Fifteen balls, a skipping rope and one hockey stick

This week I return to one of my themes – carelessness with play equipment, and what it tells us about boys, human behaviour, valuing things freely given and the cost of active playtimes.

A term ago, I was sweeping up playthings left out each day. It became an after and before school ritual and a constant bugbear. How could so much be left uncared for? How could we not notice until the playgrounds were empty? What else were children playing with if they could carry on having abandoned or lost so many things? Why weren’t children telling adults that balls had gone astray into the wood? Is it ‘a boy thing’? Is it about alpha male behaviour and exploring ‘maleness’ to just kick / throw / hit as hard as possible? (because mostly it is boys kicking too far, throwing too high, hitting to high).

I picked up and kept hold of all that I found, and expected staff would tell children, and that children would come asking. Oddly few did, and what I held they said was not theirs! I stopped collecting, as it seemed to make no difference to responsibility or pride, care or caution.

But Year 6 children have raised their voices and wanted to let us know that they want footballs to play with. Lunchtime staff want to enable active play and so want to provide safe kit to play with during the half hour outside each day for each year group.

So we opened up the stores and handed out a mix of equipment last week. And on Thursday after school, on the last day of term, I went out, took down, and collected fifteen balls, a skipping rope and a hockey stick. These seventeen items were all on top of the stable walls beside the lower playground. (Local history – the stables belonged to Lydgate Hall, now the Masonic Hall next door to our school site, and at one time housed police horses. We have the end wall and a couple of buttress walls left.) These walls are getting on for 3 metres high, and a metre thick in places, and topped in ivy and tree branches. Balls that go up get stuck until ‘someone’ fetches them down. One of the many questions I ask myself while doing the retrieval task is how they get there – how does an accidental hit put two table tennis balls 5 metres away and 3 metres up in the air away from the table itself? How does a skipping rope get turned so fast it flies that high? A basketball miss the hoop by four metres? Three footballs, two handballs, one dodge ball, three tennis balls, a ruby ball and others, and a hockey stick? It smacks of carelessness, and of a loss of respect for something given for free.

(That is not the limit of things astray – there is a school football over two fences and in the grounds of Tapton Hall,

The dilemma (we have to provide so children are actively engaged in games other than play-fighting, but at the cost of constant replacement) reminds me every time of an argument I had at a previous school, one with very different levels of deprivation. At that school, we continually lost exercise books, pencils, pens and reading stock. It went home and did not come back. But we wanted the children to read at home and to write and to do homework, so we had to provide these things (for free, and over and over again if needed).

We have, so far, tried a general provision of balls and kit for free use – but Covid prevents that arrangement at the moment. We have tried class-ownership, but it disappears and no one raises the issue until we see balls snuck in from home and less activity. We have tried holding on to it, but it is not collected and no one takes much responsibility. We have tried having a sport coach at lunchtime, but that barely scratches the surface as it engages a small proportion of the cohort – and balls from elsewhere on the lower playground went in all the wrong places.

At this point, when I have thought about having a bit of a rant / re-education in assembly about being a touch mindless, careless and  thoughtless, I remind myself that it is not worth it – a rant will likely make no difference (or for no period pf time). That the vast majority who would listen to the rant are not responsible. That ‘careless’ is also known as ‘lack of skill’. That we cannot possibly staff play and lunch time well enough to prevent stuff like this happening or to coach it out of children’s play behaviour. That teachers have better things to do than count them out each play time and count them back again (and do what if they go missing?). Therefore, I ultimately decide to do nothing, accept the status quo and try to count the positives:

  • This meant 15 balls and a skipping rope and a hockey stick were being played with,
  • Children were definitely more active at play times than without.
  • The equipment is retrieved and recycled for play next week.
  • The equipment was not stolen or broken.
  • No one fell out over the balls going on the wall.
  • Lesson time could concentrate on lessons and relationships were not soured by investigations that were doomed to failure from the off.

As Voltaire quite possibly said, ‘the best is the enemy of the good’.  Seeking a perfect solution is pointless, painful and predictably circular- what we have is ‘good’ and it works to a good degree with many children able to play actively every day. Perhaps it is best to leave it alone and not sweat over the issue.

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