Taming the playground jungle

28th March 2003 at 00:00
ALMOST seven out of 10 exclusions from primary school follow playground incidents. The statistic was given at a conference in the capital as Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, on Monday reconvened the national discipline task group.

Studies show that life can be a misery if pupils are unable to make friends and join in games during breaks, a plight far worse for many pupils with disabilities who are now in mainstream.

Many look forward to playtimes as the big break from classes and teachers but, for others, mid-mornings and lunchtimes are a time of fear because of bullying or racial abuse. Most injuries take place during the free-for-all.

Anna Boni, Edinburgh's principal educational psychologist, said that 80 per cent of all bullying and racist incidents took place in playgrounds and corridors.

"Gone are the days when the school playground was seen merely as an area of fun and relaxation for our children. Now we recognise it is also a place where pupils develop social skills, make friends, resolve conflicts and better their co-ordination skills," Ms Boni said.

Schools were putting much more effort into behaviour management in the playground, deploying supervisors and peer support programmes to make the experience less threatening and more positive.

Ms Boni believed that headteachers should stress the importance of what happens outside classrooms. "Playtime should be viewed as part of the school day and assimilated into the ethos of the school, with clear rules, rewards and consequences. All staff have to be involved," she said.

Schools had to work on improving the play environment, offer more opportunities and try to reduce the inevitable problems caused by problem children.

Some had cut the length of breaks and introduced clubs and activities, aimed particularly at children who did not have the social skills to cope in playgrounds.

The role of playground supervisor was not only to pass on information to teachers after the bell rings, but to act as mediator, friend and confidante. More specialist training is on the way.

Theresa Casey, a play consultant working on inclusion, said: "If you speak to kids and those who have difficulty expressing themselves, you will find that playtimes are crucial to how they feel about themselves. They can have a profound impact on self-esteem."

Children with special educational needs could often feel isolated and left out and had no chance to make friends. "For children with disabilities, when they leave school on a Friday afternoon to Monday morning many are not in contact with any friends, so playtime is crucial for them," Ms Casey said.

Her studies confirmed that "what happens in the playground reflects the ethos of the school".

Breaks could be a frightening time with scores of children milling around and only a few adults supervising them.

FRIENDSHIP ON A BENCH

At Sciennes primary in Edinburgh, the state of the toilets and playground were the two key issues when Lindsey Robertson took over as head.

In the five years since the playground has had a make-over, despite the different views of adults and children. "The children do not want daffodils," Mrs Robertson said.

Any child who feels left out can sit down on a friendship bench and is soon picked up and invited to join games.

"Every child in the school is also buddied up, for example, P6s with P4s, and at some time during playtimes and lunchtimes they have to make contact," Mrs Robertson said.

Children who are seen to be kind are often rewarded at assemblies.

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