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Playing safe is just so boring

Does schools' health and safety paranoia make them a bad home for the wave of new play facilities? Karen Gold reports

Should schools be places where children play? What happens when risk-averse schools are faced with demands to allow a bit of risk to make play fun?

Education and play cultures may be heading for a clash in the debate over the future of children's play. The debate has revved up because the Government is channelling pound;124 million to local authorities for play via its Children's Play Initiative. Authorities are inviting schools and voluntary bodies to discuss what kind of play facilities children need, and where they should be sited.

The pound;124m is coming from the Big Lottery Fund and will be distributed among English local authorities. There will be also be pound;20 million for Wales, and awards yet to be set for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Another pound;31m in BLF money will be divided between an innovation fund for play and developing a support infrastructure for the national play sector.

Since the cash was announced last year, authorities have been appointing "play champions", to bring together interested parties to assess facilities and make a plan to improve them.

Play has been climbing the political agenda since the Children Act made local authorities legally responsible for working to enable young people to "enjoy recreation" - though without defining how or how provision would be audited.

Authorities will have to bid for money from the BLF, which will publish advice on bids next month, with four subsequent deadlines for authorities to submit their strategies and plans: July and November 2006, and March and September 2007.

The campaigning charity the Children's Play Council is expected this month to be awarded a contract by the BLF to oversee approval of local bids as well as to produce national good play practice guidelines.

So what might good practice look like? Drawing on the report Getting Serious about Play by MP Frank Dobson in 2004, the BLF says it wants to fund "free, inclusive local play... activities that are self-directed, creative and fun...what children and young people want to do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way and for their own reasons".

Among its examples of projects it is likely to approve are adventure playgrounds, BMX and skateboard parks, holiday and after-school play activities, informal sports facilities, funding for play workers and better accesslonger opening times of play facilities.

But are such activities feasible on school premises?

For the point about play, says Adrian Voce, CPC director, is that it generally happens in public space - street corners, roadsides, derelict land - without direction or close scrutiny from adults, and almost inevitably involves some risk. Though compromises can be found - as an example Mr Voce suggests traverse walls for horizontal climbing, offering challenge without height - the reality is that children need the spice of risk just as much as schools, understandably, fear giving it to them:

"The risk-averse culture in schools is affecting children's play," Mr Voce says. "Spaces are being closed off and sold off. Playground equipment is designed to be safe but it's so dull children won't even bother with it.

More is being spent on safety surfaces than anything else.

"Children need to set their own agenda. They need to jump and use high structures. They need to use real hammers and real nails and build shelters and sit round and make fires and cook things on them, just as Scouts and Brownies have always done."

If the safety issue can be dealt with, many schools are ideally sited to host play activities, provided they can be kept open beyond 4pm - a vital development that the BLF has specifically said is likely to gain funding.

Coton C of E primary near Cambridge sits in the middle of unfenced open fields, to which current and former pupils and families have access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, says joint head Margaret Guest.

There are drawbacks, she adds, but the benefits outweigh them: "Our children don't go straight home after school; they often stay and play.

They bring bikes and scooters to the playground at weekends. Families come and picnic.

"Older children come back, which is more difficult because they know where the shady corners are for smoking. That's a concern, as are dogs and vandalism, though we haven't had very much. Though it keeps them from going further afield and getting into more trouble.

"I don't worry about injury or legal responsibility because we have public liability insurance. Maybe I should. On the other hand if it's being used, that can be good security for the school. There have been fires lit, but a long way from the building, and there have been signs of drug abuse. But it's such a lovely site, and so good to have it available to the community, it's worth it."

If schools are looking for money to offer breakfast clubs or evening classes, the Play Initiative is the wrong place to look, says Mr Voce.

Those fall within the childcare and education budgets, which are far bigger, and which work in a heavily supervised culture that is familiar to schools.

On the other hand, he adds, if schools want to help combat obesity, reduce child injuries on Britain's roads (one every 16 seconds) and above all listen to what children want (see story, right) then making a local play bid is the way to do it.

"Schools have been under-used. Sometimes they are the best places for children to play. But heads will have to talk to playworkers. I think it will require a big culture shift."

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