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Time for play

David Bocking discovers that imagination is more important than money when it comes to transforming the playground

Anne Desforges, headteacher at Deepdale Infant School in Preston, is serious about playtime. "The playground is my classroom," she says. After maths, literacy, science and art the school playground is "our fifth area of learning".

The Lancashire school was one of the pilots for the Zoneparc scheme developed by the Youth Sport Trust, the DfES and Nike. The resultant pound;20,000 makeover has transformed the Deepdale playground into a swirling maze of colour, in which three to seven-year-old children skip, run, chase, wheel and play football with each other every playtime. And if they want to rest for a while, alongside the red caged area (for football, cricket, throwing and other multi-player games) and the blue zone (for smaller group or individual games), there is the yellow chill-out space, complete with tables, chairs and cherry trees.

Since the Zoneparc scheme was introduced two years ago, Anne Desforges estimates the school has seen a 50 per cent increase in PE attainment and a 60 per cent increase in children able and talented in PE. And an extra 25 per cent of the school's 255 pupils now stay at school at dinner time, she says.

The bad behaviour book, to which she used to add an entry or two every day, is now never used. But she insists that schools do not need a pound;20,000 injection of coloured paint and sports equipment to see the benefits of well-organised playtimes. "Anyone can do it," she says. "If you get organised into different zones and make space and play with children, anyone could get comparable results."

Next door, at Deepdale Junior School, head Gary McKeon has no Nike money, but the playground has still been zoned, using painted lines and a convenient wall, behind which the older footballers can practise their free kicks and step-overs.

"I've seen plenty of playgrounds where boys have tended to dominate, and you'd get the girls just standing round the edge," says Gary McKeon.

"Football can just be a recipe for disaster. But by zoning areas, the older boys still have their football and the other children can join in their own games without being bulldozed by huge Year 6 boys."

Mary Jackson from the Learning through Landscapes charity has clear advice: your pupils are the experts, she says. Pupils should be involved in playground and playtime planning from the start. "But you shouldn't ask them what they'd like to have in their playground," she warns. "You'd just get a list of things like rollercoasters. You should ask the children what they'd like to do in their playground."

The football problem can be addressed by providing a football area or by allocating different football times for different year groups. Pupils will have their own ideas. "Rather than prescribe what activities they should do, it's best to give the pupils a range of different options," she says.

At Peters Hill Primary School in Dudley, seven different playtime activities have been introduced: football, tennis, dancing, basketball, running, throwing, and balancing, along with quiet areas. PE attainment has improved, and the dominance of the playgrounds by boys has been reduced, says Peters Hill school sports co-ordinator Kim Robinson.

With more than 800 pupils ranging in age from four to 11, Peters Hill is one of the largest primaries in the country. The playgrounds have been split into zoned areas, but without the use of gallons of paint. Areas for each activity were agreed with pupils across the school's four playgrounds (and on the school field, which is used only in dry weather).

Kim Robinson has spent pound;1,000 on playtimes over the past two years, largely on sports and storage equipment. "In the past, playtimes were just running about and football. Occasionally, the girls might play netball," he says. "Now people are playing in smaller groups, there are fewer arguments, fitness has improved and girls are getting more involved.

"Our Year 56 girls are Dudley cross-country running champions, for the first time ever. The girls are generally more active, and I'd like to think the playtime activities have had something to do with that."

For organised active playtimes to work well, there has to be day-to-day involvement from the head and the senior management team, says Anne Desforges. The children have to be consulted and trained, so they understand what to do and where to do it. There should also be some system of rewards, so children can see their progress.

In the case of older children, both Gary McKeon and Kim Robinson have found that Year 5 or 6 pupils can help the playtimes run more smoothly by setting out equipment and monitoring younger pupils.

"If children enjoy their playtime, then that leads on to the rest of the time they're at school," says Mary Jackson. "If children are put out into a barren sterile environment, they read that that's all they're worth. But if they're put into an environment that's creative and exciting and interesting, they take messages that they're worth more. Playtimes make a difference to how children see adults and how they think adults see them."

Anne Desforges watches her classroom of running, skipping and kicking children in the shadow of the Preston North End football ground, where the club's Invincibles put in a whole season of undefeated games more than a century before Thierry Henry.

"We just don't get children going round in gangs or lolling about with their Barbie fingernails," she says. At the junior school, a handful of Preston's new Invincibles are playing football together. "Football's our favourite sport," says 10-year-old Tiffany. "Skipping's too girly for us."

"It's just stupid to stand around doing nothing, innit?" says Sumayyah.


To create active playtimes you need to: consult pupils;

* involve head, senior managers and lunchtime supervisors;

* work on simple skills in short, 10-minute programmes with children who are struggling with more complicated games;

* keep a set of footballs at school so pupils don't bring their own. Be ready to train children in games they don't understand;

* take advice from pupils about how to segregate different games. Girls will get involved if they are encouraged to do so;

* take your time, and look at the whole site. Consider borrowing equipment, instead of installing items that will adversely affect future plans.

Further information

Learning through Landscapes

Tel: 01962 846258

The Youth Sport Trust has produced the Primary Playground Resource Development Pack (pound;99.95, plus VAT, includes p+p) exploring new opportunities at playtimes and much more Tel: 01509 226604

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