When it comes to their large loose parts playground, the options for play stretch as far as the students’ imaginations.

Diana Wilkes, principal of the Auckland school which opened at the beginning of this year, was quick to set up the playground after seeing positive results with loose parts play at her previous school.

“...we just really loved what we saw them engaging in,” Wilkes recalls.

“We had a lot of English language learners there as well, and that helped them with some of the language, so they started talking a lot more and developing confidence in that area as well as the soft skills of negotiating and collaborating, being creative.”  

The loose parts playground at Matua Ngaru School was actually set up by students as part of an elective program.

It features wooden pallets, tires, different sized pieces of timber, cable reels, hose, PVC pipe and old ladders.  

“[It's got] anything and everything,” junior educator and ‘play guru’ Toni Howard says.

At first glance, the shambles of large objects and construction materials might look like a school nurse’s worst nightmare, but Wilkes and Howard say the playground is safer than it looks.  

“Very few injuries happen,” Howard says.

“And if they do, they’re extremely minor - although they're actually dealing with large loose parts that, as an adult you look at and think, ‘ooh, that’s a bit dangerous’, but it doesn't happen.  

“They get to know how far to go and they adjust that risk. They find their safe place.”

And according to Howard, that element of risk is fantastic for developing resilience in young children.

“The resilience of ‘...I’m really just so involved in building this hut that I sort of forgot that my fingers got squashed a bit when I was putting two bits of wood together’.

“And that can move into, when they do fall over and stub their toe in the park with mum and dad on the weekend, they’ve built up that resilience.

“And it’s not just resilience for pain, it can be also resilience for taking turns and having to compromise and give up your ideas.”

Wilkes says the interpersonal skills students develop while having fun on the playground are many.

“They learn how to take turns, negotiate and be respectful, because we have to take care of our loose parts or they become pieces of rubbish instead,” she says.

“I think problem-solving is one of the things that I’ve been really impressed with watching the kids.

“Because they want to build a cart, but they've only found three tires. So what are they going to do?

“And so they have conversations and negotiate with each other about what they can do to make the thing that they wanted to make. And so it actually forces them to be innovative as well.”

Howard says the students have taken to the playground like fish to water, with some there every day, and others making an appearance when there’s something particularly interesting going on.

And Wilkes says she always has a big smile on her face when she looks out of her office window to find the Year 7 and 8 boys playing along with the five-year-olds.