A three-year government project looking at how schools can deliver the national curriculum target of two hours of quality PE and sport a week, has thrown up astonishing evidence that, by helping children to use their free time constructively, things can be improved across the board. "What's so great is the huge amount of hard data we've been able to gather, and the fact that the changes have been sustained," says Crichton Casbon, principal subject officer for PE and dance for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which is running the project.
In the shadow of Preston North End's football stadium, Deepdale infant school makes the most of a playground where the usual inner-city tarmac has been transformed into a riot of colour. Boys play football in a ball cage, leaving the rest of the playground free for skipping, throwing and running. Different zones indicate different activities - red for ball games, blue for other games, yellow for quiet areas. Hoops and cones are set out, and lunchtime supervisors encourage children to have a go and applaud their achievements. The head, Anne Desforges, who always spends lunchtimes in the playground, stops to count for a boy who has just learned to skip backwards, and he runs off grinning.
Deepdale is part of the QCA project, and has become a Zoneparc school, with its brightly coloured playground and training for midday supervisors as play assistants sponsored by Nike and the Youth Sport Trust, and additional funds from the new local education action zone.
Playtime is now seen as part of a fully integrated day. Games are modified to link in with PE core activities, with lessons being used to teach the skills and monitor progress, while the children are encouraged to practise at lunchtimes.
Seven-year-old Sarah talks about how she always used to fall out with her friends at lunchtime. She wasn't particularly athletic, but now she plays games, skips, and "does the bouncy balls". She's lost weight, doesn't cry any more, and looks forward to her time outside.
PE lessons, Anne Desforges points out, can be threatening when a teacher sets the targets. But by practising in their own time children learn to be persistent, and feel good about what they have achieved. "We've seen a big improvement in skills."
Years 1 and 2 have different lunchtimes, and the foundation stage has a separate play area. Five-minute "chill-out" sessions allow children to talk about playtime issues before afternoon lessons.
But is it all too structured? Not at all, says Anne Desforges. No child is ever required to do anything, although an apparently aimless pupil might be gently encouraged to have a go at something.
The zoned playground was put into operation last September and by the summer a whole new culture was emerging. The school has a high percentage of ethnic minority children, many of whom don't get much physical activity at home. Now, girls have forsaken their high-heeled mules for trainers, the number of notes from parents asking for children to be excused from PE has plummeted, and many children ask their parents to take them to the park to play.
Anyone who spends five minutes in the Deepdale playground can see how much every child seems to enjoy being active. Seven-year-old Fatimah agrees. "In PE our teacher says if you're huffing and puffing, your lungs are opening and closing, and your blood is going round."
"The playground is not an add-on," says the head. "It is an outside workshop. We talk to the children about the purpose of it, how we're going to use it together, and how it's going to make them better learners. They used to wander around eating crisps. Now they wouldn't dream of it."
Nearly 40 schools are currently involved in the QCA initiative, and a revamped website detailing planning, initiatives, and assessment strategies is to be launched this autumn. Meanwhile, many more schools are likely to find themselves looking closely at their playgrounds following this summer's announcement of increased government spending for sport and PE.
All of which is great news when it comes to helping all children acquire an active lifestyle.
How to do lunchtime
Fair Furlong primary in south Bristol is a Zoneparc school, and headteacher Peter Overton has seen his playground transformed by a pound;28,000 makeover. "But this is in no way essential to making the most of playtime - we used to go out with a spray can and mark things out. It lasted a few weeks and we could see what worked."
Like all schools in the QCA action research project, Fair Furlong's creative lunchtimes are part of an overall PE package in the context of wider school improvement. "The complaints parents make are often nothing to do with the classroom, they're about things like bullying and their children being picked on in the playground," says Overton. "For children, it's the most significant part of the school day, yet traditionally it has been managed by the poorest paid, least skilled people."
As in many of the project's schools, lunchtime supervisors have been trained as play leaders. He adds that having music has been stunningly effective, and points out the teamwork, listening and discussion that is going on while a dance routine is painstakingly improved. One surprise spin-off has been the arrival of Year 10 girls from a neighbouring secondary to teach Fair Furlong's pupils dance. "Negative game playing" has dropped by two thirds.
"PE and the arts are essential for all schools, but massively so in disadvanted areas," says Overton. "Children need a reason to come to school - somewhere they can achieve, make progress and feel successful."
Playtime pep talk
Do playtimes reflect your school culture and, if not, why not? What activities would you like to provide and why? Do you make the most of existing resources, such as playground markings?
* Midday supervisors need training and support to become active play leaders.
* Children need to be taught how to play productively.
* Active playtimes work best as part of a whole PE package.
* Organising and storing equipment efficiently requires logistical planning.
* Visit the QCA website for planning, resources and ideas (www.qca.org.ukcasubjectspepess).