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Ground down by barren lands

"I don't go out much, I stay in. You can't play out in the street because of all the traffic. The parks are too dangerous. There's all that dog mess and then the older ones come and there's dirty old men and drugs."

Listen carefully to the voices of children. They have strong views about the environment and the adults who spoil or cherish it.

So says Bill Lucas, director of Learning through Landscapes, the charity launched in 1990 to campaign for better school grounds.

"As the world becomes a more dangerous place and children's freedom to roam decreases, so school grounds, as safe open places, become even more important - a special place for generations of special people," says Mr Lucas, a former teacher, in the preface to Special Places; Special People: The Hidden Curriculum of School Grounds.

The research report is the result of two years' collaboration between Learning through Landscapes and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Its main finding is that school grounds, by their design and the way they are managed, convey messages and meanings to children which influence their attitudes and behaviour. This constitutes a "hidden curriculum".

School managers have the power to determine the nature of that hidden curriculum, says Wendy Titman, author of the report, who runs a research, training and development consultancy concerned with improving children's environmental experience.

Some children were "confused and even quite angry" that their playgrounds failed to meet their needs, she says. "It is interesting, not to say alarming, to note the extent to which the issue of boredom arose in our research. Both children and adults recognised that boredom was often the cause of all kinds of inappropriate behaviour.

"However, while children usually related boredom to the limitations imposed by the environment in terms of its design and management, adults rarely did, citing children's 'inability to play' as the cause rather than the effect, " says the report.

According to Wendy Titman many children "experienced frustration and boredom, and often severe loneliness which for them was a direct result of the sterile, barren and unresponsive nature of the environment which offered little opportunity for anything other than rushing around, or as adults often put it 'letting off steam'!" Mr Lucas is adamant that lack of money is not the main reason why many school grounds are dull and unimaginative. "It is never lack of money. Money may be part of it but our experience is that schools are regularly raising more than Pounds 1,000 a year for this kind of work. Management of money is the key.

"What stops schools is more complicated than money - attitudes or lack of insight in the headteacher."

Special Places; Special People by Wendy Titman is published by the World Wide Fund for Nature. Available from Southgate Publishers, Glebe House, Church Street, Crediton, Devon EX17 2AF, price Pounds 16.95.

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