SCMP Saturday, September 15, 2001

Breaking the rules in the playground


It is break time and thousands of children are pouring on to concrete school playgrounds with no trees, grass or climbing surfaces - often not even a patch of shade.
The scene is typical in Hong Kong schools - as it is elsewhere - but it was one that Quarry Bay School deputy principal Ray Atkinson was determined to change. .
The problem of providing children with a decent place in which to play - better still, to play and learn - is a universal one. But playgrounds are usually overlooked when schools launch into curriculum reviews or initiate building improvements.
Mr Atkinson, however, lists among his past achievements working to improve the playgrounds of three British schools. He decided to do the same when he joined Quarry Bay School in 1999, despite a limited budget and a mountain of work ahead.
Two years on, his project has finally reached fruition, and children are reaping the benefits already
Mr Atkinson said that a common problem for children subjected to barren playgrounds was that when they sought solitude or tranquility there was never anywhere to hide.
"These children can feel isolated. They are happier if they can run around and disappear, not stand in a crowded playground feeling alone. Children have a lot of needs and their recreation time should be taken seriously so their needs are not ignored," he said. "For many children, their recreation time is a negative experience."
Playright Children's Playground Association, a charity that promotes play among children, advised Kennedy School on a playground four years ago.
Children were consulted and lunch monitors were trained to enhance play, rather than just enforce safety rules.
But Playright executive director Kathy Wong Kin-ho said few schools were interested in developing playgrounds, even though playtime could have a positive influence on subjects such as language and maths.
"A typical school is a very boring place and has nothing except an open playground. But children spend a lot of time in school and play is a good opportunity to learn," Ms Wong said.
"The head teachers we talk to are more open and they think of how to improve the environment inside and outdoors. But usually when we discuss details, such as what children do during lunchtime, they think this is a separate thing. They are quite reserved about integrating play into the curriculum."
This, however, is less of an issue in international schools. At Quarry Bay School, the renovated playground was intended to be an extension of classroom learning. Everything from the decision on how to alter the playground to the use of the equipment once it was completed, was to be a learning experience.
A student council with representatives from each year group, with children ranging in age from five to 11, was consulted on the major decisions. All students were allowed to add to a wish list that included swings, a swimming pool and a bouncy castle.
But their responses to detailed questionnaires about what they did during playtime and what they felt about the playground revealed that 90 per cent wanted somewhere quiet.
"Nearly all of the children didn't like the noise at playtime, even though they were all making it," Mr Atkinson said.
An underlying goal was to provide satisfying play time for as large a number of children as possible. Climbing frames appealed mainly to a small number of physically active children, who Mr Atkinson said would be active even without them.
The equipment was also expensive, and with only $470,000 to spend, the apparatus was left off the list.
After trying commercial equipment suppliers, Mr Atkinson turned to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's School of Design for help in finding more creative solutions.
At the same time, the design school was looking for ways to give its students real-life projects without commercial pressures.
Lawrence Liauw Wei-wu, the assistant professor of the design school, said it had been an important learning experience for both the primary children and PolyU's students. "The point was to enhance the environment. Not in a decorative way, but with value," he said. "A lot of local schools emphasise order and discipline - this is the equipment, these are the rules, this is how you do it. What we're trying to do here is to create an environment where children can invent their own rules and games."
PolyU students made the most of what they had. They interviewed the pupils, teachers and parents, watched the children play and analysed the school's identity - not just the playground.
They then presented all three groups with a plan.
Mr Atkinson said he had wanted the school environment to be an extension of the classroom, so when the PolyU students noticed children hitting a ball against a wall, they suggested putting up drumheads of various sizes, which would each generate a different sound when struck.
"We can't bring them to music, so we've brought music to them," Mr Atkinson said, adding that the wall was also used in physical education classes.
A quiet area called the Ecolab was created in a seldom-used area and fitted with tables and chairs for reading, drawing and playing board games. Next to it is a peaceful outdoor sitting area with tables and chairs, trees, a curved and tiered bench, which can serve as a mini-theatre, and a small boardwalk.
Shelves for plants were also installed at one end of the playground. Children now tend their own plants and use rain water to nourish them.
Wave-shaped seating and movable benches have also been installed. These can be used instead of climbing frames.
As part of the spruce-up, the school's building was also freshened up with a coat of paint, and its chainlink fence will soon be replaced with a textured wall.
Other schools are now being invited to benefit from Quarry Bay School's endeavours. Mr Liauw, who is also an adviser to Playright, is using his experience to write a book on school playgrounds in Hong Kong.
He believes one of the basic problems in providing play areas for children is that too much emphasis is put on the equipment.
"You need to design the right environment to play in, not just buy the children things to play with. The toys don't have to be spectacular, they can be quite ordinary like the wave seating. They just have to be well designed," he said.
The Education Department, however, does not provide money for local school playgrounds.
The School Improvement Programme had too many other priorities, such as eliminating floating classrooms, said the officer in charge of the programme, Andy Y. K Lok.
Thus, schools need to raise their own money for playgrounds. But even with a limited budget, they can make playgrounds a fun place for children. Ms Wong said teachers and other adults could also be trained to enhance children's play, for instance by not interfering too much and by teaching children games.
Mr Atkinson said they would continue to introduce low-cost activities such as board games and large building blocks.
Hopscotch, numbers and letters could be painted on the ground, although the children had already invented their own game called "dragonhead", which involved painted numbers, he said.
They would continue to be encouraged to design their own games, he added.
"Some schools I have worked with didn't have the money for climbing frames or surfaces and we had to find low-cost solutions," Mr Atkinson said.
"If we hadn't had the money for things like the Ecolab at Quarry Bay, we would have used paint and added plants. You can create improvements in many different ways."