This was what Dave Barber, deputy head of Grange Primary School, Stoke- on-Trent, found when he spent a couple of lunchtimes in the infants' playground. And despite his 20 years' teaching experience, he says he simply did not know what to do to improve the situation.
But look over the school wall now and the scene is very different. At each end of the playground there is a large circle of children playing games that involve an ever-increasing line threading its way in and out of others, much stamping, cheering and clapping, or complicated songs and rhymes. Many of these games turn out to be the old favourites: 'Oranges and Lemons', 'The Farmer's in his Den', 'In and Out Among the Bluebells', and 'Simon Says'. A few children, of course, prefer just to run about - like one six-year-old boy who said: 'I don't like games, actually' - but such children are in the minority.
Grange is one of the biggest primary schools in Staffordshire, with 500 children split at lunchtime between three playgrounds and two dining halls. The infant 'yard' alone has 150 children in it, and Nigel Johnson, the headteacher, had long been mulling over what should be done to improve the rather bleak environment.
With the promise of funding from the local Rotary Club, it was time for action. Large-scale playground equipment was out of the question, since it could not be protected at night from intruders, so he called on Stoke-on- Trent recreation department. With the department's help, the school's dinner ladies were paid to attend four hour- long training sessions on playing traditional and new games with the children.
The first session nearly ended in a mass walk-out. Carole Boyles and Ann Stanyer laugh about it now, but they say they found it embarrassing at the time. 'But when it was explained to us that that was how it feels to be a child again, and what it's like to play, then we understood,' says Mrs Boyles. The two of them try to organise a game every day, usually circle games because the children can come and go as they are processed through the two dining halls. It looks like hard work, but Mrs Boyles says it has made the time pass much more quickly: 'The children were just so bored before, particularly reception class children who had come from the nursery, where there were loads of toys. They had 45 minutes with nothing to do so there were lots of arguments.'
The training revived memories of her own childhood at Grange Primary, and she has introduced some of the games she played then. Some have to be adapted slightly. 'Like 'I sent a letter to my love'. We used to play that dropping a hankie. It wouldn't quite be the same with a paper tissue.'
Mr Johnson is delighted. Not only do the games stimulate the children's memory, language and imagination - they also preserve a playground heritage that would otherwise be lost. In his school, where pupils are drawn almost entirely from a huge council estate, the children had simply never heard of hopscotch, skipping, two-ball or 'Oranges and Lemons'. Now it is the traditional games they like best.
In the past, Mr Barber says, children naturally brought into school the games that they played on the streets. Now the school is reversing that process. 'The difference is that the kids can't take the games back on the streets because of the traffic.'
Although bullying was not the reason for introducing games at the school, 76 per cent of bullying in primary schools takes place in the playground. Concern about bullying prompted the Department for Education to put pounds 175,000 into a two-year project completed recently by Sheffield University. One of the options the project suggested to its 24 participating schools was the introduction of traditional playground games.
Sue Lee, deputy head of Hemsworth Primary, Sheffield, brought marbles, balls, hoops and jacks into her school alongside traditional games and rhymes. But she is disappointed that the games have needed constant adult participation. 'The original intention was to make the games part and parcel of the children's folklore and go in seasonal cycles like they used to, with conkers and skipping and so on. Where we have been enthusiastic the children will follow, but it has not lasted.'
Nevertheless, it is now rare to see a child standing alone in the playground, she says, and the ethos of the school has changed, with better behaviour in and out of the classroom.
The report of the Sheffield study is now at its drafting stage and should be going to the Department for Education next month. The findings are still under wraps but the responses to questionnaires completed by pupils show that where schools put energy into combating bullying, they were successful in reducing it. It has not proved possible, however, to show one kind of intervention as being the most successful, since the participating schools used many different approaches.
Dr Michael Bolton, who was involved in the Sheffield project and is now at Keele University, said he was concerned that too much adult intervention in playground games could take away children's free time. 'Children can learn social skills by playing without adult supervision. Many of their traditional play experiences happen when children are left by themselves.'
Dr Bolton is hoping for funding to enable him to concentrate on looking at the effects of different kinds of intervention. But Mr Barber at Grange Primary believes he has already found the answer for his school: 'If there is trouble at break, it spills over into the afternoon. If the kids are occupied, it is better for them and better for us.'
He sees lunchtime as a much neglected part of the day and the dinner ladies as a key resource. 'We are now educating children from 9 to 3.30, instead of 9 to 12.15 and 1.15 to 3.30.'
THE GAMES THEY PLAY
A few favourites at Grange Primary School
Giants, wizards and elves: a new game based on the traditional stone, paper, scissors game.
Children split into two teams and each team decides which character they are all going to play. At a given signal the teams face each other and perform the actions of their chosen character: giants say 'fee, fi, fo, fum' and stand with arms straight up and rocking from side to side; wizards say 'pazzaz'and step forward on one foot with arms thrust in front; elves say 'ni, ni' and stoop down, making ears with their hands.
Giants can then chase elves, elves can chase wizards and wizards can chase giants. Depending on what they have chosen to be, players either chase the enemy team or run to safety behind a boundary. Anyone who is caught joins the other team.
Bad manners: a new game.
The children hold hands in a circle with one child outside who wants a place in the circle and shows this by stamping and saying: 'I'm in a bad mood.' He or she chooses where to be by tapping two children and saying 'I want this space'. The two step outside while he or she joins hands with one child, leaving a space in the circle.
The two outside then shake hands and say 'How do you do' before running in opposite directions round the circle until they meet again and stop, shake hands, and say 'Very well, thank you'. They then run on and the first one back takes the space while the other becomes the one with bad manners.
Oranges and Lemons: a traditional favourite. Two children form an arch, and decide secretly which one of them is the orange and which the lemon. The other children, all singing 'Oranges and Lemons', go under the arch and the two forming the arch raise their arms up and down. When the song gets to 'here comes a chopper to chop off his head' in the last verse, whoever is under the arch gets caught. This child chooses to stand behind either the orange or lemon, and when all of them have been caught in this way, the two sides see which of them can pull the arch apart.
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