Hats off to their outdoor classroom

6th July 2007 at 01:00
at one time only footballers used it, trudging through the grass and mud. The rest of the huge field adjacent to Williamston Primary in Livingston, West Lothian, lay empty, while children stayed on the paved areas to play. But then the parents got involved.

"I was approached by one of the parents about making more use of the space and I was keen," says Arlene Black, headteacher. "We had this big grassy area belonging to the school but, because of the weather, it wasn't used nearly as much as I would have liked."

Six months later, pupils are running up the all-weather access paths to play in an area designed by the children themselves, with a little help from the school grounds charity, Grounds for Learning. There is a totem pole, a bridge, a crenellated wall, swirly benches to sit on, a maze and a small stage, which all the children love. It is, effectively, an outside classroom.

"We spent loads of time painting so that it would be colourful," says Oliver Connolly from P7, one of the seven children chosen through a mixture of elections, appointments and a competition to sit on the pupil play area development committee.

Oliver was joined by Hayley Russell (P6), Hannah Adams (P5), Michael Laird (P5), Calum Gibb (P7), Cameron McEleney (P4), and Sam Connell (P4) at weekly sessions to develop their ideas. They chose themes and got their classmates to vote on their ideas to ensure it was a democratic development. They picked out furniture and equipment. They liaised with Grounds for Learning development officer Steve Moizer and, as the project progressed, put together a PowerPoint presentation for the parents' curriculum evening.

"We would often meet over lunchtime," explains Kathryn French, who teaches P5 and was responsible for guiding the project. "I would set them homework, researching different companies on the internet, finding out costings for items or equipment. They did it all themselves."

The catalyst for the project was a pound;4,000 grant from the Royal Bank of Scotland, as part of its pound;3 million Supergrounds programme, launched in 2004. This enables the bank's employees to nominate a school for play area refurbishment funding. Mrs Black added pound;2,000 from the school's enterprise budget, while four parents raised pound;250 each from other RBS grants.

"But we wouldn't have been able to do what we did if it hadn't been for our Neighbourhood Environ-ment Team, which did the preparatory and installation work for nothing," adds Mrs French. "That kept costs down so we could invest in equipment."

The experience has linked up well with A Curriculum for Excellence. But it has also had a positive impact on the rest of the school. Within the first few weeks of completion, the park was vandalised, leaving everyone devastated. "I was so annoyed, after all our hard work. We created this space for everyone and then they come along and wreck it," says Hayley.

Fortunately, the damage was superficial and the school was able to fix it. But it has made the pupils acutely conscious of how much they value the space. "We did it and it isn't fair," adds Cameron.

"Because there is so much more area to play in, we have noticed a much greater mixing between year groups," says Mrs French. "It also seems to have reduced problems and conflicts. There is more for the pupils to do, and they are getting much more exercise."

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