Out to Play with Hollybrook Academy – ASN Blog 2: Play

Written by Alice Donnelly

Welcome to the second in a series of three Drama Artist blogs exploring outdoor Sensory Storytelling (Blog 1), Play (Blog 2) and Nature Connection (Blog 3) in Additional Support Needs (ASN) settings, inspired by an Out to Play residency I led at Hollybrook Academy in Glasgow in autumn 2023. I hope the blogs can be useful to teachers and practitioners working with children and young people with Additional Support Needs, who are keen to give sensory-based creative outdoor learning and play a go!

In this second blog, I’ll explore a number of different ways in which learning can be supported through play – with examples of games, messy play, make believe and free play from Out to Play sessions at Hollybrook Academy.

Play is a very misused adult word. To a child it is a way of life. To an adult it often means unimportant recreational things we do when we are not working.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

While some would argue that play is childish nonsense, it is the method that children and young people use to learn about and understand themselves and the world they live in. Georgia Durrant describes play as ‘the mechanism of learning’ for children and young people and I would have to agree. Through play, they explore the environment, culture, people, relationships and everything else children and young people observe around them; think of the Haribo ring weddings held in many a playground over the years. Play assists children and young people with their well-being and their social, emotional and physical development while having fun! For children and young people with additional support needs (ASN), play can be vital for their development and wellbeing. As a facilitator, play is really important to my own artistic practice as I firmly believe in the old adage ‘if you’re laughing, you’re learning’!


Games are a brilliant resource for educators because they can be educational tools disguised as fun. They help to establish rules and boundaries that the young people can test in a safe environment while sometimes having a competitive edge to maintain engagement. There are millions of games in the world and they can be adapted to suit whatever lesson or skill you are working towards.

During the teacher-led sessions at Hollybrook Academy, one teacher used the basics of the game ‘The Floor is Lava’ to demonstrate the experience of polar bears on ice caps, by slowly removing the ‘safe spots’. Another teacher used soft balls as snow balls for the pupils to have a snowball fight with. For ASN pupils in particular, games allow them not only to hear about these phenomenona, but also to experience them on a smaller scale. I would recommend taking simple or traditional games that you already know and layering in the topic you are learning about.

Messy Play

This is what it says on the tin; let the children and young people make a mess! This sort of work helps to develop motor skills while learning about different materials and their properties in a relaxed and pupil-led fashion in addition to all the benefits brought by play, so it is a fantastic resource. There are thousands of resources online to support you in making messy play activities; salt dough, edible finger paint, homemade slime, water play, etc and think about how you could potentially reimagine that activity to support the topic you are learning about.

At Hollybrook when we were thinking about the web of life, I created spider eggs out of baking soda and water that I froze overnight. We then dissolved them with vinegar at the school which caused them to fizz up and engage our senses while thinking about new life. However, some children and young people do not enjoy messy play and it is important to give them the option to choose if they want to get involved with these sorts of activities.

Make Believe

Children and young people love to pretend; they can create whole worlds inside their heads and often want to share these with you. When engaging in imaginative play, I would recommend using the cardinal rule of improv theatre which is ‘yes and…’. Affirm the offering that a young person has given you and add to it. For example, while exploring the Aboriginal Dreamtime story of Tiddalik the Frog, one of the pupils at Hollybrook decided they wanted to become a sea monster – I interviewed them to find out what the ocean creatures felt about Tiddalik drinking the ocean, which gave the group a different perspective of the story. I would encourage you to use the amazing resource of children’s imaginations that you will have in abundance, but you can also support this sort of work by exploring stories with opportunities for participation; having costumes or drawing pictures of characters they then can bring to life through dramatic play.

Free Play

During the residency at Hollybrook Academy, I included time for free play. While we had lots of other playful activities to engage with as a group, free play allows the children and young people time to explore their own interests at their own pace. Through this we can see them engaging in solitary, parallel, onlooker, associative and cooperative play without any pressure.

In this blog, we have only skimmed the surface of play and its potential but I hope that it has given you some ideas on how to incorporate play into your own lessons!