Is your school suffering from boring playground syndrome? The symptoms are easy to spot: children wandering listlessly around looking for something to do; regular incidences of bullying; an inordinate number of playground accidents; an unbearable level of noise; over-stressed lunchtime supervisors.
If you recognise the signs, it's time to take stock and calculate how your outdoor area can be made more inviting to encourage purposeful play, better social interaction and complement the physical education curriculum so that the playground really does become an outdoor classroom.
Krystyna Knopp, head of Southwark Park school in south London, has seen for herself the positive effects of creating exciting and well thought-out play areas for both the infants and juniors. Two years ago her school made a decision to prioritise funds for playground renovations and equipment and have spent around £125,000 on the project. Some of this was covered by a £25,000 New Deal for Schools grant and parents' fundraising activities, but a substantial amount was set aside for the purpose from the school budget.
The first step was to involve the children in the plans. "We asked them what they wanted and they said something to climb on or to play with and somewhere where they could run," said Ms Knopp.
The major expense was, of course, the installation of safety surfacing and large structures. Staff looked at the catalogues and finally decided on Playdale, which had long-lasting wooden equipment. It was installed in the summer holidays.
The attractions in the infant playground now include a balance beam and a bridge, a playhouse, a train, noughts and crosses markings and a football pitch. "Previously, the infant children just did not know what to do with themselves at playtime," Ms Knopp recalls. "The variety of equipment encourages purposeful, imaginative play and we have also noticed how noise levels, which can be very stressful, have been considerably reduced."
While the emphasis in the infant playground was on purposeful, free play, in the juniors the main priority was that new installations could be incorporated into the PE curriculum.
After re-surfacing the area, the playground was equipped with huge goalposts and a climbing frame with slides and bars. It now allows for not just football, but other games, such as basketball and tennis. Picnic benches with sunshades have proved a great success, as have tables with built-in board games, such as chess and snakes and ladders. Portable resources, such as skipping ropes and board games, are brought out on a regular basis, well monitored by playground supervisors.
"We have seen much better behaviour in the junior playground," Ms Knopp says. "The boys monopolised the goalposts at first so we had "girls-only" football times to begin with, but that's not a problem now. Keeping a child in at playtime is also now a much more effective sanction - they did not necessarily want to go out before."
Kay Sutherland, the head of Gonerby Hill Foot school in Lincolnshire, also confirms that a well thought-out play area promotes better behaviour. Her school chose a multi-activity system from Playquest, which features swings, bars, rope climbing and tyre swings, and cost about £10,000.
She is aware of the health benefits of offering young children physical challenges. "It's particularly important for reception children. Often they can do no more than run when they come into school. The equipment helps them to stretch, balance and be aware of other people. It promotes general flexibility."
Offering children chances to physically extend themselves is crucial as many rarely get the opportunity to do so outside school. As Wendy Titman comments in Play, Playtime and Playgrounds, a Learning Through Landscapes publication: "For children, the desire to run, jump, crawl, climb and swing is natural and, given the chance, these physical activities will form part of their play. Research shows that such activities improve co-ordination, skill, bone and muscle growth, strength, agility and endurance."
For many schools large fixed equipment of this type is prohibitively expensive, but there are cheaper options. Indeed, Wendy Titman would argue that some fixed play equipment is not necessarily appropriate for use in school grounds and is concerned about the lack of proper research into its benefits. She believes that a sufficient quantity of loose or mobile equipment can equally enhance the school grounds.
Imaginative playground markings are a cheaper method of brightening up the playground and encouraging more constructive play. However, these need to be well-designed and well-sited.
Doncaster, a nominated Health Action Zone, has recently embarked on a scheme to mark up all their primary and special school playgrounds with specially commissioned designs undertaken by a company called Magical Marking. This is a three-year combined education and health project, partially funded by the Department of Health, and headed by Lyn Taylor, the LEA's inspector for physical education. She maintains that headteachers are constantly worried about what is going on in the playground.
"Although lunch breaks are supervised, there is no real action in most playgrounds. An additional part of the project is to change the role of playground supervisors by giving them special training so that they can teach the children traditional games, such as hopscotch and What's the Time, Mr Wolf? We know that this will also encourage children to make up their own games."
WHAT'S ON OFFER?
Large fixed structures
* Playdale equipment is covered by a 10-year guarantee. The company offers a free of charge Site Survey and Play Area Design Service. (Tel: 015395 31561, website: www. playdale.co.uk).
* Playquest specialises in rustic-style play equipment, produced from treated timber. (Tel: 01745 561117).
* Lappset builds play equipment for children of all ages and abilities. All the play units are modular so that complete play structures can be designed to each school's needs. (Tel: 01536 412612, website: www.lappset.com).
* Sovereign offers a number of adventure trail options of varying difficulty. Features include wooden stepping-stones, log-walks, rope-bridges and balance-beams. It also has a range of Picnix (sic) Table Gameboards, including Snakes and Ladders and chess, which can be installed on grass or tarmac. (Tel: 01702 391880).
* All-weather art boards which are either wall mounted or free-standing are available from Eibe-play. The boards are suitable for use with chalk or water soluble paints. Children can develop their artistic talents in the playground and the boards can also be used for messages to parents. (Tel: 0161 962 8295).
Polypropylene Alfresco Modules from Wesco can be used both in and out of doors and are easily assembled and so light that they can be moved by the children. This could be the solution for schools on small budgets as items can be bought separately and add-ons purchased when funds allow. (Tel: 01376 503590). Check out the Maudesport Early Play catalogue, which covers a huge range of physical education equipment. (Tel: 01922 459571).
Magical Marking specialises in designs that encourage free play and comply with the demands of the National Curriculum. The company uses a long-lasting thermo- plastic paint, which lasts up to 10 years. (Tel: 01977 662500).
Davies Sports offers the necessary equipment if you want to do the marking yourself. Paint comes in eight different colours. (Tel: 0870 6000 195).
Play, Playtime and Playgrounds - Key Issues for Teachers, Supervisors and Governors of Primary Schools by Wendy Titman, is published for Learning Through Landscapes by Southgate Publishers (£6.50). (Tel: 01403 710851). School grounds consulting firm, Wendy Titman Associates, can be contacted on: 01832 280659.