Hi-tech playgrounds cut bullying

Better outdoor facilities reduce fighting in the playground, new study shows - and improve exam results
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There used to be at least a fight a day in the playground at Ravenstone primary school. That was two years ago. Today the brutalist Tarmac and decaying huts have been replaced by hi-tech play equipment and even a solid oak amphitheatre. There hasn't been a fight for months.

Now new research backs up what the teachers and children at Ravenstone have known for some time - smartening up school playgrounds and sports fields improves children's behaviour, cuts bullying and vandalism and even produces better exam results.

But, says the report by Learning through Landscapes, a national charity, schools are failing to make maximum use of their land and are currently only getting around 30 per cent of the potential benefits from their outdoor facilities.

A survey of 700 schools conducted by the charity concluded that schools which improve their grounds see a dramatic improvement in students' attitudes and self-esteem.

Children who have access to better outdoor facilities also work and play together better, the research found. Meanwhile many teachers reported that pupils' attitudes towards learning and even their academic results improved.

However, too many schools are still failing to invest in their grounds, according to the charity's chief executive, Ken Davies. "We realise that every school faces difficult choices on where funding should be spent, but projects to improve school grounds are proven to attract additional capital and involve the local community," he said.

"And, as our survey has shown, the other benefits ripple out far beyond the school gate."

There have been repeated concerns that playing fields and sports pitches are being sold off to fund other school improvements. But a more widespread problem is that too much existing land is being under-used, the charity claims.

Its survey found that almost two-thirds of schools experienced a drop in bullying after improving their grounds, while almost three-quarters reported significant improvements in behaviour.

Meanwhile, vandalism decreased in more than one in four schools, the study found.

The charity also believes that children who are involved in decision-making at school - such as in redesigning the grounds - are less likely to reject new ideas or vandalise their surroundings. Similarly, after children work together on a project they are less likely to single out other pupils to exclude and bully.

The survey also found that most schools noted improvement in pupils' levels of social interaction and self-esteem. But, not to lose sight of their obvious role, there were also significant improvements in children enjoying and having fun in their grounds and increased active play and games.

The charity hopes that the findings, released to coincide with National School Grounds Week, will encourage schools to spend more on their grounds.

The Government has provided capital funding for headteachers to spend on their own priorities. But too few are investing this money in improving their school grounds, Mr Davies argued.

"The Government has begun to recognise the important role that school grounds play in the development of our children," he said.

"Its own strategy for primary education shows what can be achieved by involving children in outdoor activities. And secondary schools that are trying to encourage teenagers to stay in the education system are finding that an improved school environment is a significant incentive, especially where the teenagers have played a part in those improvements.

"We are working with the Government and local education authorities to think creatively about how to help schools to make better use of their school grounds."

Improvements include art, technology or architecture projects, as well as sensory gardens, through to the more traditional play areas, wildlife habitats and vegetable gardens.

At Ravenstone, a 400-pupil school in Balham, south London, headteacher Alan Millington is delighted with the improvements, paid for equally by parents and the local education authority.

"The children are generally calmer. The playground and the school are a much happier place," he said.

"Their socialisation skills have definitely improved. We have very, very few problems. There is no mess and no vandalism. The children are obviously working much better and their co-operative skills have developed. They are all very well-behaved now."

New exercise equipment has also "improved pupils' stamina, skills in sports activities and attitude towards exercise", Mr Millington said.

The £30,000 project, which is still in progress, also includes a climbing wall, climbing frames, ropes and monkey bars.

Additional reporting by Lianna Brinded