Give them a break

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Play underpins all learning and development in the early years, but there is more national guidance on the outdoor space needed for free-range chickens than for primary children. Helen Ward visited two schools that have transformed cramped yards into gateways to adventure

Andrew Lynham has made his playground buddies redundant. "When the new playground opened, there simply wasn't anyone who had no one to play with," he says. "All the children were able to pair up."

The same children who had once spent playtimes hanging onto the supervisor's coat-tails were now off with friends. The group of boys sitting outside the head's office after lunchtime confrontations disappeared.

The new play area itself can take much of the credit. What was once a field has now become a gateway to adventure, to life on the high seas and in the gladiatorial arena.

At first glance, the school grounds at Wellesley Primary in Yate, near Bristol, still look sparse. No climbing frame, no assault course, not even a slide. But there is a tunnel, a bridge, an amphitheatre and a wooden village. And there is a giant shed.

At playtimes, the shed's true identity as the playpod is revealed as the children drag out yellow tubs, traffic cones, tyres, rubber mats and other equipment. Now the field is transformed, into a pirate ship, an enemy stronghold, the stage for a singing competition, a parade of shops. Other attractions include a sandpit, willow huts and a pond.

While Mr Lynham, headteacher at Wellesley, can be justifiably proud of the play area's transformation; not all schools have the space to do this. Despite government recognition of the importance of play in the early years, there are few guidelines on what constitutes `good play' and no national standards for school play areas. The government document setting out the objectives of good play date back to 2000.

"There is much more guidance about the amount of land needed for free- range chickens than for primary children," says Michael Follett, local authority adviser for play in South Gloucestershire.

He recognises that the type of transformation seen at Wellesley is an option open to few schools. But even with limited space there is still much that can be done. "If you can't increase the quantity, then the question is how to increase the quality," he says.

This has been the solution at Christopher Hatton Primary in Holborn, central London. The 230-pupil Victorian school, squashed between a major road and a high-rise estate, has an outstanding Ofsted report and is oversubscribed. "Our catchment area is about 0.05 of a mile," jokes headteacher Gwen Lee. "To get in, you have to be able to touch the school from your bedroom window."

Foundation-stage pupils have their own playground, but key stages 1 and 2 share two playgrounds, one beneath the arches supporting a main road and one on the roof.

A report on the school's predicament for Camden Council concluded that, based on current pupil numbers, the external play space should be five times bigger. The lack of space caused overcrowding and affected the health and welfare of children, the report noted.

Last term the school gained permission to expand into a car park. When the pound;240,000 project is finished this month it will almost double the space available for play.

"The playground is quite fun, except for walking and running around. It is quite small for that," says 10-year-old Mahfuz Rahman. "I remember when I was in nursery and the nursery playground seemed very, very big. But when you go back now, it is small."

Outdoor space is a crucial part of a school's early-years delivery. Government guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) acknowledges that play helps children make sense of the world, allows them to build up skills, and encourages them to understand the need for rules and to think creatively.

"Play underpins all development and learning for young children," the guidance states.

The document, issued in 2007, emphasises the importance of a daily opportunity to play outdoors. "All early-years providers must have access to an outdoor play area which can benefit the children," it adds.

Catherine Prisk, assistant director of Play England, wants to challenge schools to make more of playtime. "I would say the vast majority of schools feel playtime is not important; it is `free time'," she says.

he says many primary schools use break times to bring children in for extra reading practice or to catch up where they have fallen behind. But often the children who end up missing their breaks are those most in need of some downtime.

"Those children are the ones most at risk of not having good resilience and need to be with their peer group," she says. "I want to run a campaign to reclaim the word `playtime'. It is children's playtime not the teachers' break. The point is for children to have 15 or 20 minutes of down time, their time, for their own activities when they are not being told what to do."

She says play should be promoted as a good in itself, not just something that leads to measurable outcomes, an approach that strikes a chord with Mr Follett. "Imagine if a school had behaviour problems in a maths lesson, and so they cut it from 45 minutes to 10 minutes. No one would dream of doing that because we attach huge importance to maths," he says.

"Play opportunities in most schools are so poor that creating a fight or taunting someone or going in to report an accident are three of the more interesting things to do. They provide some variety, challenge and risk. Once you've got play opportunities, those behaviours disappear."

Mrs Lee has an added incentive to fight for extra space for her pupils to play: more than 90 per cent of children at Christopher Hatton primary have no gardens at home.

The school has made the most of its constricted space with zoned areas, including areas for quiet time, running, imaginative play using loose materials and other games.

Parents have raised pound;100,000 for the playground through sponsored events and donations from local businesses. "Children really need to run around, just sitting all day isn't good," says Eva Driskell, who has two sons at the school. "I take my sons to parks. But in the winter, play at school is really important because there is no daylight after school."

Their own experience has inspired the school to work on a project with the British Library, collecting children's games, songs and rhymes to record how the way children play has changed. "Children learn so much through play," says Mrs Lee. "It is how you interact with others. How you deal with not getting your own way. It is life."

The EYFS guidance also highlights the importance of seeing play as an opportunity for children to take risks and make mistakes. This idea lies behind the approach at Wellesley Primary, when the opening of the school's play area coincided with staff taking a step back.

"The rule on day one was that there were no rules," Mr Lynham says. "Staff were very vigilant in terms of health and safety, but we wanted children to go and experience and practise. We stood back and watched, although if they were in immediate danger we would step in."

To emphasise this revolution, on the playground's opening day lessons were suspended and the children played all day.

The catalyst for the new playground was a rebuild. With the school buildings moving to a different part of the site, the play area became a blank canvas.

Mr Lynham had pound;60,000 to spend on the area. A contractor was hired to carry out the landscaping and install features such as the amphitheatre. But much of the equipment comes from Bristol Children's Scrapstore, a charity that collects waste from businesses and recycles it for use as play material.

It took 12 to 18 months of planning before the new play policy was in place, but Mr Lynham says any head thinking of following his lead must accept it will take time. "Don't rush into it and don't be half-hearted, if you are half-hearted the impact will be small, you have to be brave," he says.

Since the play area opened last June, new rules have been added to the original `no rules' approach. There is no climbing on picnic benches or roofs; paddle only in bare feet or wellies; no walking on or destroying plants; no climbing trees; and no toys from home.

For the children, the effect has been dramatic. "We only had the field and our friends to play with before, no activities," says Tierney O'Brien, 10. "Now it is more fun because we have a lot more stuff."

Making the most of the land available is often a question of changing attitudes. There's nothing to be gained by turfing out children into a barren playground and telling them to play, Mr Follett says, even with support from midday supervisors. "You can't make a plant grow by telling it to grow, you have to create the right conditions and then it will grow."

This has to be led by the headteacher who, in turn, has to convince parents that the school has not been negligent when their child comes home muddy and scratched by bushes.

"It can be quite a challenging cultural change, and the school needs to be particularly sure why it is doing what it is doing," Mr Follett says.

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