I am aware that confusion and controversy exists around the use of tyres. I hope this blog post is informative and helpful so that adults who work with children can make sensible decisions based upon their own specific context. It has been written in good faith based upon material I can find out and my own experiences of working outside with children. Should you care to leave a comment, I am particularly interested in links to research and factual evidence, rather than opinions. I genuinely appreciate any such information you can provide. Please note, this article is about the use of whole tyres in children’s play and not the use of shredded or crumb tyres which is a different product. Do not confuse the two. 

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Using tyres for play purposes

Tyres are a highly versatile open ended resource that can be used by schools and settings for children of all ages and stages. They take hundreds of years to break down if sent to a landfill site, so opportunities to re-use them make a positive difference.

Children enjoy being able to move, stack and manipulate small tyres. Building up a collection for free play at lunch and break times or for use in an early years outdoor space can provide hours of exploration and construction play.

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The more different types and sizes provided, the more inventive and complex the play seems to become. Just bear in mind the developmental level of your children and their ability to move tyres around. For example, older primary children like the challenge of using bigger tyres. Yet for a 3-yr old, the challenge of pushing a motorbike tyre may be sufficient.

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Some schools decide to keep tyres on the playing field. Others are happy to have them used on hard surfaces. In my experience, children adapt their play accordingly.

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Tyres are a form of climbing equipment. Children need opportunities to climb, balance and jump in different ways. The nursery where the above photo was taken, had a selection of tyres that the children would move about to create obstacle courses and to clamber in and out, up and down. Naturally other loose materials were woven into the play.

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As well as physical activities, tyres can be used in other ways. For instance, have a look at how to create splash pools from tyres and tarp.

Looking after your tyre collection

Tyres can be sourced from local garages. However they will need reassurance that you will take responsibility for the tyres and not hold them liable for any damages. Furthermore, it then becomes the school’s job to look after the tyres, to keep them maintained and dispose of them in an environmentally responsible manner once they are no longer fit for purpose.

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  • Only accept or obtain tyres that are intact. Inspect thoroughly and ensure they have have no piercings (such as a nail going through the wire) and no exposed wires and strips. They have a metal mesh inside and once the rubber wears down this can come loose. Remember to check inside the tyre as well as on the outside surface. Use heavy duty gloves to do this, and continue to check your tyres on a regular basis for wear and tear. Replace as necessary and promptly as they can very quickly deteriorate and become sharp. Only use tyres that are in good condition.
  • Clean the tyres thoroughly using detergent and water. Check that the tyre surface will not leave black marks on clothing or hands. Some tyres are softer than others and cause more markings. If this is the situation, remove these tyres.
  • If you paint your tyres, please see the advice in the “Painting Tyres” section. 
  • If tyres get dirty during play, wash them down with a hosepipe or scrub them with a little soap and water. It’s a lot of fun for children to do this!
  • Unless your tyres are covered up, they will collect rainwater! Watch this doesn’t become stagnant and empty out daily.
  • In countries where snakes and spiders exist, then painting the insides white and teaching children to check carefully before using are sensible measures to put in place.
  • Tyres can get very hot on hot days. In Scotland this really isn’t a significant issue. In hotter countries think about providing sufficient shade especially if tyres are left out to bake in the sunshine!
  • If you are worried about use of tyres during evenings and weekends, then running a chain through the tyres and padlocking the line of tyres to a fence or other secure fixing may help prevent this occurrence.
  • Some local authorities have guidelines in place about where and how tyres may be stored. This is to reduce the chances of tyres being used to access buildings or being burnt in wilful fire raising.  Double check whether such advice exists in your area.
  • Make sure that the use of tyres is included in a risk benefit assessment and you have procedures in place for managing the risks and maintaining the tyres.

Creating play features from tyres

It would seem that there are infinite possibilities for creating play and learning features from tyres. Tyres fixed together to create structures must not create wedge trap points. Bear in mind that the examples given below are from establishments that have much experience in creating and building structures. I do not have this knowledge and skill set. For further guidance, Playground Ideas is the go-to website. 

In the photo below, the staff at Adventure Aberdeen have been skilled at developing their outdoor space making good use of tyres. In the background have a look at the dirt bike track and how tyres have been used to create the different levels.

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In the middle ground, the tractor tyres have been covered with boards. This can be a good approach to storage but it is also used for team-building challenges. Likewise the tyres in the foreground are part of a low ropes challenge.

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Highway Farm makes very good use of tyres on their site. The photo above is of a much loved construction zone in the Little Explorers Outdoor Pre-school. By placing tyres vertically, low-cost climbing structures have been created.

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Children love the feeling of enclosure and will frequently stack tyres up for this purpose. At Highway Farm, the children dug a deep pit and created a tyre prison. Of course it is easy to climb up and out!

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Tyres can be used as borders. In the example below, they separate gardening areas from the path. I like that the children can also use this form of edging for walking along! All that’s needed is a bigger monster head at one end and you have a Loch Ness Monster edge!

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This den at Highway Farm has added attachments for look outs! By infilling the tyres, the structure becomes much more stable.

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Very often, vertical tyre tunnels can be made by lining up tyres. Look at the bark chips in the example below. These have been added to reduce the chances of  other stuff in the cracks. If you put gravel below tyres and ensure there are holes drilled for drainage then less water will build up.

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Sherry and Donna who formerly blogged atIrresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning created a tyre sand pit.  They used bamboo sticks and materials to create a den or “cubby”. They have kindly allowed me to show you what this looks like:

This sort of den would appeal to most children of any age! Tyres make great places to house other materials. As well as sand or soil, consider, gravel, coffee beans, pine cones, shells and other natural materials.

Tyres for gardening

Permaculture enthusiasts seem to have lots of ideas for using tyres in gardening projects. I would recommend the book Getting Started in Permaculture by Jenny Mars. Here’s some ideas I’ve seen during the past few years:

It’s hard to believe that this miniature pond at the Rosmarynek Permaculture Garden in the Czech Republic has been created within a large tractor tyre. It is possible to disguise tyres very well!

Another clever idea is to use tyres as storage! Look at how this school has used tyres to hold their supply of bamboo canes!

This planter represents the sun in a “Rainbow Garden”. I like the way the children chose marigolds to plant there. If you do paint tyres, it does look better if the flowers grown there complement the colour of the tyre. It’s a good idea to line tyres with a porous mesh right up to the rim so that the soil can be contained should you need to move it about. Tyres can also be stacked up for plants that have deeper root systemsor to enable children to access them without the need to bend over.

At this nursery, the tyre planters are used as traffic islands in the cycling area. The advantage of large tractor tyres is that they are immovable and the plants won’t be damaged by children bumping into them. The wide rim can also be used for sitting or playing on too.

For me, the best use of a tyre has to be as a swing. Tied to a tree. Do you remember the hours of fun to be had? For good advice about rope swings, then have a look at this Forestry Commission document. It is also worth getting hold of Children’s Tree Swings – A Guide to Good Practice published by London Play. Bear in mind nylon brace tyres are safer for swings because of their impact absorbing qualities.

At the time of writing the original blog post in 2010, this tyre swing was in a school playground and children encouraged to use it!

For lots more ideas about creating play features out of tyres then have a look at the Pinterest boards of Rachel at Stimulating Learning and others. It is always worth seeking professional advice to ensure any structures meet playground equipment standards (or whether they need to, depending on what is being proposed). 

Health and environmental issues around the use of tyres

A commonly asked question when I work with schools on loose parts play or developing their grounds is that of safety around tyres. The production and composition of tyres involves the use of hazardous chemicals and metals. So it is reasonable to consider the health and environmental impacts of tyres in children’s play. 

1. Shredded tyres in children’s play areas and artificial playing surfaces

There is research about shredded tyres and the use of recycled tyre crumb rubber on artificial playing surfaces. The US Environmental Protection Agency is conducting research and states “Limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb, but the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb. We are committed to supporting more comprehensive efforts to assess risks from tire crumb.

I am still looking for research about the use of whole tyres in children’s play. This is very different to the use of shredded and crumbed tyre products, not least because of the difference in surface area – the whole tyre will have a significantly smaller surface area. Thus the amount of hazardous material which can make its way into the environment is likely to be considerably less. Furthermore, crumb tyre undergoes a range of treatments in the manufacturing process which make it a very different product. In relation to other risks around the production and use of cars and other vehicles, along with road accidents, perhaps being concerned about tyres in children’s play is less of an issue.

2. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

When I have raised the matter, one response has been that tyres contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). This group of chemicals are produced in incomplete combustion of organic matter such as wood, coal, or oil. The German Federal Environment Agency produced an informative and readable summary of concerns in 2012 and explains why. According to the report an EU-wide threshold value for PAH-containing extender oils in car tyres has been in effect since January 1, 2010. The limits for tyres are lower than for children’s toys (p11) such as bicycles and scooters. In my opinion, the range of products containing PAH is so huge that singling out wholes tyres would be strange in the context of the PAH concerns, debates and actions.

3. Microplastics and tyres

This is a genuine concern linked to tyres. Friends of the Earth have published two relevant articles which you can read here and here. Basically tyres shed micro plastics, like all other manufactured items containing plastic. A quick check of your clothing and your children’s clothing is likely to establish that you are wearing items that shed micro plastics. So rather than rush to exclude tyres, consider your approach to purchasing and plastics in general and phase out the purchase of such resources. 

4. The use of tyres in gardening

Another concern that is sometimes raised is around the use of tyres for gardening and the potential for chemicals leaching into the soil. I continue to find inconclusive evidence that this is something to worry about. However I would genuinely welcome references to specific research on this matter (not opinions but actual links to published research documents) to help me find out more. Again, perhaps here, we need to be thinking in a broader context about the need to repurpose tyres in so many societies world-wide. Common sense here suggests that if you are concerned, then don’t grow fruit and vegetables or other edible crops in tyres.

5. Anything else about tyres and environmental impacts? 

Tyre dumps are a recognised fire hazard. Whilst they are hard to ignite, once they are on fire they burn at high temperatures, emit toxic fumes and can burn or smoulder for a long time. Big piles of thousands of tyres though is very different to having a few made available for play purposes. Nevertheless educators and play workers should be aware of this when storing tyres and manage this risk accordingly.

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Painting tyres

One question that frequently arises on social media sites and which is mentioned below is that of what paint to use on tyres. I’ve never painted tyres myself as I find for gardening, unpainted tyres better highlight the plants and foliage. Aesthetically, I prefer unpainted tyres. for play purposes, the paint may wear off quickly with all the moving around. Bright colours can look a bit garish so consider using pastel colours if you must paint them.

The painted tyres illustrated in this post were painted with various paint types – knowing what paint is “safe” is tricky to answer because it depends upon the hazard which you are worried about and whether the intended use of the tyres would aggravate that risk. It’s worth doing thorough research as to whether the risk is significant and needs to be managed. If you remain concerned regardless, then contact the manufacturers of eco friendly paint and ask for their advice about its suitability for use on tyres.

This is a “seagull seat”. The idea came from the children who wanted a place to sit in their rainbow garden.

Cosy sell painted tyres but it is worth noting that they cannot guarantee the paint will stay on. The reason for this is that tyres are all slightly different in tread pattern and composition – some tyre surfaces seem to take paint and others it just flakes off!

Over the years, various practitioners have told me or I have read on social media sites they have used different paints including acrylic deco marker pens, bathroom paint, ordinary emulsion paint, gloss paint, spray paint, Cuprinol, masonry paint and Bedec multi-surface paint. Perhaps the most sensible approach is to do a test patch prior to a massive painting job and be sensible – read the label and check it is suitable for use on tyres first.

Final words on the use of tyres in children’s play

The only way to truly address the issue of tyres is reduce our use of cars and other transport that rely on their manufacture and campaign – see Friends of the Earth links above – to change their composition. Please do not remove tyres from your play area through a lack of understanding of the whole context within which the use of tyres is situated. Get familiar with the issues. Be tight about your protocols around their acquisition, use and disposal. Do your bit to make the world a better place.

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