Every teacher knows that wet playtimes mean trouble in class. But the decline in popularity of playground games has meant that breaks can bring problems regardless of the weather. Carolyn O'Grady visits a school in east London where children are playing - and learning - with renewed enthusiasm
Do you remember playing traditional games in the playground? If you are over 30 the answer is probably "yes". But how often do you see games being played now? Probably almost never. For whatever reason - unsafe street space, smaller families, working parents, TV and computer games, and the omnipresence of football - children appear to have lost interest in playground games.
It is a trend which Northwold primary, a 430-pupil school housed in a huge, red-brick, multi-storied Victorian building in Tower Hamlets, one of London's most deprived authorities, is trying hard to reverse.
Northwold had many reasons for reintroducing games. "There were a lot of discipline problems at break which were spilling over into the classroom, " says deputy head Surinder Dhingra. "If children get too hyped up they're not in the mood for learning. When break goes well everyone is happier." Games that involve groups of children working co-operatively seemed one way of encouraging calmer, happier breaktimes.
The school also wanted to end the dominance of football and to encourage speaking and listening skills, an area highlighted in their OFSTED action plan. The remembering of games as well as the verbal elements of many of them seemed integral to this. Games also involved physical exercise and, importantly, they were fun.
In October Northwold organised a two-day training programme with John Goodwin, an ex-Tower Hamlets youth officer, and now an independent trainer and author of a book on playground games, the result of a project involving four East London schools to devise ways of introducing traditional games.
"It's not just a matter of teaching them lots and lots of games," Mr Goodwin says. "The school itself will supply those from a book or from their own knowledge. (He would like to see Asian and Afro-Caribbean games introduced. ) What's important is a thoughtful, tight, but not inflexible structure, which ensures that the project continues."
The mainstay of Goodwin's structure are "peer tutors" or "playground friends", pupils who are taught how to explain the games, involve other children and stop or modify a game if it becomes unsafe or is too difficult. At Northwold 16 children, aged between seven and 10, were chosen for their maturity, ability to initiate, and because the school felt they would benefit from more responsibility.
Also vital to success are the support staff, all of whom were involved in the training days. The school is working hard, says Surinder Dhingra, at "raising the profile of support staff". Two have been selected to oversee the scheme and support the playground friends.
Support staff member Surindar Kaur is enthusiastic. "It gives a new value to the playground. There's more co-operation and more interaction between boys and girls and between different groups. This is about fun, not about winning and losing," she says. Teachers reported that children were more settled after the break.
Though the playground friends were very keen and rose to the challenge of their difficult role - many displayed some remarkable people skills - they admitted to one problem. "The older kids won't listen; they think its babyish, " says Michaela, aged seven. However, her remark is immediately countered by Christopher, aged 10. "That doesn't matter because the young ones will be used to playing games by the time they get to the juniors," he says. A culture of games will develop, he is suggesting.
Surinder Dhingra is determined the project won't fizzle out. "We will have to give it a lot of time. It won't keep running by itself," she says. In addition to encouraging support staff and playground friends, a pupil's playground committee has been set up and a suggestion box given a prominent place in the school.
So is it worth it? Yes, says Surindar Kaur, surveying the small groups. "This is what playgrounds should be about. It's something to be looked back on, one of the memories of childhood."
100 Games and Activities for the School Playground, by John Goodwin and Mina Temple, is published by Headstart, an educational charity. Unit 18, Links Yard, Spelman Street, London E1 5LX. Tel: 0171 247 9489; fax: 0171 247 1633 Pounds 7.50. John Goodwin can be contacted via Headstart. A day's training costs Pounds 185; two days: Pounds 295
TIPS FOR INTRODUCING PLAYGROUND GAMES
* Nominate playground friends (sometimes called "peer tutors") who are enthusiastic and willing to introduce the games for around 20 minutes two or three times a week. They should be well supported; for example, regular meetings should be arranged for them to discuss problems.
u Use enthusiastic support staff who will only interfere in a crisis but who are willing to join in the games and support the friends.
* Designate playground space which children know won't be encroached on by other activities.
u Have a repertoire of around 10 simple but fun games which the playground friends enjoy and have experience in leading. New games can be added from time to time.
* Try to keep the head and staff committed and enthusiastic!
TWO POPULAR GAMES Golden River
Children stand in a line. One child stands in front. The group asks: "May we cross your golden river, in your golden boat?" The child in front replies: "Yes, those of you who are wearing blue (or whatever colour he or she chooses) can cross". They have to run or walk to an agreed line without being caught. If caught, they go into the centre on their own.
Cat and Mouse
The children hold hands in a circle. One is chosen to step out to be the cat; another steps into the circle and is the mouse. The rest keep holding hands and have to stop the cat getting into the circle to catch the mouse by placing their bodies in the way (they must stay standing up). If the cat does get into the circle, the mouse is left out and the situation is reversed.