Playgrounds can be awful places, says Kevin Berry, as he reports on a scheme that makes grey areas a little greener
Children spend the equivalent of a day each week in the playground, which soon adds up to 18 months of their primary school lives. That can mean 18 months of being shoved and tripped and shouted at, 18 months of boredom.
The harsh culture of the playground runs counter to school policies and mission statements and the gentle platitudes of morning assemblies. Just think of how long children take to calm down after 15 windswept minutes, or the debilitating effect of half-an-hour in a playground baked by the midday sun.
Brian Stoker, an environmental officer with the Cheshire Advisory Service, has been involved with improving playgrounds for two decades. He believes in a holistic, long-term approach involving parents, teachers, governors, cooks, caretakers and midday staff - with the children in a pivotal role.
Children have told him they have nowhere to sit and talk or read. They bemoan the lack of civilised sanctuary, and complain bitterly when headteachers abolish afternoon playtime. He believes behaviour problems, accidents and boredom are perpetuated by the bleak environments in which children are asked to play.
The Mersey Forest, the largest of England's 12 community forests (set up by the Country-side and Forestry Commissions to create new green spaces around urban areas), gives advice and support to Merseyside schools wanting to develop their playgrounds, based on Brian Stoker's concepts. Schools that have worked with Mersey Forest have reported a 30 per cent drop in accidents, fewer children hanging round the toilets, radically improved behaviour and less bullying.
Beechwood school, in Runcorn, once had a sun-baked play area, but now has two shady wooden arbours where children can sit and chat, undisturbed by sun, breeze or footballs. And the footballers benefit, because nobody gets in their way.
Trees have been planted in the school's play areas to provide shelter as well as beauty, and all-weather paths improve access. Mersey Forest consultants say that rather than plant 100 saplings, they consider the long-term effect - six trees and some shrubs might be more effective. Shelter and interest should be considered when planting, they say, and try to imagine the landscape when the trees are mature.
At Allanson Street school in St Helens, pupil numbers have risen by 80, and the incidence of vandalism has plummeted. The school grounds look inviting, the children and neighbours are proud of the place and litter is rarely seen. Headteacher Chris Maloney remembers going into school one day four years ago to be told of 98 broken windows. Now they are rare.
A seated waiting area for parents and a pedestrian walkway are planned. Phyllis Molyneux, a parent who was a pupil in the 1960s, remembers noise, anger and confusion. "They've done wonders," she marvels. "Children used to be so wild."
Paula Crook, a midday supervisor, says the changes have made her job so much easier. The play areas are zoned for fast or gentle activities, and children understand the distinctions and behave accordingly. Playground duty must be bliss.
Cosy shelters, called planters, were designed with children's help. "There never used to be anywhere to sit down," says 11-year-old Kelly Murray, as she peeps through the wooden railings and leaves. "Now we can sit and rest."
Of course noise and hectic activity remain, as in any playground, but not the usual bedlam featuring a harassed adult screeching for order. And praise be, there are no solitary children.
The school field is no longer a huge, boring lawn. Interesting woodland areas have been created with mushroom seats to make sociable areas, and much of the grass allowed to grow to full height with twisting pathways mown through.
"We used to have contractors in 20 times a year to cut the grass," says Chris Maloney. "It was a ridiculous waste of money."
Even with those savings, money was needed to fund the improvements. The two schools have sought sponsorship and grants, often with the help of Mersey Forest. If playground changes are prepared properly, with well-presented plans, and the rationale explained, business people can be surprisingly eager to help. The number of funding bodies with cash grants is also a welcome surprise.
The only problem is that once the changes have been outlined, the children can't wait. But then who can blame them?
England's 12 community forests have a brief to improve the environment. For details contact the Countryside Commission, tel: 01242 521381l The Mersey Forest will twin your school with others in the area and in other community forests. It also provides INSET, parent-governor awareness sessions and advice on developing a holistic approach to school grounds development. In addition, it has a database that helps schools with project work on the biological changes in the Mersey Forest. Merseyside schools can contact Mersey Forest on 01925 816217