Goodbye to grim grounds

Changes to school playgrounds can improve children's behaviour and offer new learning opportunities. Julie Morrice visits East Lothian, where enormous progress has been made.

Whether your school is a stern Victorian edifice, a neat 1930s bungalow, or a modern complex of glass and concrete, the chances are that the playground is a featureless waste of asphalt and railings, enlivened at best by netball pitch markings and a bike shed. However, attitudes have been changing over the past few years and school grounds across Scotland are gradually getting greener and more child friendly.

Benefits from improved school playgrounds are far-reaching. Schools report improvements in pupil behaviour; a greater interest in and responsibility towards the school from parents, pupils and staff; new opportunities for exploring the formal curriculum; even an improvement in the school's reputation. As one enthusiastic member of staff can kickstart a project which improves the entire school experience, so one school's success can encourage similar developments across the whole local area. On Islay and Jura, for example, all the schools have embarked on site changes, with help from a local environmental education project.

For the past three years Kate Kenny has been working as the project co-ordinator for Grounds for Learning, a partnership set up in 1995 to improve the environmental quality and educational use of school grounds throughout the country. She estimates that as many as one third of Scottish schools are at least considering improvements. "A lot of schools are trying desperately hard," she says, "but they come up against people asking, 'Why on earth do you want to plant trees in the grounds?' It's only by raising the awareness of the purse-string holders, showing them how it benefits the school and the community as a whole, that we can move forward."

The project's funders, Scottish Natural Heritage and Learning through Landscapes, recognise that there is huge interest in Scotland and are investigating setting up a trust. "This Government is more environmentally switched on," says Kenny. "At a conference in East Renfrewshire last month, Brian Wilson mentioned Grounds for Learning as something all schools should be aware of. The word is spreading - as one local authority starts work, another gets on board."

Funding is available from a variety of sources, particularly schemes run by local councils. Edinburgh and Lothian councils, in partnership with Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise Limited and Scottish Natural Heritage, have given hundreds of "Grounds for Awareness" awards over the past seven years; Stirling Council is funding a part-time school grounds worker with money raised from the landfill tax; environmental competitions have won schools money to buy seeds; and the oil company Amerada Hess this month gave awards to 16 schools in the north-east.

But it is possible for schools to transform their playgrounds with relatively minimal funding. Many schools have found that, having started in a small way, help in kind or local sponsorship has been forthcoming. A neighbouring builder might donate materials; parents might provide architectural services free of charge; the Territorial Army might even be persuaded to lend some muscle. The combination of environmental concern, community involvement and educational potential seems to have struck a chord across the country.

East Lothian Council is the only Scottish authority to employ a school grounds officer - Ross Weddle. Together with landscape architect Liz Dorrian, we go on a whistle-stop tour of some of East Lothian's school grounds. Our first stop is Ormiston Primary. We swing into the area in front of the school. Half of it is a car park; all of it is tarmac, with the exception of some prickly shrubs planted along the front of the school building. However, Ormiston is lucky in its site. Built on a rise, its attractive long, low building looks over a road to mature trees and open fields. But the playground itself is barren. Round the back, the school and other buildings split the space into four or five different areas, leading into each other like rooms in a house. It is an interesting layout, crying out for something - a tree, a bench - to give a separate identity to each area.

Dorrian has been working at Ormiston for several months now, called in by the school board which has paid her, she says, "by selling tea towels and things like that".To discover what the pupils wanted from their playground, she went through the design process with the pupils using a base plan of the school. Together they assessed the site, noting which areas get the sun, which need protection from wind, and which need to be accessible to school meal deliveries or oil tankers. Then, having decided what landscape features they wanted, they worked with graphic symbols on the plan, moving them around to find the best locations.

The resulting design is a marvellous combination of invention and necessity. There are painted games on the tarmac where the lorries need to get in; a maze made of cut-out turf to avoid the long wait for hedges to grow; a fort "because the children wanted a castle", and a pond. There are also benches, a jungle garden with animal-sculpture trees for climbing on, a wildlife garden with berrying shrubs to attract birds, and butterfly-friendly bushes. It is a child's dream come true. But, as yet, it is all on paper.

The pond is in jeopardy because of security worries, and the council is unhappy about the wildlife planting along the road because it will mean digging up newly laid tarmac. So far, progress on the dream playground consists of a few lines of different coloured footprints leading across the tarmac to the classrooms. "The school board did those when they got the memos from the council about not digging up the tarmac," says Liz Dorrian. "They felt they'd been talking about playground improvements for years and had to do something to get started."

Dorrian advises schools to do as much work as possible themselves, just a little at a time as they raise funds and interest. "Sometimes it's a good thing not to have loads of money - it makes you organise things better."

All those involved in school grounds development stress the importance of involving as many people as possible in the projects. Getting the janitor on board, says Ross Weddle, is almost as vital as convincing the head. The health and safety officer is likely to come along and veto your most prized feature unless you bring him or her in at the design stage. Vandalism can be minimised by involving the wider community.

Playgrounds are a grey area: lots of people use them, and often the best way forward is to open the gates wide. Enormous progress is being made. Forty of East Lothian's 50 schools have made or are planning improvements to their grounds. The tarmac culture is on the way out.

We also visit Longniddry Primary, which has been developing its grounds over the past 10 years. The usual stretch of tarmac and grass has been replaced by trees and shrubs, with fruit hanging in abundance. Old tyres have been planted with flowers and there is a herb and vegetable garden created by last year's P7. "They were a very unmotivated year," says Audrey Aitchison, the class teacher and grounds supremo, "but the garden really fired them up. They wanted to leave a reminder of themselves for the school."

More important is the effect the new grounds have had on pupil behaviour. It has taken both pupils and staff some time to learn how to use their new environment. In the past, each class had its own bit of playground, and supervisors took a while to realise that it was all right for children to use the whole space, mixing with friends of different ages, sitting in the quiet area, or running over to the ball wall. The new layout gives the children more self-reliance and has stopped them "getting into bother because there's nothing to do". The difference, says Audrey Aitchison, is huge.

And it's not just gardening that the children learn about. For the P2 project on "People in the Past", older local people came in to teach old playground games. A "Secret Garden" is being built, where mini-beasts will be encouraged to proliferate. There are opportunities for music and drama out of doors, and school grounds can be an immensely rich resource for the curriculum, both primary and secondary. Art projects, bird studies, mapping and survey techniques, woodwork, maths can all be enhanced by working in "green" school grounds.

On the way round the school, we walk over an area of paving which used to be painted with a huge yellow flower surrounded by the letters of the alphabet. It is now a senseless web of broken lines. "The council relaid the slabs," explains Audrey Aitchison. In the midst of this child-centred, positive environment it would be difficult to find a more graphic demonstration of the small importance society still places on the child's point of view.

For further information, contact Kate Kenny, tel: 01786 466570

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