Quality equipment can transform a playground and restore a child's spirit of adventure. Gerald Haigh reports
Carlton Netherfield infant and nursery school in Nottinghamshire had Pounds 16,000- worth of fixed playground equipment installed three years ago. "Even now, I feel like pinching myself when I see the children on it. It's like a dream come true," says headteacher Christine Taylor.
The Victorian school building is surrounded by playgrounds without a blade of grass - just the kind of place crying out for some exciting equipment. So the staff and governors set about applying for grants, raising funds and planning for some improvements.
The result is a collection of beautifully made and colourful towers, climbing frames, rope ladders, a fireman's pole, bridges and a huge double slide. As well as this central structure there are satellite areas - one with logs for stepping on and another with a play house.
All the equipment came from fixed play equipment supplier Lappset UK, whose products are made largely of wood - mainly Arctic pine, grown in managed forests. (The parent company is based in Finland.) Lappset UK's managing director, David Gent, is committed to his role as a provider of places for children to call their own. "Today's children," he points out, "do not have one-tenth of the freedom we had in the Fifties. We even played on bomb sites."
Firms like his, he believes, are helping children to rediscover some of the adventurousness of childhood by "making a place for the child". Play, he believes, is only part of it all. "It's a lot more serious than that. When we ask children what they want, they ask for more seating, more shelter, more focal points to meet."
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the business of choosing equipment from Lappset is likely to take a long time. "Our biggest job," says Mr Gent, "is to gain confidence. In one school we found this 11-year-old waiting for us with questions on our environmental policies. We had a tough 20 minutes."
The company's policy is to use only renewable timber from managed forests. Other materials are recyclable. So a typical activity tower will be made of 88 per cent renewable raw materials and 12 per cent recyclable raw materials.
The catalogue, says Mr Gent, though obviously necessary, can be a distraction if it is introduced too early. "We'd rather ask the teachers and children to draw what they want on blank bits of paper. Then we can try to give them what's nearest."
And when all is done, the effect on a school can be dramatic - something which is seen in the way the children now use the equipment, says Christine Taylor.
"We have 230 children, so they can't all use it at the same time. When it was first installed, we had a rota, two classes a day. From last September, though, we found we haven't needed it; the children just sort themselves out in their own way." This, she feels, is a measure of the effect that the installation has had. "It has revolutionised everything about the children's play and had a very big impact on discipline and bullying."
One of the most recent Lappset ventures is to produce a new range of equipment for young people of 12 and upwards - high stools, shelters and tables, as well as some climbing ropes and basketball-type structures. "We took styling cues from night club furniture - bar stools and seats," says Mr Gent. "A teenager can make sitting on a settee into an art form."
A small carousel for children up to four will cost Pounds 695 plus Pounds 135 for installation. A structure with a slide and some walkways for older infants will be more than Pounds 5,000 and cost Pounds 1,200 to install. Lappset UK Ltd, Lappset House, Henson Way, Telford Way, Kettering NN16 8PX. Tel: 01536 412612. Web site: www