Why the outside's in

1st May 1998 at 01:00

GEOGRAPHY IN THE SCHOOL GROUNDS. By Ralph Hare, Christine Attenborough and Trevor Day. Southgate pound;8.99

Want to make more use of your playground? Harvey McGavin offers some Tarmac tips

May Day is a traditional excuse to hang out the bunting and dance around a maypole. But today is also School Grounds Day - the fourth annual celebration of the world outside the classroom window. It's also a reminder that playgrounds and playing fields are not just for sports days and fetes but can be an all-year-round addition to a school's resources.

School Grounds Day is organised by Learning through Landscapes, the national charity that promotes the educational and environmental use of a school's surroundings. Last year more than 1,500 schools took part.

LTL's message is that school grounds, whether they're green and spacious or grey and covered in Tarmac, are a learning opportunity waiting to happen. After their own homes and gardens, a school playground is probably the second most familiar outdoor space in children's lives, so how they relate to that environment and what they learn from it can shape their ideas about the outside world.

Simon Lewis, LTL's school grounds officer for Greenwich, was taken on by the charity last year - along with another officer in Hackney - and given the job of cultivating creative use of school grounds in two of the capital's least verdant areas.

It's a challenging job and his first impressions of the borough's playgrounds gave him an indication of the task in hand. "Like many school playgrounds, they were predominantly asphalt," he recalls. "Some of them looked pretty much like prison yards - featureless and windswept. There was little evidence they were used for teaching at all."

He has been canvassing the opinion of staff and pupils at 12 pilot schools ever since, helping to set up projects and putting them in touch with landscape gardeners and architects. He says making better use of an unpromising patch needn't cost the earth.

Cheap solutions - designating areas for ball games, painting murals on the walls or games on the ground - can quickly transform an urban yard. The basics - seating, shelter and shade - can be added relatively cheaply. And the great British weather shouldn't be a deterrent, he says.

"Unless it's chucking it down, children will be outside. Children spend about a quarter of their school day outside and you can make the playground a friendlier and more hospitable place throughout the year."

LTL's School Grounds series shows how to deliver aspects of the key stage 1 and 2 curriculum while brightening up neglected schoolyards. "Almost every subject can be taught in school grounds," the publicity claims, and this series sets out to prove it. These two new titles, covering arts and geography, add to those tackling maths, science and English with PE and history in the pipeline.

These books are packed with ideas and case studies which, with a little imagination, can be adapted to most school sites. Geography might seem naturally suited to using the school grounds, but, as a 1994 Office for Standards in Education review of the subject found, "more opportunities should be taken for investigative and fieldwork in the school grounds".

The guide suggests map-making as a starting point. It's a difficult concept for young children to grasp, but plotting the familiar contours of their playground can ease the task.

The skyline, land use, traffic flows, and the weather can all be studied on the school site, and painting paths of coloured footprints, mazes, signposts, compasses and maps can help children find their bearings, keep them entertained and teach them something.

Arts in the School Grounds shows there is more to outdoor arts classes than pressed flowers and crayon rubbings. Making totem poles - carpet warehouses will usually let you have the inner rolls for free - and building dens can lead to a project on tribes, for example. And reviving old customs such as beating the bounds can add to children's sense of pride and belonging. Getting children involved in designing, decorating and using their play areas can also reduce vandalism.

If all else fails, you could call in the professionals. Learning through Landscapes keeps a database of artists who work in schools, and a one-day workshop or consultation can be the catalyst to greater things.

These guides would be a useful fillip to a newly-qualified teacher. But all teachers will find ways of sprucing up familiar landmarks and adding new ones. And by taking advantage of a sunny day, you can rejuvenate well-worn areas of the curriculum, making for healthier, happier children.

Learning through Landscapes, 3rd Floor, Southside Offices, The Law Courts, Winchester, Hants SO23 9DL. Tel: 01962 846258

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