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A place in the sun

Carolyn O'Grady visits two schools where special education spills out into the garden.

It's like a cross between Disneyland and a hands-on museum. This is Meldreth Manor School's Learning Curves, probably the most exciting adventure playground in a school in this country.

Meldreth Manor School is a peaceful estate in the small village of Meldreth near Cambridge. One of eight residential schools owned by Scope - previously the Spastics Society - for children with physical disabilities and severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties, it has 85 pupils aged six to 19 who come from all over the UK.

Head teacher David Banes explains that around two years ago, "the staff became aware that there was a lot of good work going on inside the four walls of the school but that they were not fully exploiting the 22 acres outside". They wanted something fun and educational and "not a tack-on, but an integral part of the school".

The spectacular structure which now stretches across an orchard (all the trees remain) next to the school was designed by four students, who were studying for an MA in Art and Architecture at the University of East London, working with Meldreth Manor staff and health and safety inspectors. It was a partnership not without "its creative conflicts", says David Banes, but one which seems to have allowed imagination to flourish and produce something which is aesthetically and educationally very satisfying.

Used by all the teachers and other professionals including physiotherapists for physical exercise and speech therapists as a trigger for communication, it is also enjoyed by other local special schools and primary schools and by the families of Meldreth Manor pupils when they come to see their children.

Water, music and movement, theatre and science are the four themes explored on the 120 metres of curving ramp which snakes its way round the area about six feet above the ground. Along this thoroughfare children, on foot or in wheelchairs, find myriad sensory activities - surfaces to touch, instruments to play, levers to pull which send balls haring along plastic gutters.

At intervals are platforms. One gives access to a large slide and "scramble way", a slope up which pupils can make their way, playing with chimes and bells as they go. Another has a translucent roof, painted in bright colours which when the sun shines are reflected in mirrors round a fountain below and also onto the wooden floor. Another is a boat complete with mast.

On another is built "science world", a small domed building in which pupils find numerous enjoyable science activities. When the lights are switched off it is completely dark inside except for a single spotlight which pupils can bounce off mirrors which they hold. Turning on the light they find equipment to do with magnetism and electricity, a range of clocks and switches and a computerised weather station. A periscope enables them to see what is going on outside.

Down below, a concrete tunnel snakes its way through a mound. A spectacular domed water sculpture, with a metal swordfish weather vane, is popular with pupils who like getting very wet. It contains a fountain and taps producing cascades. Also below are swings and ropes, punch bags and picnic tables and a small theatre. A wild garden lies to one side with a pond in the centre.

Nice touches abound. In "water world" the ramp undulates, giving wheelchair users a feeling of motion; each world is painted in different colours and has different textures. In the evenings, fully illuminated by coloured lights, it takes on another identity and in the summer, pupils are still out there playing on it.

When staff at Fairfield School for children with severe learning difficulties in Heckmondwike, Yorkshire decided to develop the overgrown quadrangle that is the heart of the school, they knew they didn't want an ordinary garden. Rather they wanted one that would fit in with their increasingly multi-sensory curriculum and appeal to all the senses, not just sight and smell. They wanted it to cater for the increasing number of children in the school with a whole range of physical as well as learning difficulties, including visual impairment.

It was also hoped to create a place of peace and tranquillity, to give Meldreth Manor School, Fenny Lane, Meldreth, Near Royston, Herts SG6 6LG. Tel: 01763 260771 Fairfield School, Dale Lane, Heckmondwike, West Yorks WF16 9PA. Tel: 01924 406363 Action for the Blind, 14-16 Verney Road, London SE16 3DZ. Tel: 0171 732 8771 Royal National Institute for the Blind, 224 Great Portland Street, London W1N 6AA. Tel: 0171 388 1266 Scope, 12 Park Crescent, London W1N4EQ. Tel: 0171 636 5020 pupils more direct contact with nature and to extend the curriculum to provide, for example, new vocabulary in English, subject matter for art, herbs for cooking in food technology and wildlife and plants to observe in science.

The school energetically researched the project and raised Pounds 7,000; half from Kirklees Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, which also provided an architectlandscape designer and help with building, and the rest from fundraising events and donations.

The result will be opened later this month and, although the plants are only thinly established and some work has still to be done, the garden is already in use. Staff who were initially sceptical about the project are now enthusiastic. "They say how peaceful it is," says deputy head Sue Williams.

Peaceful it certainly is and more besides. Sheltered from the elements, and a sun trap in the summer, it is a haven of quiet, but also a place where real learning, using all the senses, can go on.

The area is dominated by a varnished, fan-shaped wooden table next to a raised planter in which a wide variety of herbs grow. Here children can have picnics, examine pots of plants which are brought to them or do other work. Encircled by a paved area which provides enough space for wheelchairs to manoeuvre, it is next to a pond at the centre of which is a pile of rocks in which a fountain plays, providing a gentle noise.

In a corner is a pergola which will eventually be overhung with climbing plants to serve as a shady place. It is also an area where sound prevails. Windchimes and other mobiles have been hung from the slats of wood.

Plants have been chosen for their smell, texture and variety of shapes, but also for their hardiness, for here pupils are encouraged to touch and even pull leaves off.

In the central planter are herbs including mint, rosemary, thyme, a curry plant and lemon balm. Lavender and hydrangeas are found in the borders. Clematis and honeysuckle will soon be climbing the walls. A buddleia was selected for its butterfly-attracting properties. Soon a bird table will be installed and Sue Williams is considering the pros and cons of having frogs or fish in the pond.

It has, she said, been an intense learning experience, and there is still a long way to go. She would like to achieve more water effects and bring in more pots which could be given to pupils at the table. A tactile wall is planned. Edible plants may be developed. The ideas are coming thick and fast.

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