Experience to build on

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Andrew Mourant tells how children at a school in Cardiff made their own adventure playground

Butetown, once better known as Tiger Bay, remains a synonym for poverty in Cardiff. This thin stretch of city, sandwiched between the affluent centre and the bay, has few recreational facilities. At St Mary the Virgin Church in Wales Primary School, 78 per cent of children qualify for school meals and 70 per cent are of ethnic minority.

Nothing beats self-help when it comes to improving your lot. That's what has happened at St Mary, where pupils have designed and built an adventure playground that would be the envy of many a well-heeled school. For the past year, Andrew Burrows from Cardiff council's children's play service has led projects around the city building do-it-yourself playgrounds that are inexpensive and easy to assemble.

St Mary's is the most ambitious to date. Its creation was a design and technology curriculum project spanning several weeks over two terms for more than 70 key stage 2 pupils. The result has transformed playtime - "DT with a purpose," says headteacher Julie Bowman.

The project began with Andrew showing what other groups had done around Cardiff. Self-assembly playgrounds have sprung up across the city since he discovered MacVenture Play, a company that helps make structures in the community using its own traditional systems. The designs in Cardiff have been driven by children. These entail using prepared timber that fits into sockets. These allow scope for flexibility and modifications.

Andrew came to St Mary armed with paper, pens, Plasticine, bits of string and the tools they would use. "Children were asked to create ideas on paper," says Melanie Carpenter, the deputy head.

"They were in groups and had to work out how to build, how to join things together and to think about stability. This is all very much part of the DT curriculum. Each person was allowed their own idea - there were five parts to each structure. It was quite complicated but done in a way that was fun. I was amazed to see them working so well together. They used lots of tools they wouldn't otherwise get the chance to use - hammers, saws, drills - and learned about safety, putting on all the protective gear."

It was also a way of reaching children with little English. "We do have translators in class, but you don't have to speak English to make a design.

It wasn't an exercise in writing down," says Melanie.

The final design, which cost pound;2,500 (pound;2,000 from school funds) was agreed after models were voted on. "Andrew and the team were overwhelmed at the enthusiasm, commitment and maturity of the ideas," says Julie.

Melanie says the children have grown more aware of DT by being involved from start to finish and seeing a structure that they can use day-in day-out.

The children devised their own solutions to problems that arose during construction. For instance, when swing ropes fixed to wet timber wouldn't move easily, they used soap to grease the wood. Assembling the design was supervised by Andrew and a team, including Cardiff's minority ethnic communities play development worker Parveen Ahmad.

Julie says the project has helped break down cultural barriers. "Before this, a Somalian girl wouldn't have known what to do with a drill," she says. It has also developed an appetite to do more; the children now talk of adding swings and lowering the monkey bars so they can be reached by smaller children.

"I felt happy and excited when we were building it," says Debbie, aged nine. "We'd never done anything like this before. Since then I've helped my mother design a garden at home."

It has also transformed break-time for Safia, aged 11. "I used to finish my work in playtime, but I don't now," she says.

The school council has created rules: each year group has a day they're allowed to use it, and has devised sanctions; a troublesome child may lose their session.

Building and running their own playground has greatly improved behaviour, Julie says. "It can be volatile at playtime; some schools have stopped afternoon play because of the problems. But if we really want to develop the whole child, it's important they have social skills."

Andrew wants other schools to follow St Mary's led: "We'd like to get these ideas out as widely as possible, so other children will hear about it. We need a champion and friends on the education side."

l www.macventureplay.co.uk

Also visit Cardiff Council's website (click on Leisure and Childrens' play)

* www.cardiff.gov.uk

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