Outstanding Play in an Outstanding School – A Beacon Rising
In the lower playground we passed the games and dressing up areas. Here there wereBeacon ris child balancing blankets laid out under sheltered areas with great variety of toys, games, clothes and equipment. Katie explained that they put all of the resources out every day so the choices are the children’s, not the adults. We passed the water play area. There were a few children constructing a long run of pipes and guttering, discussing how to improve the design to lose less water. I expressed surprise that there were not more children involved in the water play. Katie said that because the children knew it was there every day and because there was so much else on offer that there was not a big deal about it. ‘Sometimes its really popular and other days no one uses it – which is fine’.
As we walked past a group of children constructing a den out of blankets and cardboard boxes a girl asked if I had seen the chickens yet. Katie explained we were on the way there. Before we got to the chickens we passed an area of trees festooned with ropes, hammocks, tape and cushions and children. The trees were marked with bands of different coloured tape. I was told that this was colour coding for how high Key Stage 1 and 2 were allowed to climb. Katie said it wasn’t as strictly followed now, but it had been useful as part of the process of introducing tree climbing after many years of prohibition. She explained that part of the journey the school was on was changing the way the team of supervisors saw themselves, the idea of playwork was new to many of them. They had all had an introduction to playwork training and had discussed the idea of balancing risk and benefit. Katie said:
“The supervisors were reassured by the talk about risk, to learn that they will not be sued and that what is happening in playtimes is part of a school plan and guided by a policy which the Local Authority supports.”
Along the hedgerow was an area where the grounds maintenance team dumped all of the clippings and logs, this also had additional tarps, ropes, tyres and scrap and was the messy den area. It reminded me of the kind of play provision I had seen on a visit to schools in Sweden; messy, cheap and based on the values of trust and independence. Finally we arrived at the chickens. Looking after the chickens was, Katie told me, one of the most prized activities and just about the only thing that had to be allocated by an adult, so that the chickens didn’t get totally overwhelmed by the number of carers. Children cleaned out the pens, collected eggs and were allowed to stroke the chickens. Some had ‘recently been lost to foxes but they had been replaced and it all put down to more learning experiences.’ She clarified we were talking about chickens and not children.
The highlight at the end of the tour was the play landscape, sculpted from the sloping hillside and landscaped for play by Green Play Project. It includes teepee frames for den making, a raised house, a large hill with a sand pit at the top, twin tunnels, willow planting, wild-flowers, bamboo jungle, boulders, logs, ropes, netting, net-works of paths, plants and a wooden platform. Children had taken scrap from the large amount available and built their own structures within the teepee frames and were using bits and pieces as props in all kinds of imaginative games which ranged all over the landscape.
When we went inside I got a chance to talk to Chris the Head Teacher in more depth about what the impact had been on the school. He told me:
“Behaviour – no doubt. When I started here every playtime and lunchtime was spent dealing with the behaviour issues of an endless stream of children outside of my door, and now I have my lunch in peace and then walk around the grounds to chat with children who are playing happily. I think we are nearly at stage now where there is enough for everyone to find things that they want to do, but we are not stopping here – we will continue to make it even better.”
I believe that the benefits that Chris has noticed are due to much more profound changes than fuller occupation of the children. I think that the children at Beacon Rise are starting to experience some of the deeper benefits of play, they are increasing their ability to problem solve and negotiate, they are becoming more able to initiate and sustain activity themselves, they are more resilient when things go a bit wrong and able to experiment with and explore the complex relationships between their inner lives, their social world and the physical world. I was delighted to hear that the schools recent OFSTED inspection had drawn a similar conclusion. The inspectors acknowledged that the schools’ excellent play opportunities supported good learning behaviours. Chris pointed out the significance of the change in language around behaviour and play.
“In the past they would have talked about quiet, well-behaved compliant children. When the inspector was here we had a child hit in the face with a football and all of the usual bumps scrapes and falling out. They were far more interested in how we foster behaviours which supported good learning – isn’t that what play is all about?”