught the droplets in their hands, funnelled it onto the slide and made channels in the sand. They were totally in the zone."

Leading childhood and play expert Tim Gill says: "We as adults forget how much fun it is for children to be out in the rain and jumping in puddles.

"What happens is we put our adult concerns ahead of just letting children have fun - being worried about clothes getting dirty or the children getting muddy - and that becomes a reason for not going to the park or for a walk or whatever.

"This has become quite a factor in the way children play."

Farley Nursery children build a wigwam
Children love to play outside whatever the weather

He acknowledges it can be inconvenient to drag a child around all day in the wet clothes, but argues all that is needed to avoid that is a little bit of planning.

"It's about a change of mindset. If it rains, children can still go out and play in the garden. So if it's raining or if it's cold we should just make sure we have a change of clothes ready."

But for a nation, which on average sees one rainy day in three, England is surprisingly ill-prepared for playing in wet weather.

Very few playgrounds have areas to shelter under, and less still have covered places to play. You're either indoors or outdoors and there is little in between.

Our Scandinavian counterparts seem to do much better in this respect.

One incredible adventure playground in Copenhagen incorporates a fire-shelter - a big tent-shaped awning with seats underneath and a place to build a fire and huddle together for warmth in the cold weather.

Some younger parents themselves haven't been outdoors to play much
Tim Gill

However, as part of the £235 million national play strategy to refurbish 3,500 play areas in England, children, young people and adults have been asking for more stimulating places to play when the weather is bad.

And according to Mick Conway, from Play England, shelter from wet weather, with seating for parents and children, is increasingly being included in the programme.

Some of the best playgrounds may have features that allow you to do two things, such as climbing towers which can be clambered up or sheltered underneath, he says.

"Adventure playgrounds have indoor play areas and encourage children to build camps and dens - though I'm not saying the latter are very waterproof," says Mr Conway.

"What people have been focusing on is teenage space - creating places within playgrounds where they can go and sit and chat."

Many new playgrounds use natural materials and natural features.

Mr Conway says children are spending less and less time in a natural environment and in some respects the playground can help reconnect them to it.

Farley Nursery children build a den
Children can have fun playing with anything

Play guru Mr Gill says: "There's also a sense in which some younger parents themselves haven't been outdoors to play much.

"They have lost touch with being outside and there is a danger that this will get handed on to their children."

This is something the staff at Farley Nursery School, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, are working hard to avoid.

Here, the children are outside all day, every day. regardless of the weather.

Its manager Helen Hurford says: "Children tend to be very cosseted these days - it's the nature of life. Parents tend to wrap them up and pop them in the car.

"Here they come ready to go outside in the depths of winter."

Sitting round the campfire
Fireside stories can be magical on cold days

The nursery uses lots of gazebos, shelters and tarpaulins.

Mrs Hurford says: "Tarpaulins are great because you can hang them from the trees. We also use a lot of natural wood and bark and torches and outdoor lighting for when the nights are drawing in. It's great for telling stories."

She says the children have a freedom of expression when they play outside that they just do not get inside.

She adds: "We have a mud pit area and it is in use come rain or shine. We've built volcanoes in it, and castles and moats. The parents are very supportive.

"All we ask is that each child brings an all-in-one waterproof and a pair of Wellies.

"But in summer sometimes the children go into the mud put in just their pants and bare feet. They absolutely love it."

She adds: "Children just don't worry about the weather like we do.

"As the old Swedish saying goes, 'there's no such thing as bad weather - only bad clothes.'"

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