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Barren grey to living green

Grounds for Learning is helping to turn schools' boring playgrounds into stimulating environments, writes Douglas Blane.

Humans are almost the only form of wildlife to be seen in the playground at Kittybrewster Primary in Aberdeen. "We did a minibeasts project once and couldn't find any," says headteacher Alastair Beaton.

"The children jump up and down with excitement in this school when they see a ladybird because it is such a rarity."

In contrast, at Achfary Primary in the far north-west of Highland, there is at times too much wildlife. "We have a veranda at the front of the school where we put pots of plants," says young Emma Adam, "but the deer come and eat them.

"We have tried lots of things to put them off, such as soap and chimes, but nothing really works. So when we get our wildlife garden we are going to build a fence to keep the deer out."

The two schools differ in almost every other respect too. Where Kittybrewster Primary is a big, granite inner-city building and has a roll of almost 200 pupils, Achfary Primary is a wooden house in a small community "way out in the middle of nowhere", as Emma says, and has just 10 pupils.

However, the schools do have one thing in common: both have been awarded a grant of pound;1,500 for the Start Growing Upwards project, run by the charity Grounds for Learning, which is helping schools to turn barren expanses of hard landscaping into pleasant places to play and learn. They are bursting with ideas on how to use the funds to make their grounds more appealing, to pupils, teachers, plants and animals - deer excepted.

"We are going to build a slide on the side of a hill and a wildlife garden," says Emma. "We thought stepping stones would be nice too, with different creatures on them, like a caterpillar and a butterfly. And we are going have a chessboard painted on the tar."

Headteacher Linda Gill says the Achfary community is enthusiastic about the project and has been generous with both suggestions for transforming a patch of tarmac and a grassy hill into an educationally rich environment for children and offers of assistance with painting, making things and planting.

"Once we have built the deer fence on the bank, we'll put plants in that attract butterflies and birds," says Ms Gill. "The children are keen to build a hide in the wildlife garden so that they can watch what's going on there.

"We will have play areas to spark off the imagination, with big wooden jigsaws on walls, painted scenery, little toadstools to sit on and wooden animals on pegs that the kids can move around.

"We don't have much space, so we are having to be quite inventive. The kids have been absolutely wonderful at coming up with ideas."

At Kittybrewster Primary, the pupils have also played a leading role in generating good ideas, and the Grounds for Learning representative who visited the school added more, says Mr Beaton.

"Our school is a large Victorian building surrounded by a flat, bleak playground which is not good for play or learning. So, our parent-teacher association raised pound;2,500 and, together with the children, we drew up plans for how we were going to upgrade the playground.

"Then we heard about the Grounds for Learning project. What appealed was that it wasn't just extra funding, but also training for a member of our staff and on-site advice on ways to make the grounds more attractive."

Having successfully negotiated the first phase of the grant application, the school had to show an assessor around the grounds and discuss the plans. "It took an hour and a half and she gave us lots of ideas that would have been useful even if we hadn't got the award."

The next stage was to adapt the original plans, which were focused primarily on improving facilities for play, whereas the emphasis of Start Growing Upwards is on turning barren spaces into green, learning environments where a connection to the natural world can be made.

Plans for separate play areas for older and younger children were retained, as were areas for football, netball and a few traditional games such as hopscotch (which the infants welcomed warmly when they were introduced last session).

"We now also plan to have a wildlife garden with plants that will attract butterflies and other minibeasts, so we can use the grounds as an environmental resource."

The next stage is for the teacher who has been behind this project - Jane Blair - to go on a day's training and draw up an action plan.

Digging up hard landscaping is a drastic option and not entirely necessary.

Craig Mitchell, the headteacher of Lochgelly South Primary in Fife, another of the 17 schools whose applications for funds and training from Start Growing Upwards was successful, explains. "It seems that you can fence off part of the playground and just break up the tarmac a bit. Then if you cover it with topsoil and put plants in they will grow quite happily.

"I am not a gardener myself, so I was surprised when they said that."

Mr Mitchell had made significant improvements to the school within a year of his appointment as headteacher in April 2000, said school inspectors.

After tackling accommodation, management and teaching inside the school, it was time to look outside and start on "the huge area of playground which was very stark and very grey", he says. Developments last year included a play area for the nursery and games painted on the tarmac.

The school's Start Growing Upwards award has been matched by funds raised by the parent-teacher association . Pupils' ideas on improving the playground were sought and those that were over-ambitious - such as a swimming pool - have been gently rejected.

"We are going to do a lot of work on the environmental area at the front of the school," says Mr Mitchell. "We plan to have quiet areas where the kids can sit and read or watch what's happening around them. Benches would be nice but vandalism could be a problem, so we may go for tree trunks as seating.

"The kids can spend a fifth of the time they are at school in the playground, so it's very important that we get it right for them."

Grounds for Learning, Airthrey Cottage, University of Stirling FK9 4LA, tel 01786 445922e-mail School Grounds Week is September 22-26. See the website for an activity pack and other help.

* Nursery and primary schools which are in areas of disadvantage and have hard, undeveloped playgrounds are eligible to apply for a Start Growing Upwards award.

As well as a grant of pound;1,500, which successful schools are expected to match from other sources, advice, support and a one-day training course are provided. Schools are expected to involve pupils, parents and the wider community in planning and implementing efforts to enhance their playgrounds.

Nine schools awarded a grant in the first year of the project are at varying stages of transforming their grounds. At North Muirton Primary in Perth, acting headteacher Elizabeth Gemmell describes what they have done.

"We have something called an outdoor classroom, which is a big circle of bark chippings that has great muckle logs with wee seats carved on top.

There is a seat in the middle for the teacher. We haven't used it yet for teaching, but the children play on it a lot.

"We are about to get chunky seats that are just logs of wood and put them at the other end of the playground."

There is also a willow tunnel woven from living branches that have grown quite leafy, and this summer a mini assault course, comprising a suspension bridge, stepping-stones and a raised beam, will be assembled.

"Grounds for Learning were very good," says Ms Gemmell. "They even gave us an extra pound;800 that we thought we would have to raise to let us buy wooden seating for the P7 girls. They do like to sit and talk rather than run around at their age."

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