Bewilderment is a common response to my explanation of what has kept me busy since I left teaching. "I make parachutes for children," I say. "No," I continue hurriedly, "not for throwing them off the school buildings. For play."
For the uninitiated, it is difficult to explain the attraction of standing around a large disc of colourful fabric, whooshing it up in the air and running about a lot. Like so many things in life, one has to experience parachute play to understand it. For more than 60 years, parachutes have been used in physical education classes across the United States and Canada, and various activities. Games using former military parachutes were developed. But it is only recently that teachers in this country have begun to realise their potential.
The basic concept of parachute play is that it involves a group of people working in a non-competitive way towards a common goal. And it's fun.
In the short term, a play parachute provides an immediate bond and gets everyone working together, regardless of age or ability, in a context where each child's contribution is as valuable as the next. It takes a team effort to manipulate one piece of equipment. The results promote feelings of success and self-esteem.
In the longer term, it can help develop social awareness, teamwork and co-operation. There are always lots of winners and no losers in parachute games, and it is interesting that a child who may shy clear of large group activity or games is almost always happy to join in. Parachutes are a year-round resource and can be used indoors and out.
At SeamStress, we are all former teachers and have been investigating new ways to enhance areas of the curriculum using a parachute. We realised that the uses of a play parachute are limited only by a teacher's imagination and the children's energy. Of primary importance, however, is that whatever the intended outcome of a parachute session, its main focus is fun.
Once the initial technique of "mushrooming" the chute has been mastered - that is raising it and filling it with air - there are few more enjoyable ways of welcoming and settling in a new group than by playing "crossovers". In this simple game, names can be learned and information gleaned about participants through carefully worded questions or commands.
"Cross over if you are excited about being here today." The chute is mushroomed by the group and, while at its height, those who answer Yes let go and run underneath to catch the edge on the other side.
"Cross over if you felt just a little nervous." The second command should elicit an honest response and one that will help those who are feeling unsure to see that they are not alone.
With careful management and preparation, cross-overs can be used to introduce or reinforce topic work. If you are introducing a food topic and want to establish the origins of food groups, you might begin by asking the children to represent a food of their choosing. Commands might be:
"Crossover if you come from a plant", "Crossover if you grow under the ground", "Crossover if you are a dairy product."
Questions can be as basic or complex as the teacher feels appropriate. Frequent rests can be used to discuss uncertainties and reinforce what has been established. Just about any topic can be enhanced in this way.
With the help of primary teachers in Oxfordshire, we have developed a variety of number games using a chute appliqued with numbers. There are language development opportunities, too, particularly for the early years. For example, games can involve the "active" use of prepositions. Story-telling in the "tent" environment is very special and giving and responding to instructions is a vital element of all play.
The science of forces, friction, air flow and air pressure can be demonstrated and investigated using a parachute, as can static, since inside the tent everyone's hair stands on end.
A parachute can be manipulated to change shape, create wonderful patterns and effects. It can be pulled taut one moment and float gossamer-like the next.
As part of a school's co-operative playground policy, a play parachute can provide active fun in which large groups of children can be supervised by only one or two adults. Children could well create their own games, but teachers may want to organise something more structured.
s Penny Stragnell is a director of SeamStress, 23 Banbury Road, Byfield,Daventry, Northamptonshire NN11 6XJ. Tel: 01327 263933
GAMES YOU CAN PLAY
Rollerball All players hold on to the edge of the chute. A ball is thrown in and the players' aim to manoeuvre it around the outer rim.
To do this well, all the players must co-operate and watch one another. The group develops techniques as they persevere. Success brings an enormous sense of achievement. If this gets too easy, try throwing in a second ball to go in the opposite direction.
Popcorn You will need lots of foam balls for this. Children stand holding the outer edge of the chute. The teacher may describe the process of making popcorn while the children act it out: pouring in the oil, throwing in the corn (foam balls) and "popping" it by shaking the chute vigorously.
When all the balls have been popped off the chute, it is laid down and the children share out the "corn", so that everyone has an equal amount before starting another game.
Safety Although group leaders need to ensure that the premises and equipment are safe, everyone must be aware of what is expected of them and care about each other's safety. Accidents are rare but people always find ways of injuring themselves, so be vigilant.
Make it clear that the word "STOP" can be used by anyone at any time they feel a situation is unsafe. Try practising this before play.
Information A booklet of games, including safety tips, costs pound;3 but is free with each playchute. SeamStress provides training , or can put teachers in touch with groups of trainers nationwide.