Climbing frames bring pleasure to the playground - and much else besides, reports Victoria Neumark
Look at me!" "Look at me!" "Look! I can do this hanging thing!" "I can do a slidey!" "Whee, I'm coming down!" "I'm coming up!" "My turn now." "Your turn now." "Oh, look at me, Miss, look at me, look look, look!" A joyful chorus of voices from the reception class at St Anselm's Roman Catholic Primary School, in Southall, Middlesex, as their cheerful little bodies wriggle and race up and down the new climbing frame.
It stands in what is admittedly a rather bleak, windswept expanse of playground in a poorish corner of Southall. But on it the children, squirming and giggling in delight, seem to radiate optimism. Pauline Clancy, deputy head and reception class teacher, shakes her head in pleasure. "They like it so much and I have to keep looking. When it's our turn to use the climbing frame, I have to look so much!"
The climbing frame is from SMP's new Horizon range, made from strong steel and painted in bright primary colours. It has a rope mesh on one side, a solid climbing wall on another and arrangements of ladders and bars on the other two. Pauline Clancy won it in a draw at last year's Education Show.
"I've never won anything before and when I do it's for the school," she laughs. "But it's been so good. They can't wait for their class to have their turn."
The Pounds 2,500 frame would have been too costly for the school's normal budget, but at the annual May Fair the parents did raise the Pounds 1,800 needed to lay safety matting underneath. The matting is integral to the design, as one can fully appreciate, watching small children not just jump gleefully off but also hurl themselves full tilt. Ms Clancy claims to have seen one child bounce, so resilient is the closed-cell material.
One hot week last summer headteacher Patrick Coleman, the parish priest and a couple of parents got the glue - "horrible stuff," says Mr Coleman - and laid the surface, watched at playtime by a ring of appreciative children. "I don't think there's ever been such a quiet playtime," says Mr Coleman.
The 280 children of St Anselm's were not solely motivated by interest in the construction process. "They were so eager," says Ms Clancy, "so eager to get on it."
The frame has been in place for nine months and there have been no notable accidents. Like many inner-city schools, St Anselm's has debated playground behaviour and had longed for a climbing frame to replace pushing, shoving and the ubiquitous football (only two playtimes a week).
Rationing climbing - it's only used by the class whose teacher is on duty - has partly contributed to the frame's popularity, but it also acts as a stimulus to imaginative play, with crocodiles and pirates featuring in the Southall play lexicon.
Even for older children, rather to the surprise of staff, it has not lost its fascination. "It's brilliant," confirms Pauline Clancy. "Some children get bored if they've got nothing to do, they don't seem to know how to play. And if they do know how, they want to play on it." The climbing frame has another great advantage over other playtime staples like balls and skipping ropes. It can't get lost, it doesn't belong to anyone, it needs little maintenance.
There's only one problem for St Anselm's. They'd like more, several more preferably, perhaps with slides and a walkway and a tunnel and one of those little slidey bits and a house to play under for quieter times. All with surfacing underneath, please.
A primary school teacher looking through SMP's catalogue is like a child at Hamley's toy shop: want, want, want, can't have - it's too expensive.
It is so important, says Ms Clancy, for children to learn to play together, to expend energy constructively and also to have good experiences in the playground which will affect their experiences in the classroom.
The atmosphere in St Anselm's, full of merry, purposeful activity and the hum of busy children, is echoed in the chorus of voices on the climbing frame.
Climbing frames for school playgrounds are also available from Kompan. Its new Vario range is made in wood with painted steel tubes and handles, as opposed to SMP's brightly painted steel frames with wooden panels, and looks more Scandinavian and wholesome.
Imaginative play is implicit in the titles of Vario sets: Mast, Pyramid, Crow's Nest, Climbing Club, Lookout and Ladder.
The range is smaller than SMP's - with add-ons you can build almost a town with an SMP set of platforms, walkways, tunnels, walls, houses and slides - and the feeling is cosier and more intimate. Although the range is aimed at the whole primary age-group, it has a younger and more rural feel.
Some of the angles of the equipment are more surprising, too. Climbing Club, the most expensive, is Pounds 3,125 plus VAT and installation (surfacing extra).
But whichever system you choose, you are guaranteed hours not just of fun for the children but of face-splitting grins for your staff. If you don't smile when you watch two little boys and a girlcry "look at me" as they "do a whirly bit" and spiral Rouen the bars, it must be time for yourcoffee break.
* Kompan, 3 Holdom Avenue, Bletchley, Milton Keynes MK1 1QU. Tel: 01908 641344. Stand G26
* SMP Playgrounds , Pound Road, Chertsey, Surrey KT1 8EJ.Tel: 01932 568081.Stand D60