Carolyn O'Grady welcomes in the latest must-have toy
It crept up on the adult world, treading so softly we barely heard it - until just before Christmas. Then it became impossible not to be aware that the latest child craze - Beyblades - was upon us. Once again, desperate parents tramped around the shops trying to find them while desperate teachers wondered how to keep them out of schools. Not so at the 360-pupil Cypress Junior School in Croydon, south London. Here the craze is treated as a welcome addition to the play-and-learning repertoire of lunchtime and break activities.
Beyblades has its own mythology - which children are party to and adults are excluded from - but, once you get over the gobbledygook, what you are left with is spinning tops with attitude. The mini-whirling dervishes are custom-made from five key parts - the bit, attack ring, weight disk, spin gear and blade base. Mystical powers lie "within the bits", which supposedly come from ancient beings and beasts, including dragons. The only way to find out which Beyblade is best is to battle it out. The one that spins for the longest is the winner.
Cypress school's staff weren't fazed. A year ago, says head John White, the school set up a Pokemon Club where children could swop and play with the cards. However, as Pokemon went the way of all crazes, so did the club. Beyblades will vanish too, but in the meantime children organise competitions. At first sight, these look like a recipe for conflict. They involve children gathered round a Beystadium - a plastic tray in which two or three blades do battle. But the children organise turns, and there is little trouble. Newcomer Shalom, a seven-year-old girl, is nervous about entering the Beyblade arena for the first time with her newly-acquired toy, but she takes part in one of the many tournaments and before long has won.
The children seem to enjoy playing in an organised setting. "It's great to do Beyblades in school," says one child. "My friends are here and we can organise it better than we can at home."
John White is convinced that "a stimulating outdoor environment with lots of opportunities for social, physical and intellectual development promotes harmony at playtime. At our school this approach has reduced bullying and anti-social behaviour."
The school is blessed with two playgrounds, a quiet area with tables and benches, and a garden. Its outdoor store cupboard is full of skipping ropes, hoops, stilts and wooden blocks. At least two of these are put out at playtimes. There are outdoor-game grids painted on the ground, and trained play activity supervisors to direct singing, clapping and other games.
Most of the activities are organised by pupils. The programme is listed on a board, so pupils know what their year or class can do that day. In the lower playground, there is football and basketball and, on dry days, tug-of-war, tree-climbing in the garden.
It has cost money. Cypress's catchment area includes affluent and deprived areas, and a quarter of its pupils get free school meals. However, the PTA funded a gazebo where children can shelter from the weather, a climbing structure and most of the resources in the store cupboard. Soon there will be a winter activities room with chess and board games. There are also plans to set up a stage so children can organise shows, and three sheds have been bought to house dressing-up clothes.
John White believes play develops children's social, language, co-ordination and motor skills, while encouraging them to help organise breaktime activities, giving them more freedom and space to develop as individuals.