How can you prevent playtime being dominated by boys playing football? Gerald Haigh visits a school which has found imaginative solutions to the problem. One of Brueghel's most popular paintings shows lots of children playing games - cup and ball, spinning top, chasing, skipping. Not only is it a valuable document of social history, but for me, at least, it carries lots of emotional punch as a reminder of the eternal nature of childhood.
This was brought home to me with great force when, on a beautiful day, I visited Cestria Primary School in Chester-le-Street, County Durham.
At lunchtime, I walked into the staffroom and went to the window which overlooks the playground. There before me was the Brueghel painting - hundreds of children playing games individually, in pairs and in groups, using a wide range of small equipment.
There is no field at Cestria, so all 450 children use the two hard- surfaced playgrounds. In schools which have this problem, these areas are often dominated - owned, in fact - by boys playing football. Girls, and those boys who are either left out or do not want to join in, have to use whatever space is available around the edge, where they are likely either to be hit by the football or bumped into by fast-moving players.
Some schools, however, have succeeded in solving this problem. At Cestria, the playground is alive with children playing. They are evenly spread across the space with no obviously dominating group. When I visited the school a second time, and walked around the playground, the general feeling that the children are comfortable with themselves and each other was quite palpable.
There is, of course, much more to this than the giving out of equipment. Cestria staff, led by Paul Thompson, their headteacher, have worked hard at the school's behaviour policy, and this has percolated through to playground attitudes.
I had an indication of Mr Thompson's approach when he described how he dealt with the arrival of "Pogs" - the little tokens which have become so popular among primary children that some schools have actually banned them on the grounds that the games played with them promote argument and disruption.
"I didn't want to do that, because they were keeping the children avidly occupied. It's a sitting down game that promotes lots of social activity, " he says.
So, when the inevitable disputes about ownership started to arise (in Pogs games, players can win each other's tokens) he introduced pupils to the notion of the legally binding contract. "I said they had to agree the terms of the game clearly at the start, in front of an independent witness if necessary. The problem vanished overnight."
This approach - that children should respect and understand each other's position - is at the heart of Mr Thompson's approach. The children themselves have worked on a document called "How We Live at Cestria", which describes acceptable attitudes and actions, and underpins all that happens on the playground as well as in class.
All the same, the move away from the soccer-dominated playground was not accomplished overnight. "When I came there was football on the junior yard. There was a termly toll of broken windows and, more seriously, younger children and girls were being hit by footballs," says Mr Thompson.
The first solution was to put football into designated zones at the edge of the area. "It didn't work - the balls were continually going over the wall and on the roof." So they tried plan B: "We looked at staggering break times between younger and older juniors. But it would have given us a horrendous organisational problem, and it didn't help the girls."
Banning football altogether was not an option. "As PE staff pointed out, it's on the playground that children pick up and practise many of the ball skills. "
The answer, in the end, was simple. "We gave them lightweight sponge footballs. They're all perfectly happy with them." Furthermore, the girls then seemed more inclined to join in -"We now have some girls in the football team."
The next step was to give out, at lunchtime, small games equipment that otherwise languished in boxes between PE lessons - hoops, skipping ropes. This became so popular that "we combed the catalogues for other things". Wet weather, of course, keeps children indoors - another headache-provoking time for teachers and supervisers.
Much the same philosophy prevails at Cestria, though - each class has a box of games - chess, draughts, snakes and ladders, Monopoly, Ludo, dominoes and playing cards.
Mr Thompson teaches the children card games: "They love them." In fact he knows so many that I accused him of a mis-spent youth - though the truth seems to lie in a mathematician's fascination with numbers and puzzles. (As a young teacher he once got into hot water for teaching his children to play roulette. ) "The wet weather drill is that the box comes out and children can draw, read, use colouring books or play games."
You have to spend money on this sort of policy, of course. Mr Thompson reckons that keeping up the supply of playground equipment costs perhaps Pounds 200 a year. For indoor games he gave each of his 14 classes a budget of Pounds 60. This is topped up as the games become tatty or pieces get lost.
Each class teacher made a list and Paul Thompson bought the whole lot from a local toy wholesaler he found in Yellow Pages. If you do this, also compare educational catalogue prices. The ESPO (Eastern Shire Purchasing Organisation) catalogue, for example, has a range of indoor games including: Scrabble (Pounds 10.13)
Ludo (Pounds 2.90)
Chess (from Pounds 3.66,
boards Pounds 1.69)
Dominoes (Pounds 2.02)
Playing cards (77p)
Equipment at Cestria Primary includes:
Foam frisbee - harmless on impact, Pounds 2.25
Catch pad - a velcro pad with a loop to fit the hand. Used to catch a special velcro covered ball, Pounds 1.75
Catch glove - similar, but a glove rather than just a pad, Pounds 1.80
Hit and stick bat - like a table tennis bat, but with velcro, used like the catch pad and catch glove, Pounds 2.15
Catch ball - the velcro ball to go with the catch pad and glove, Pounds 1
Skittles - coloured plastic, about the size of a big bottle. Each Pounds 6.95
Foam ball - lightweight football-sized ball. Various sizes, about Pounds 2.
Cestria got the above items from Maudesport, Units 2324 Empire Close, Empire Industrial Park, Aldridge, Walsall WS9 8UQ. Tel: 01922 59571
Flip toss - a small plastic version of a pelota - you can catch and trap a ball with it, and then flip it back. Children love this, because the skill required to use it properly presents a challenge. Used with an ordinary perforated plastic ball, Pounds 6.70
Koosh ball - a small ball, quite heavy for its size made of rubbery strands so it looks like a floppy hedgehog. It is harmless on impact and delightfully creepy to handle, Pounds 3
Stick it - a velcro ball on a string. You swing it and and pick up little velcro targets from the ground to score points, Pounds 3.20 for the whole game
These items come from Sutcliffe Sport, Lynn Lane, Shendstone, Lichfield, Staffs WS14 0EE. Tel: 01543 483222
All are educational catalogue prices, excluding VAT. Other sports equipment suppliers may list some or all of these items.
Finally - Cestria children enjoy playing with an oversized shuttlecock. The heavy end is the size of a tennis ball and the plastic flight is proportionately large. You hit the shuttle with a large plastic bat and it flies very slowly. Mr Thompson bought it in France, and has been unable to track it down over here. Can anyone help?
The school's phone number is 0191 388 2483