Beat the bullies with revitalised playgrounds

Anne Longfield
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

It might come as little surprise, but new research shows that boring school playgrounds and playtimes create an environment ripe for negative behaviour and school bullies.

According to a study by the Learning Through Landscapes Trust, a quarter of children report bullying at playtimes, beginning at the worryingly young age of six and peaking at the age of eight.

The reason, at least in part, is down to increasingly sterile playgrounds that have suffered from lack of attention or investment. Risk-averse attitudes mean that everyday playground games are becoming few and far between. There have been high-profile reports of some schools banning ball games, conkers and old winter favourites such as snowballing. However, all the evidence suggests that time spent by children playing together plays a crucial role in their personal development. The introduction of seating areas, sports and games are just some of the ways that schools can improve their playgrounds. Children experience improved social interaction, enhanced attitudes to learning and enjoy their time at school as a result - as well as the more obvious health benefits brought by everyday exercise.

Thornlie Primary School in Lanarkshire's playground was transformed from what was once described as a "waste of space" into an enriching physical, cultural and emotional environment by an effort led by a pupil school grounds team. Establishing groups of young leaders - the litter patrol, playground squad and recyclers - the team revitalised the playground and playtime with greenhouse, wild bird and gardening projects involving pupils. Since 2004, the benefits have included developing a culture of participation and commitment to children's wider development and engagement. Attainment has improved and school exclusions have plummeted.

It is also important that the new facilities are built into everyday activities at the school. In September this year, the Royal Horticultural Society launched a national Campaign for School Gardening after finding that while two-thirds of schools had a school garden, 45 per cent of those used their gardens only once a month or less. The society highlighted evidence that gardening enriches the curriculum, improves academic achievement, teaches valuable life skills and contributes to mental and physical health.

Too many children still dread the bell ringing for playtime knowing that this will be an opportunity for them to be bullied. Through a combination of imagination, investment and commitment, the school playground and playtime can be transformed, leading to a more stimulating and fun time for all.

Anne Longfield is chief executive of 4Children.Email anne.longfield@haymarket.com.

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