When a double-decker bus turns up at the school gates, it is not always time to go home. In Fife, Scotland, children climb on board for an exploration of their area's natural resources; in Birmingham, youngsters with learning difficulties play games to improve their maths and reading skills; in Crawley, Sussex, the arrival of the playbus signals after-school activities.
About 250 buses across the country have been converted to take specialist facilities into communities; half of these are school-based. The National Playbus Association, celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the first playbus in Liverpool in 1969, helps to keep the buses running, funded by government grants, the National Lottery, donations and members' subscriptions.
"Although each bus is operated independently," says Lynne Williams, general manager at the association's headquarters in Bristol, "we provide practical help, from cheaper insurance and safety checks, through to training sessions and one-to-one advice."
The vehicles are not just buses to play on, however, they provide a wide range of educational services. They are particularly suited to providing back-up to facilities in schools.
The "MACbus" based run by Fife Council Community Services is based at the Kirkcaldy Museum and Arts Gallery. "Its real name is the Museum and Arts Coach," says Emma Nicolson, the museum's outreach officer and former teacher, who says that demand for visits to primary schools far outstrips the four days a week the bus is available.
The current exhibition on "Riches of the Earth" digs deep to show why Fife looks as it does. It displays underground resources, such as minerals and potatoes and shows how they have influenced the local community.
Teacher's packs are sent out before the bus visit (which can last for three days) and the children are primed with quiz sheets. By the time they arrive, everyone is ready to examine the geology, agriculture, archaeology and natural history of the region. The children can see an earthworm farm, dig for garnets in volcanic sand, or study a display featuring the wool that comes from the sheep that eat the turnips that grow in the ground.
In Birmingham, the Saheli bus works closely with three primary schools in the Winson Green and Handsworth areas. Children with special educational or behavioural problems are referred to after-school sessions on the playbus. Teachers see it as a valuable resource where the children learn through play.
Mary Vadaie, a school governor and co-ordinator for the bus, is impressed with the amount children learn while they are on them: "They have been challenged to invent their own board games, which involve maths, English and interaction with other children."
The children often do not have English as a first language, so the seven playbus staff have been chosen for their range of languages: Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati and Mirpuri.
Mary Vadaie says the pre-school work is equally important, easing families into the school system and getting children used to sitting quietly, singing, or even using scissors. "Our children won't be the screamers when they start school," she says. "They've done the screaming with us - we've had the blood, sweat and tears."
Chris Smith, headteacher of Welford Road primary, one the schools that uses the Saheli bus, is unstinting in his praise for it. "We are fortunate to have it. The key factor is its mobility and our good working relationship with Mary and her team. They target particular groups who really benefit from the pre-school experience, while our home school partnership co-ordinator is able to identify children who can be helped by focused activities after school."
In Crawley, the playbus based at Bewbush primary is also used by after-school clubs, available as a drop-in for children who might otherwise be hanging around on street corners.
Geoff Riddick, who is this year's chairman of the NPA board of directors, is in charge. He is concerned that the recent emphasis on literacy and numeracy means other subjects are suffering: "Arts and crafts are being steadily squeezed out of the system," he says. "We do a lot of arts activities because many children have a talent which is not being nurtured. We have a hidden curriculum, if you like." The Crawley playbus scheme also offers after-school sports.
Geoff regards the Bewbush bus as a trailblazer, initiating projects that can then be handed on to schools. Sessions piloted in the bus for children with language and reading difficulties have been taken in to schools, and a project on substance-misuse, exploring drugs ranging from heroin and cocaine to nicotine and alcohol, has been taken into four local first and middle schools and other community groups.
Nationally, the majority of playbus schemes are run by volunteers who have identified a need in their community and every week 13,500 children somewhere climb on board.
* National Playbus Association, 93 Whitby Road, Bristol BS4 3QF. Tel: 0117 977 5375