When school budgets get tight, or education officials from outside the classrooms look for new ways to save money, one of the very first casualties is the playground equipment. Whether its the jungle gyms, slides, and teeter-totters of elementary schools or the basketball courts, football fields, or obstacle course that middle and high schools furnish themselves with, the outdoor play area is a visible and easy target when it comes to education budget excess.
This attitude is somewhat understandable. Few of these things seem directly related to the classroom, and when the choice is between extra textbooks or a swing set, it is hard to be too critical of the ways that schools make these decisions. Yet there are things we need to consider carefully when choosing to direct our resources the way we do, and they aren’t always that obvious. The following four factors help to explain why playgrounds are a key frontline in the fight for better education for everyone.
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Symbols are much more powerful than they are often given proper credit for, and the school environment is no exception to this. A neighbourhood where the environment is kept in constant disrepair because both locals and the local government stopped caring, sends a symbolic message to the people in that area that no one else cares, so why should they? That is not a message we can afford to send to our children. Where possible, we need to make it visible and clear that our schools are something we are investing in, and there is perhaps no more visible way of showing this than shiny new equipment in the playground and on the sports field. If we work hard to keep a playground in good condition, and somewhere kids will want to be, they will be able to see visibly and clearly that we are investing in them. A message they will take deep to heart.
Break times are necessary for children to function well in the classroom, it’s hard to do any job for hours on end without some kind of break. But there is a baser and more elemental aspect to this as well. Breaks are a reward. A way of saying to children “work hard now, and you’ll get to enjoy yourself later”. If we make it exceptionally clear that the “enjoying yourself” part of that deal is something schools and educators are prepared to prioritise, then children will know that the reward is not something offered reluctantly. This message comes through loud and clear with good playground design and quality equipment.
School shouldn’t just be a time where we prepare children for a lifetime of sitting at a desk, and a world of hard work that does not involve much in the way of moving. A fit and healthy body is an essential element of all aspects of life, and the more that can be expressed at an early age, the better it will be for our children’s lives in the long run. If we skimp out on our school’s fitness equipment and outdoor games set up, what message are we sending? That fitness doesn’t matter? That health isn’t important? Can we really afford to be saying that? Equally, parents can also do more by seeking out clubs for children to take part in – for example, with plenty of venues offering sports clubs in London, there is a wide offering available.
Recess is the time when, most of all, our children learn to understand what it means to have a peer group, how to relate to them, and how to take those skills into a host of other areas. With better outdoor equipment these skills get further enhanced, which means we need to look at the playground in a very different way. It’s not an add-on or an optional extra. Something to squeeze into the budget after the computer labs, the science equipment, and the new editions of Shakespeare. It’s alongside all those things. While the learning experience might not be so directed, and there aren’t tests or other kinds of measurable outcomes, the lessons are very real. We need to invest into that classroom and its equipment.
The playground is a real part of a school’s learning environment. It isn’t just a way to get the children out the building between lessons. Just like we fight for the best equipment and technology for our kids, we need to fight for the best playgrounds too. We need to let our children know that every aspect of their education is something we care about, so that they can get the best out of every lesson they learn, behind a desk or not.