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Our shrinking grounds need to become more than just a place to go at playtime

School playing fields continue to be sold off at the rate of almost one a week, according to the National Playing Fields Association, making green space an increasingly rare commodity. The problem is most acute in inner cities, where around half of primary schools have no grassed areas.

They may be referred to as playing fields, but school grounds also mean gardens, wildlife habitats, playgrounds and outdoor classrooms.

Palatine special school is living proof of what can be done with the least promising patch of ground. Three years ago, a couple of teachers decided to make something of the flat and featureless field outside their classroom window. Jennie Rollings and William Bauress enlisted the help of all the school's pupils, their parents and local businesses as they set to work planning, digging and planting. Together they have created gardens for herbs and roses, a rockery, mock beach area, vegetable patch, willow playground, and a huge pond and conservation area, all bordered with hedges and home-made fences.

Creating it has been one long lesson in teamwork and creativity, with horticulture, art and design and technology thrown in. The school begged and borrowed everything from unwanted beech saplings to old tyres for planting vegetables.

By 2020, the 40 saplings of non-native trees donated by a couple of amateur arborists will have grown into handsome trees. By then, such projects should have gained enough support to provide the template for other schools to follow suit.

Growing Schools, the government-funded campaign to increase understanding of the environment and food production through hands-on activities, celebrated the work of Palatine and 20 other schools in a show garden at Hampton Court last summer.

Now established under the innovation unit at the DfES, Growing Schools is encouraging schools to explore their great outdoors, particularly in early years teaching and via links with land-based colleges, as well as pushing for outdoor education to become part of in-service and initial teacher training.

One of the biggest barriers to full use of a school's external environment is lack of knowledge among teachers, says Martha Critchlow, Growing Schools project manager. She hopes mastery of the outdoor classroom and its many resources will become a mandatory part of initial teacher training. "We want to give teachers the information and the confidence to use it as a resource. Training is the crux."

The publication of teaching materials and schemes of work in March will introduce a new phase, and, by May, the Growing Schools garden will be rebuilt at Learning Through Landscapes's headquarters in Greenwich, an inspirational model for others.

ONES TO WATCH

North Yorkshire Ninety school grounds being transformed

Learning Through Landscapes Outdoor education specialists

Coombes school, Reading A model of environmental excellence

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