How to fund your playground

Play is an essential element of education, yet many schools struggle to fund new resources. Here, school income generation expert Justin Smith shares his tips to get your campaign up and running

Primary school children can spend up to a fifth of their time on the playground: socialising, having fun and, of course, burning off a little excess energy. The Charter for Play, published by Play England, defines play as ‘what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons’ and when ‘they are not being told what to do by adults’.

It’s crucial our children have the freedom to express their creativity and imagination in a safe and uninhibited way. And suitable play spaces form part of our commitment to provide young people with a good start in life. Yet finding the funds to make this happen is not easy. The 2021 annual report on education spending in England indicates that school spending per pupil has fallen by 9% in real terms over the last decade.

With such relentless pressures on budgets, how can schools find the money to improve their playgrounds, particularly when some structures cost upwards of £20,000, and a full playground redevelopment may be many times more. The answer, as I describe overleaf, is to develop a clear strategy which explores multiple funding options.

Step-by-step: Fund your playground

School play spaces come in all shapes and sizes. Beyond the positive impact on children, there’s a positive impact on the marketability of your school too. Never underestimate how attractive this type of investment appears to both current and prospective parents.

Listen to your children

The key driver for any supporter (whether a grant funder or a parent making a donation) is evidence of need and impact. With so many others vying for their attention, the two questions you have to be prepared to answer are: Why should I help you? What difference will it make?

To formulate a strong response, begin by engaging with your pupils. They are the primary users and the beneficiaries, so make sure they play a part in shaping your project. Consult with them about what equipment they want to play with, where it might go, how it might be used and whether the play area should be open and accessible to all children in the school.

This process is critical – indeed, The National Lottery has released a video to highlight just how important it is. As a prospective funder, it wants to know that your beneficiaries have been listened to and have played a part in framing how the project looks.

So, take photos of your student council members discussing the project with a potential supplier. Make a video clip to illustrate how pupils are involved in designing their new play space. Take advantage of any opportunities offered by grant funders to upload photos and video content. Come up with a name for your project – and involve the children in this. Consider running a simple competition to engage parents and broadcast your aspirations beyond the school gates.

Recruit your ambassadors

‘No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.’ This quote from Theodore Roosevelt is very apt when it comes to school fundraising. A genuine and emotive campaign is more likely to connect with your support base and create a positive response. Involving pupils and parents early on helps develop a sense of ownership and responsibility. Bring them on board and make sure they feel part of the collective effort. They can enjoy the successes too.

Manage the campaign

There are many ways to approach fundraising for capital projects. Much will depend on the amount you’re looking to raise, your school circumstances and operating environment. Consider all avenues and select multiple routes to funding – an overreliance on one source can be hard work and unrewarding. Be realistic about your aims and break the project into two or three phases if you need to.

Crowdfunding is ever more popular, with platforms that are free to set up and simple to manage. Most providers charge in the region of 3 to 5% of the funds raised. Keep your message punchy and to the point. Sell the value of the donation and the impact each contribution can have. Upload images (playground suppliers can provide graphics to help) and link the page to your website and social media.

Grant funders will want to see that you’ve made every effort to raise funds yourself, so tell them what you’ve been doing – the work of the PTA, school contributions, sponsorship and so on. A successful fundraiser is a great storyteller – paint the picture and take the funder along on your journey.

Articulate clearly your case for support – why is your playground needed and the evidence that proves the need. Make use of your subscription to the FundEd grants database to identify eligible funding options for your project. The filters and search facilities make it very easy to use.

Local business owners may be parents of children in the school and are worth approaching with an offer. People love to support tactile, physical projects with a tangible outcome. Your bright, shiny new play area is a highly visible space and will bring a lot of attention. Attract sponsors with the promise of their name and logo on a donation board and an invitation to the press launch.

PE and Sport Premium funding is an option but be aware that the DfE does not permit its use on capital-based projects. The Association for Physical Education (afpe.org.uk) has guidance on this, including details on the five key indicators that schools should see improvements in.

If you’re creative and can demonstrate sustainability and impact, then Sport Premium could be an option. Speak to your local Active Partnerships too, as they’ll have suggestions on appropriate routes to funding (sportengland.org).

Shout from the ramparts

Even good campaigns fail to get off the ground if they’re not marketed properly. You don’t need a slick PR campaign but do plan how you will launch the project and then follow up with reminders and reposts.

Your school website is the primary portal for information, so make sure your campaign is visible and can be accessed with just one or two clicks. A banner across the top of the home page, a scrolling tickertape or a new ‘Fundraising’ tab will help convert interest into action. Provide links to your crowdfunding page from Twitter, Facebook and so on. You can add a hashtag to your new project name too. Remove the barriers and make it easy for people to help you.

  • Justin Smith is managing director of Chameleon Consultancy and Training Ltd, which provides specialist marketing and income generation support to schools. chameleon-training.co.uk