Why the last day of term should be a ‘fun day’

Debates about the last day of term had a new angle this year: whether schools should be open at all. But in more normal times, is a ‘fun’ day in class really as damaging as some believe? Chris Parr investigates
18th December 2020, 12:00am
Why The Last Day Of Term Should Be A ‘fun Day’
Chris Parr


Why the last day of term should be a ‘fun day’


Every three months, the same debate about the last day of term bubbles up on social media: should pupils work to the last bell or is a "fun" lesson actually what pupils and teachers deserve? This term, however, the debate switched to a new topic: whether schools should be open at all.

Interestingly, though, some of the strands of argument have remained. For example: how much value is there in a single day of education? That question has become all the more pertinent because of the time many pupils have already spent not learning owing to Covid-19.

So, whether it's more normal times or this year, is there a definitive answer as to how a last day of term should, or could, be spent?

According to the Department for Education, just one day away from school can have a damaging effect on educational outcomes and hamper pupils' life chances - which is one of the many reasons that schools rightly take a dim view of absenteeism. Research carried out by the DfE in 2016 found that every extra day of school missed by pupils at key stages 2 and 4 was associated with a lower chance of achieving "five or more good GCSEs at grades A* to C including in English and mathematics".

"This research is further evidence that missing school for even a day can mean a child is less likely to achieve good grades, which can have a damaging effect on their life chances," schools minister Nick Gibb said at the time.

But a counterargument, by Boston College research professor of psychology Peter Gray, is worth considering.

The author of Free to Learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life gave a TED Talk on the perceived decline in children's freedom to play with other children, which has been viewed more than half a million times. Meanwhile, in a second TED Talk - "How our Schools Thwart Passions" - he opines that society, in the US at least, has "more or less turned childhood into a time of resumé building" at the expense of cultivating passions.

For Gray, the idea of one day of missed school being cataclysmic for a child's life chances is, well, "silly".

"When I was in high school, on the last day of school we always had a picnic," he recalls. "It was never, ever thought of as a day of school. There's not going to be any test after that. The idea that there would be any resistance to it is, to me, very surprising."

The problem, though, is that the notion of play has come to mean something other than education - and reverting to it for a last day of fun seems counter to educational aims. Gray says such a belief is problematic. His work focuses on the role of play in evolution and the important function that it has in human development.

"That people don't always realise is that play is learning," he says. "That's the whole evolutionary purpose of play. And children are learning so much in play that cannot be taught by any other means. They're learning how to make friends, they're learning how to get along with one another. They're learning how to solve their own problems without intervention. They're learning, really, how to be independent people."

As such, last-day fun is just as much about learning as traditional lessons.

"There are great consequences of playing at school for a day - it can change the attitudes of children and teachers, it loosens up the way you do things in school and, in my judgement, it creates a better educational environment as a result," Gray says.

A sense of communal release

It might be useful here to link last-day fun to the ceremony of carnival - the upending of social structures, the release of constraints and the community coming together to refresh. While that may seem like a recipe for anarchy in a school setting, it might be that it is exactly what makes adherence to the rules and structures possible for the rest of term. It might also build closer relationships as normal parameters are shifted.

Gray certainly believes play can create stronger bonds. "A day of play helps children to get to know one another in a real way, and it helps the teachers get to know the children in a context other than the classroom," he says. "This often helps them understand the children better and change their way of teaching to a more playful and effective mode."

So important is this process that Gray feels it should not be confined to the last day of term, but become a regular part of school timetables. He feels that modern schooling does not provide the opportunities for breaking down context that are necessary for good outcomes. This is true even of breaktimes.

"Recess is not a particularly good context for children's play because it's often age segregated and there are so many rules imposed on it," he says. "When I was a kid, we had half-hour recess twice a day plus a whole-hour lunch outdoors. Nowadays, at least in the US, it's not uncommon to have only 15 minutes of recess, which is barely enough time to get out there and get back in the classroom. Children can get a game started, but then they have to quit."

To counter this, Gray has been involved in the development of a "play club" for elementary schools. Every week, for an hour, all the children play together in the playground or school hall. "They're running in the hallways, the playground looks really wild and it's all controlled by the children," he explains. "The teachers who monitor it are instructed to not be teachers while this is occurring - they are more like lifeguards on a beach, watching in case there's an accident and they really need to intervene.

"We're just starting to do some formal research on this based on interviews with teachers and students and parents about the effectiveness of it. All those groups are very supportive, even those who were, for one reason or another, initially sceptical."

The key to overturning scepticism is the improved relationships and attitudes to school that follow these sessions, he says. People see "how happy it makes the children", Gray notes, "and they see how the children are liking the school better".

"Children who didn't previously have many friends now have friends, and the teachers say that they really developed a better attitude about the children, which is in turn improving the classroom performance," he adds.

Freedom to roam

Regrettably, in both the US and the UK, Gray says that children have less and less opportunity to learn how to direct their own playful activities "because they're more or less constantly being directed by adults".

To illustrate his point, he refers to a 2015 study by the University of Sheffield that looked at how far different generations of the same family, living in the same estate, were allowed to wander without an adult chaperone when they were young. It found "a very dramatic reduction" in the freedom afforded to today's children. For example, one 62-year-old participant reported being allowed as a child to walk or cycle unaccompanied some 3 kilometres from their house (taking in fields, streams and other family members' residences), yet half of contemporary children who took part in the research were not allowed to leave the house alone. Those who were permitted could do so only to walk to another house less than about 150 metres away.

"They can't even leave their front yard without an adult," continues Gray. "This should be a function of schools: to provide the opportunities [for more unsupervised play]. Education is more than that stuff that we call academic. Education is about growing up and acquiring the whole set of skills - including social and emotional skills, and confidence - and that really does not come out of being lectured to and taking tests."

Gray admits that to achieve his vision of a more holistic school experience, attitudes would need to shift. Until they do, that last day of fun may be seen as a distraction from learning, not part of learning - and for him, that's a wasted opportunity.

"Even where recess periods are happening, they are known as a break from learning - they're not seen as a part of learning," he says. "Schools should really embrace play as part of what education is."

Chris Parr is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 18/25 December 2020 issue under the headline "Tes focus on…the last-day 'fun day'"

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