Case study: a playground in east London

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Our programme of playground improvement may seem a luxury at a time when financial resources are stretched throughout education. We might also be accused of diverting priorities from key attainment objectives. But we believe the difference to our environment, children's behaviour and the ethos of the school will make it more than worthwhile.

I managed a similar project in my previous school, a typical Victorian primary with a featureless open space. By contrast, my present school, Gwyn Jones was built in the 1970s, a square block, single-storey building, open-plan inside, and with a single-form entry. It has about 200 pupils with a social and ethnic mix that reflects the cosmopolitan nature of its catchment area, the outer-London borough of Leytonstone.

The architects obviously didn't consider children's play when they designed the school; classes from three sides of the square open out on to three separate playgrounds. They also didn't think about whether a single-form entry school would have enough staff to monitor three playgrounds. As a result, only one can be used for PE and for a late lunchtime football club when a midday supervisor becomes available.

The refurbishment began in 2001, when the head commissioned a survey by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa) to look at play area safety. Faults were apparent in the design of some of the apparatus and it was generally in a poor state. The regulations governing children's play equipment had also changed. European standards were adopted in the UK early in 1999. None of our equipment came up to standard.

We had to grapple with just how we could refurbish all the play equipment and surfaces. The parent-teacher association pledged pound;3,000, enough to get us going. We need another pound;19,000, for which there are three possible sources: PTA funding - we are fortunate to have an active, supportive association that understands the value of the playground; grant funding; and "match funding", where funds already raised are matched by a local authority or other body.

We knew the project would take some time and that the children would miss the equipment we were removing. As a stopgap, the PTA provided funds for a range of small play equipment, such as skipping ropes, soft balls, and so on, and the children have been made responsible for its care. We asked three companies to provide ideas and costings. What they have to work with could hardly be less promising. In many ways, we're a typical inner-city school with drab, open asphalt. Almost all of the apparatus identified as a risk has been removed. There is no shade or grass; each attempt to grow trees or grass has failed, leaving areas that turn to mud at the first sign of rain. Only one of the three playgrounds has any markings on it.

The surface is a key element in the redevelopment; we plan to use "wet pour" rubber surfacing, which provides a soft landing for any children who fall. It's not cheap; it can cost as much or more than the equipment. A lot of equipment is designed to be safe when sited on grass, but on asphalt wet pour is by far the best solution.

Our chosen company has developed several design options that combine practicality with adventure. We've decided to install a balance of equipment; some to provide shade and some, strategically laid out, to form an adventure trail. The final design will be chosen by consultation with the children, who will be able to vote for their favourite design. All we need now is the rest of the money.

Chris Bott is deputy head of Gwyn Jones primary school, London borough of Leytonstone

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