Education: Where do the children play?: Playgrounds may encourage pupils' bad behaviour, says Naseem Khan

Toby, Lucy, Michael, Austelle and Ben, all aged about eight, agree: their school, Sandfield First in Guildford, Surrey, has been transformed by changes to the playground.

'It used to be really awful,' Lucy says passionately. 'Nothing but tarmac and more tarmac and not a speck of anything else.' 'People fought there,' Austelle says. 'Because they were bored,' Toby explains.

That was in the bad old days before Sandfield decided to redesign its playground. In place of some of the tarmac, the children acquired a little knoll, a vegetable garden, a 'seascape' with sand, grass and bushes - and a pond is also planned. All of which was enough to win the school a British Telecom/Learning Through Landscape award.

Sandfield's experience supports the findings of a report due this month from Learning Through Landscape, an organisation that partners the World Wildlife Fund in attempts to promote the creative use of school grounds. The report, Special Places, Special People, was written and researched by Wendy Titman, who was asked to investigate the possibility of a link between children's behaviour and the state of their school grounds.

Ms Titman's research, which involved 12 primary schools and 216 pupils, opens up intriguing questions about children's values. If, as she says, one-third of primary school life is spent in the playground, what is the effect of so much tarmac?

The children who participated in the research were unequivocal. 'Tarmac and concrete is boring,' said one. 'It's like seeing a film 10 times.' Others agreed: 'Playgrounds are boring - they just hinder you.'

Ms Titman claims large areas of tarmac helps to trigger aggression and territorialism. 'You are expected to colonise the space,' she says.

Nor is its visual harshness and frequent squalor missed by children. 'The first thing I think about outside is rubbish,' said one child. 'It's everywhere, and there's paint sprayed on the walls and lots of litter, and it's terrible because of the mess.'

'The thing is, if somebody looked at this school, the playground with plain concrete, they would think it's not much of a place,' said another. 'If it looked better, they'd think it was a better school. But there's no money. There is for carpeting, but not for the playground. Maybe it's not the money. Maybe they think it's good enough for us.'

The children were clear about their favoured alternatives: grass, trees and chances to develop imaginative play. Equipment was less important - even benches could be a nuisance. 'You're not meant to stand on the proper bench because sir said it might fall down, and a bench is for sitting on, not walking on. We don't have any for walking on.'

The children's suggestions began with the use of more 'natural' colours - they disliked the adult murals painted in supposedly 'childish' styles. Other ideas included the use of more trees, areas with different levels, and places 'with millions of bits' that offered a challenge. Their 'hit list' included litter, large areas of tarmac, and the absence of places in which to sit, hide or take shelter.

The implications of Ms Titman's research also involve indefinable concepts: children's sense of personal value, ownership and identity. The evidence of environmental psychologists is enlisted to reinforce the case for the effect of landscape and well-managed grounds in producing healthier and more caring individuals.

Schools may fear that they are being called upon to simply remove vast areas of tarmac. However, the report encourages them to engage the whole school community in compiling aims and objectives for their playgrounds.

Given that the hazards of urban life have reduced the use of parks and the habit of 'playing out', playgrounds now have a potentially more important role than before. 'If you provide boring, sterile and devastated places for people, they will start to do terrible things,' Ms Titman says. 'Environment creates experiences. Why are people surprised that we have bullying, racism and name-calling in playgrounds? We are not giving children anything to cherish or love.'

She does not claim that all society's battles can be won on the playgrounds of Britain, but her evidence should at least turn parents' attention to this formative area.

The children of Sandfield would support such a move. Toby and Ben's complex ideas about insect life and bird scarers would gladden Ms Titman's heart. And the head teacher, Jackie Mitchell, says that, since the changes, fewer fights have occurred in the playground.

Do the children agree? 'Well,' said Michael, a frown passing over his face, 'not really - just once in a blue moon.'

'Special Places, Special People' from WWF (UK), Education Distribution, PO Box 963, Slough SL2 3RS, pounds 14.95.

(Photograph omitted)

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