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The flowering of London's playgrounds

Too many schools still have vast expanses of hard play areas. But an initiative with a soft touch could change that by the year 2000, writes Victoria Neumark.

London's greening, London's greening, fetch the landscapes, fetch the landscapes, sponsor now, sponsor now, pour on sponsors, pour on sponsors.

London could be rid of its last all-tarmac school playground by the year 2000 through an initiative from Learning through Landscapes, jointly sponsored by London Electricity and the Bridge House Estates Trust.

This will require a lot of money, which will have to be raised locally, but more than that, it will require informed enthusiasm, which Learning through Landscapes will provide in abundance. With the appointment this month of a new London co-ordinator, that expertise will be on tap to help the greening of London's schools.

Too many of the 3,000-plus schools in London still have the miserable expanses of hard surface which, for many of us, are indelibly associated with endless playtimes in which there was little to do but bully or be bullied, huddle in corners or get out of the way of those playing boisterous games.

Sue Hayns, the newly-appointed co-ordinator, will act as a catalyst to help workers from the local education authorities, voluntary and private sectors re-orient their thinking. Bill Lucas, Learning through Landscapes' founding director, says it may be only a question of re-thinking existing resources or it may, as in Brent, mean the appointment of a new worker. In any case, it should mean the flowing of expertise and help to schools. The result, as one child in north-west London put it, will be many more playgrounds where "we used to have old toilets, now we've got flowers and rabbits".

At George Spicer school in Enfield, north London, awarded in 1990 the title of "Enfield's most derelict site", deputy headteacher Laurie Ratcliffe has supervised an amazing transformation. The school, a two-form entry of about 420 pupils, is on an old Victorian site with sharp railings and a large area of tarmac. Graduating through an Enfield in Bloom competition - for transforming a derelict site - in 1991 to the BTLTL Urban Challenge and a clutch of prizes along the way, the school has gained a pond, a quiet area for chatting and picnics, borders and hanging baskets. A wild area and pergola are just being built.

It all began in 1990 when a mural was organised by staff and pupils with help from students from the local Middlesex University. The brightness of the mural seemed to show up the dinginess of the grounds, and so the school got markings for playground games put in by the LEA. These have proved to be a great success, says Laurie Ratcliffe, as long as staff and dinner supervisors show interest.

The next step was to survey pupils as to what they would like in the playground. A quiet area for those who felt marginalised by the constant games of football came top, followed by planting, proper designated ballgame areas and calmer behaviour. There was a bit too much "hanging around the railings with nothing to do", says Mrs Ratcliffe.

At this point the school applied for a Learning through LandscapeBT Urban Challenge grant and won Pounds 1,300. With help from parents (one, a builder, donated time, money and materials worth at least Pounds 2,000) the quiet area was built in the space left by an old hut torn down by the LEA. The governing body diverted funds meant to "make good" the area where the hut had stood into building retaining walls for the quiet area. Parents and staff were involved in digging out and building a border. Local nurseries and businesses donated plants, compost, building materials. It is all, as Mrs Ratcliffe says, "so expensive, even thousands don't go very far".

Weekends of work by the whole school community resulted in a delightful "soft" area, with raised pond, wavy wall built in different sorts of brick to measure weathering and a range of plants.

The generous donations meant the school had enough money left over to buy three picnic sets. Britvic donated parasols but shade is still a problem, so the most expensive purchase of all was a semi-mature Norway maple, pegged in below ground level by the planters.

The junior playground is now zoned, with areas for sitting and chatting, for running about and for football. Behaviour has become much more orderly and there is "always someone walking about, smelling or touching", says Laurie Ratcliffe. There has been no vandalism by the children - and the only plants which have gone walkabout were in a hanging basket hooked from outside. But there is a colony of goldfish which mysteriously arrived to inhabit the pond.

Attention then turned to the infant playground. As the school shares the site with an LEA professional development centre and the playground is used for parking at night, improvements had to be portable. Twelve hanging baskets and 12 troughs, planted spring and autumn by the children, now brighten the site, with a climb-on train and three picnic benches donated by the parent-teachers association.

But the front of the school remained bleak. The next lot of prize money, Pounds 500 for the third phase of LTLBT's Urban Challenge, went to improving this crucial spot where parents wait for their children after school and where the older ones play. Dwarf trees, borders framed by cut logs and benches now brighten the area by the railings.

Now, says Laurie Ratcliffe with a smile, "we've started becoming successful. "

Small prizes, from Enfield in Bloom and BT's Environment Challenge and a larger one from Enfield's Environment Challenge have started to roll in and will be used for the next phase, converting a bulldozed air-raid shelter in the grounds into a wildlife area.

Schools wanting support and advice in developing and fundraising for their own playground improvements should contact Learning through Landscapes, Third Floor, Southside Offices, The Law Courts, Winchester SO23 9DL. Tel: 01962 846258. Books, videos and information sheets are available, as are training courses and membership schemes. Award schemes and an international school grounds day are part of their work. London schools will be receiving direct mailings about the London initiative.


Other London schools which have used Learning through Landscapes' help to develop their sites as pupils and staff have chosen include: Raglan Primary in Bromley, south London

With a budget of Pounds 20,000 saved from the school budget over several years, from the LEA and local sponsors, a school-wide initiative has led to a development on the theme of the Kent riverside. Seating, sculpture and shelter were priorities and the whole riverbank, open to the public, is easily accessible to wheelchairs.

Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, London This large secondary school has been working since 1992 on a nature trail which takes in a nursery and composting area, from which plants are sold, a woodland edge, a bird and butterfly area, spring and summer meadows and, still to come, ponds and a wetland. Every half-term there is a key stage 3 environment week for science students with extra-curricular clubs in growing and ecology. Future plans include key stage 4 work and celebrations like Tree Dressing Day.

Cavendish Primary School in Chiswick, west London This primary school took the restoration of its 1950s site under the umbrella of an Eco Space Project. Each classroom is open to the outside and paths have been laid to connect them to a pond, with a proposed replica bridge similar to the one in Monet's garden. A grass-roofed amphitheatre seating up to 50 children, vegetable patches in independent allotments, mosaics and murals on the theme of endangered wildlife and interpretive talks given by pupils on the nearby riverside walk add up to a far-reaching plan which pays handsome educational dividends on the financial outlay of about Pounds 15,000 raised by the PTA, local businesses, Barclay's Bank and BTLTL, among others.

St Ann's School, Hanwell and Ealing, west London A secondary school for children with severe and complex learning difficulties has developed a sensory garden. Students from the local Kingston University used existing mature shurbs and trees to create a wild garden, with planting emphasising texture, shape, colour and smell. Staff, volunteers and students cleared and laid paths. A hedge and log pile are due to be completed, acting as a barrier from a busy road and havens for wildlife. The cost so far has been minimal, as it has been created mainly by volunteers.

Orleans Infant School, Richmond, south west London Both the LEA and the parents have been involved in transforming this all-asphalt playground into an oasis of green, with pond, meadow area, seating circle, climb-on shrubs and planting area. An artist-in-residence has made sculptures for the grounds which have acted as a stimulus to the children's art work as well as sparking more obvious benefits to environmental studies and playtime behaviour. Fund-raising has hit a novel snag: organisations they approach consider the school too successful to need money.

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