From the Headmaster

A Blog Featuring Writings from Hugh Burke

Why playgrounds are just as important as the classroom

By Hugh Burke, Headmaster

I remember when I began as Principal at a school in Vancouver. There were a huge number of behaviour problems reported on the playground every week.

About 20 kids were lined up at the office each day! As well, a number of kids were going to the Library or the Nurse's office at the recesses, apparently to avoid the playgrounds. I got all kinds of theories and proposed solutions – playground monitoring , intense school counselling, throwing out the rough kids from the school, giving detentions, suspensions – the usual list of things that don't work.

A year later, after a solution was developed, a typical week meant that four students – in total – had misbehaved. And all of the kids liked to go outside to play.

What happened?

We built a great playground. Not as good as the one at Meadowridge, but very good.

We first researched the design of playgrounds. Children love hills. They love tunnels. They like green spaces. They like places where they can sit and talk, and places where they can build things out of sand. They like to play with water. They love to climb. They need spaces where they can sit close to a group, and then eventually join in. They like places where they can play together without competing, and places where they can compete.

They like playgrounds where there is apparent (not real) risk – so climbing on towers, or up climbing ropes. They like to clamber and run, hang upside down, construct and reflect, jump and sit still, perform or watch. A great playground will have a design that lets them use their legs, their arms, their core muscles; it will let them play individually, cooperatively, or competitively. And a great playground will have somewhere for parents to sit and to chat.

And while playgrounds should bring children together, they also need to have areas designed for different ages, different stages of development, and different interests. Whenever a playground seems to combine very young children with older children, there will be unintended friction.

And while playgrounds should bring children together, they also need to have areas designed for different ages, different stages of development, and different interests. Whenever a playground seems to combine very young children with older children, there will be unintended friction. There still needs to be places for some rougher games – soccer, kick the can, and chase games. Just so, there needs to be places to skip, play hopscotch, and just chat.

The best playgrounds are also biodiverse – a variety of plantings and green spaces that keep our kids literally in touch with the natural world. Outstanding ones will have growing areas – gardens – so that children come to understand the nature of growth and the cycle of life – and they get to eat a little of what they have planted.

When children have a great playground, it changes their whole day, and their whole health.

Playgrounds also need to be safe – proper fall zones, appropriate surfaces, free of hazard.

When children have a great playground, it changes their whole day, and their whole health. They get outside and into fresh air; they get to move and stretch; they get to interact and to play together: It forms the basis of their life at school. Playgrounds for children are more important than computers or libraries, projectors or fancy desks and chairs: Playgrounds are critical to their development in these days of shrinking outside areas for children. They develop physically, emotionally, socially, and cognitively – and they have fun!

The playgrounds at Meadowridge are very large; they are zoned; they are biodiverse; they have places to sit, jump, hang, run, tumble, sing, climb, hide, gambol, play, build, create and just hang out. They link to gardens and to forest. They are our commitment to our children, not just to educate, but to care for them in the most thoughtful of ways.

Our Headmaster's Gryphon symbolizes the history of our school and is used as a formal symbol to represent our Headmaster's Office.

Biography

Hugh Burke, Headmaster

Hugh Burke grew up in the Vancouver area, graduating from Vancouver College, and then attending Simon Fraser University, where he earned his B.A., P.D.P., and M.A. Mr. Burke has taught at the primary, intermediate, and secondary levels, as well as teaching undergraduate and graduate courses at the university level. He has also been a curriculum coordinator in the public school system, where he focused on Writing and Gifted Education. He later became a Faculty Associate and a Program Coordinator in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University.

Having served in the public education system as a teacher, a coordinator, and a union representative, and subsequently as an independent school teacher and administrator, he offers a unique perspective on educational choice. Mr. Burke has consulted with numerous school districts in the areas of instruction, gifted education, writing, administration, and systemic change, and has published works in the area of teacher education. He has also operated his own company, providing advice to the private sector in the area of strategic planning and staff development.

As an administrator, Mr. Burke has worked in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University, and the Vancouver Talmud Torah (where he was the first non-Jewish principal of the school). He is a Past President of the Independent Schools’ Association of British Columbia (ISABC), is a past member of the Board of the Federation of Independent Schools’ Associations, and currently serves as Headmaster of Meadowridge School, which is an International Baccalaureate Continuum School with multiple accreditation.