Teachers often overlook the potential educational assets they have outside their classroom. School Grounds Week aims to change that, writes Raymond Ross
Grounds for Learning, the charity that campaigns for better school grounds in Scotland, is counting down to the middle of September.
Its annual Scottish School Grounds Week, on September 13-17, aims to serve as a springboard for schools to make the most of the world outside their windows. This year's activities focus on a "spiral of awareness", says director Simon Lewis, with the child at the centre, moving outwards through an appreciation of friends, the school and its grounds, the local community and finally our place in the world.
A free pack targeted at primary schools, entitled My Space, Our Place, encourages activities as various as monster maths, a blindfold walk, model making, school grounds explorations, nature detective work, mask magic and compiling a grounds gazette, either a newspaper or electronic publication covering the week's activities.
"The pack gives a huge array of ideas which support teachers and allow them to develop their own ideas," says Heather Gray, depute headteacher at Echline Primary in South Queensferry, Edinburgh, a school with a history of innovative grounds development and GfL involvement.
"Outside is a huge resource but teachers can feel wary of using it. The pack gives you confidence as well as ideas and the more you use the pack, the more uses you see for it," she says.
When Mrs Gray arrived at Echline Primary 20 years ago, the grounds were used mostly for football, occasionally other sports and cycle proficiency tests. Over the past six years things have changed dramatically.
"We're lucky to have big grounds with a lot of potential, but because we weren't an inner city school we didn't necessarily attract the monies at first to develop them. 'You've got grass. What are you complaining about?'
was the attitude, to which our answer was 'Yes, but it is only grass'," she says.
With financial support from Edinburgh city council, local businesses, the community and schemes such as the Royal Bank of Scotland's Supergrounds, plus resources and ideas from Grounds for Learning, the school now boasts an amphitheatre which is used for sport, dance, prize-giving ceremonies and end-of-term assemblies, an enclosed garden which features a bed of herbs for use in cooking, an adventure area, a woodland walk and a sheltered seating area decorated with a mosaic wall made of tiles and mirrors by the pupils.
Using parent labour for the heavy digging is handy, but organisations such as Gounds for Learning are central to success.
"GfL runs professional development courses and through them you meet landscape architects and environmentalists, a whole bank of practitioners you can call upon," explains Mrs Gray.
Echline Primary further involved the community in developing the grounds by getting donations of old railway sleepers from Port Edgar Yacht Club and Dalmeny Station for benches and pond edging, sawn barrels for plant tubs from a local cooper and tree stumps from a tree surgeon for garden seats.
"You don't borrow or steal but you do beg," says Mrs Gray, "and this has a knock-on effect.
"A grandparent brought in bird boxes where blue tits now nest. So then a parent turned up with bat boxes because he knew we did that sort of thing.
We now get indoor plants given to us and, most recently, a fish tank."
The grounds are now a community asset, open out of school hours for use by the pupils, youth football teams and community organisations such as the Brownies. As part of the annual Queensferry in Bloom event, the grounds are also accessible on open days. Educational visitors - who are shown around by pupils - have come from as far as the Netherlands, Greece, Iceland and Kenya.
Improving the grounds supports better learning and better behaviour, says Mrs Gray. "Our playground supervisors report that behaviour is better because there are lots of activities for the pupils to do and different areas to go to. They don't just hang around the playground."
Headteacher Jim McColgan agrees. "It makes for a happy learning environment and an environment in which the children are involved.
"All children, including special educational needs pupils, feed the birds, take delight in the sensory garden and get involved in raising funds through the pupil council and tuck shop and then deciding how the monies should be spent."
Last year, in conjunction with Queensferry in Bloom, each of the school's 300 pupils planted seven crocus bulbs.
"If you visit in the spring or early summer you can see over 2,000 crocuses flourishing in our grounds," says Mrs Gray.
"Projects like School Grounds Week can be hard work but they're worth the effort. And you can get the weeding done too."
Scottish School Grounds Week, September 13-17 www.gflscotland.org.uk