The last classroom

'It's frightening out there.'For some. Kevin Berry meets a man trying to make playgrounds safer, friendlier and more challenging

For many children, what is meant to be a time of unbridled adventure and spontaneous joy turns out to be no fun at all.

"Playtimes are awful. Just before playtime, I always do something wrong. Then I don't have to go out".

This is just one child's take on the trauma of playtime - poignant and not untypical, according to Brian Stoker, a former environmental adviser in Cheshire who is now helping schools to re-shape their grounds and their attitudes to play.

And there are plenty more quotations where that came from, which Stoker has collected over the years he has spent quizzing children about their perceptions of the grisly spaces they play in. The replies, he explains, often follow a regular pattern. The boys want to play football, but the little ones and the girls get in the way. The little ones and the girls want apeaceful refuge, but congestion and the unimaginative use of drab, tarmacked space cannot accommodate everyone'sneeds.

For Stoker, the culture of playtime is the the converse of classroom culture.

"It is frightening out there. Bullying is rife and anger finds its way into the classroom. There is inequality and unfairness in the playground, and it wears teachers out. "Children cannot play like we played. They've lost the ability to play and to socialise. We have failed them."

He argues that daily routine has become too structured and the only time pupils can revert to being children is at play. But playtimes are often tedious affairs - and how could they be otherwise, Stoker explains, when the average playground looks like a car park?

Stoker is the enemy of the expansive tarmacked surface. He also wants to eradicate theunusable grassy areas that stay muddy for most of the school year. He wants playgrounds to provide a balance of spaces - for fast games and for refuge.

He has no truck with theabolition of afternoon play, either, and views this as merely crisis management - "an admission that the school cannot cope."

In recent years, severalprimaries on Merseyside have embraced Stoker's thinking and radically altered theirplaygrounds. What is moststriking is how the overall look of the schools has changed as a result.

Chris Maloney, headteacher at Allanson Street primary in St Helens, has seen many benefits from adopting Stoker's approach, including a rise in the school's intake.

The building, dating back to the early Twenties, has been made attractive in many ways, but the playground in particular creates an aura of tranquility.

Some boys are playing football, but they do not dominate the space. Other children sit and talk in specially designedsheltered areas. The teachers on duty look remarkably relaxed.

The other side of the school reveals others playing in rough-hewn pathways cut into the school field. Much of the grassy area is left to grow as it will,saving hugely on mowing costs.

"Bullying is almost non-existent. Playground accidents are down and there is hardly any vandalism." says Maloney.

At St John Fisher RC primary in nearby Widnes, headteacher Gerry Fallon points out some new children's seating and a series of wooden walkways over what will soon become the school's wetland area.

"Look", he says, indicating some large heaps of sand and pebbles being used in the renovation project. "That's been there for two weeks and not one stone has been thrown - there isn't even a footprint in the sand. The children know it's for this area, so they respect it. And there's no litter - they put paper back into their pockets without being told because this belongs to them".

Stoker insists on having children fully involved in such projects right from the initial planning stages. He wants them to have a sense of ownership and to feel that they are valued, and he wants as many people as possible to get involved.

He insists that grown-ups should not be allowed to hijack the proceedings. If adults take over and shape the playground from an adult perspective, they cannot reasonably expect children to care, he argues.

Elsewhere, Dallam primary school in Warrington is just two months into what Stoker calls a "tunnel of development". Fast-paced games are contained within an area protected by pallisades that look like giantpencils.

A muddied expanse of grass has been covered with absorbent wood chippings, while the tarmac has been marked for special games using brightly coloured paints. In all, the changes have led to much more easy-going playtimes, while children tend to be calmer now when they return to their classrooms after breaks.

The headteacher, Jackie Watson, says that children at the school - many of whom come from difficult backgrounds - are benefiting enormously from the new approaches to play and the re-designed playing space. Many children with behaviouraldifficulties are now inventing new things to do and re-learning how to play, she explains.

Brian Stoker often refers to the school playground as "the last classroom". He observes that children spend the equivalent of one day a week in it, yet the culture and appearance of this classroom has not altered for many years. Small wonder, he says, that given the state of so many of their play areas,children choose to hang around the school toilets.

Brian Stoker is a freelance consultant. Tel: 01270 766088e-mail: brianstoker@playgroundsolutions, The Mersey Forest offers advice on playground design and sources of funding. Contact Jo SayersTel: 01925859602e-mail:

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