Playing safe

A new primary school has sold off the freedom of the playground for the synthetic thud of trainers on rubber surfaces.

Julian Grenier

Topics Politics

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The new Hampden Gurney Primary School in west London is ‘bold and dynamic’, gushed the judges of the Stirling Prize for architecture when they shortlisted it as one of the seven best British buildings of the year (1).

So what is so special about this building? Firstly it looks nothing like a school. BBC News describes the ‘twenty-first century architectural classic’ as being ‘like a swanky office building’ (2).

And where could the target-driven, mechanistic education of today’s infants and juniors be housed better than in this six-level, steel and glass office block?

But once you get beyond the hype, it is clear that a heavy price has been paid for the school of the future. The children’s playground has been sold off. In its place is a 52-apartment development, which raised the £6million needed to fund the new building (3).

So there is nowhere left for the children to play football. Nowhere where brothers, sisters and friends in different classes can meet up at playtime. Instead, there is a rubber-surfaced play-deck on each level for each year group. These new decks have ‘dramatically reduced the number of accidents’ at playtime, reports BBC News’ education correspondent. The dramatic reduction in children’s freedom of movement is not commented on.

Once, schools in England were some of the best-designed in the world. The open-air school movement was epitomised by schools like Phoenix School, just off the busy Bow Road in the East End of London. Laid out around a series of courtyards, this school was designed to provide children with big spaces for play, as well as sandpits, quiet courtyards and a mix of grass and paved surfaces. Much of the inspiration came from Margaret McMillan, who worked in Deptford, south-east London, and pioneered nursery schools in London before World War Two. McMillan wrote that ‘children want space at all ages. But from the age of one to seven, ample space is almost as much wanted as food and air. To move, to run, to find things out by new movements, to feel one’s life in every limb, that is the life of early childhood’ (4).

More recently, the Reggio Emilia district of Italy has developed a network of architecturally distinguished Early Childhood Centres, which children attend until they are six. Here again, the buildings are designed to promote freedom, movement and play. In other words, they promote the things that matter to children – they do not pander to the nervous adult agenda of controlling children’s movements, and fear of even the most theoretical of risks.

Loris Malaguzzi, the psychologist whose life’s work was the creation of the centres, was emphatic about the importance of children’s freedom to move and mix during the day. Referring to the collective of educators and parents who created the centres, he stated that:

‘We value space because of its power to organise, promote pleasant relationships between people of different ages, create a handsome environment, provide changes, promote choices and activity, and its potential for sparking all kinds of social, affective, and cognitive learning. All of this contributes to a sense of wellbeing and security in children. We also think that the space has to be a sort of aquarium which mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of the people who live within it.’ (5)

So what’s the problem with this vision of the school? Short of placing a teacher in every den, courtyard and sandpit, there will always be some places children can get to that are out of adult sight. Children cannot be supervised at every turn. This was once regarded as a good thing. But the fear of accidents and children taking risks has now ruled this out of bounds.

Of course, children are much safer in small groups, milling around on rubber-surfaced play-decks. But it is hard to imagine a more impoverished environment for school children, or one where there is less scope for them to act, move or make decisions with any degree of freedom.

As Jenny Cunningham has argued on spiked, it is play that fosters children’s autonomy, their ability to make decisions, and their capacity to manage themselves in groups (see Play on). In play, children push themselves, take risks and create new worlds. Without space and freedom, play can only be of the most limited kind. Where McMillan imagined the child feeling life in every limb, you can now imagine the quiet synthetic thud of trainers on safety surfaces.

The design of a school like Hampden Gurney reflects society’s general fear of children coming together in groups, in spontaneous ways. As children are shepherded in ones and twos by their parents and childminders from one organised event to another, they have lost their freedom to get together in streets and parks to organise their own time and play.

I am sure that this building is a great improvement on its predecessor, by all accounts a dilapidated post-war prefab set in a flat square of concrete. But it is frightening to imagine that this is the primary school of the future.

This will be a future for children in which they are even more constrained and controlled. They will be deprived of joyous, ordinary experiences like getting rained on, feeling the wind, playing outside, organising games, sitting under trees and digging in sandpits.

As more buildings like this go up, so will the numbers of overweight and inactive children. There will be even more restless infants bumping and wriggling their way through the Literacy and Numeracy Hours. And how will we react to this? You can be sure that the instinctive reaction will be to try to impose even more controls over children.

Already, the UK government proposes a new kind of classroom assistant called a ‘behaviour manager’ (6). The British Heart Foundation responds to the problem of overweight children by issuing books to four-year-olds instructing them to lead healthier lifestyles (7). But children are not getting fatter because they are eating more, or more unhealthily. They are getting fatter because they have fewer opportunities to run, walk and play than they used to (8).

The Hampden Gurney Primary School is yet another example of how children’s freedom is being lost in a culture of fearfulness. LS Vygotsky, the pioneering Russian psychologist of the early twentieth century, wrote that ‘the child’s greatest achievements are possible in play’. He described play as ‘the realm of spontaneity and freedom’ (9). It looks as if that realm has given way to a regulated childhood in an office block.

Julian Grenier is the headteacher of a Nursery Centre in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) BDP Wins RIBA Award Hat Trick, Building Design Partnership, 11 June 2002

(2) Scaling the heights of school design, BBC News, 2 November 2002

(3) Hampden Gurney School, Building Design Partnership

(4) The Nursery School, M McMillan, 1930

(5) The Reggio Approach: An Inspiration for Inclusion of Children with ‘Special Rights’, Norma Morrison

(6) Support Staff, Teacher net management

(7) Heart advice for four-year-olds, BBC News, 25 September 2002

(8) Healthy eating in schools ‘backfires’, BBC News, 8 July 2002

(9) Mind in Society, L Vygotsky, 1978

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Topics Politics


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