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All work and no play

Playtime is dying a slow death in schools, encroached upon by target-driven lessons. But, as Helen Ward reports, free time is key to learning

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Playtime is dying a slow death in schools, encroached upon by target-driven lessons. But, as Helen Ward reports, free time is key to learning

It is a golden age for play. There is more choice, better-quality equipment and more opportunities than there have ever been - if you are an adult. Gym equipment has sprung up in parks, trendy new media companies vie to install table football and Google even has a slide in its Zurich office. The prime minister (surely the most grown-up of us all) admits to a love of Fruit Ninja.

But while grown-ups are all happily playing, the picture is different for children. Survey after survey suggests that they are increasingly restricted by parents at home because of concerns about traffic and strangers. With little spare time after school, children need to make the most of free time during the day - which is why the whittling away of playtime is causing so much concern.

When playtime, or recess as it is known in the US, was banned in Atlanta's public schools in the late 1990s, Benjamin O. Canada, then superintendent of public schools in Atlanta, told The New York Times: "We are intent on improving academic performance. You don't do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars."

Recess was to be replaced by "structured recreation" - gymnastics or dancing - because the benefits of physical exercise were clear, but lazing around chatting or playing kiss chase - what good is that to anyone?

To some, especially those outside education, this had a ring of truth. After all, the more time you spend doing something the better you get at it, so why waste time messing about? Of course the flip side is that people concentrate better after resting. Why else are lorry drivers and pilots - jobs where staying alive depends on being able to concentrate - obliged to rest by law? And that means rest, not drop and do 50 press- ups.

Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, writes in his 2005 book Recess: its role in education and development of his bemusement at the idea that working without breaks will help children learn.

"There is, to my knowledge, not one bit of scientific data to support the sort of claims Dr Canada made," he states. "Overwhelming evidence shows that the benefits of recess clearly outweigh its costs." Physical education, he says, is not the same as free play. And those who call for recess to remain separate from PE include PE teachers, with the Council on Physical Education for Children pointing out that PE is in itself an instructional programme.

Despite the backlash, the situation in Atlanta remains pretty much as it was when Canada made his extraordinary decision. The city's board of education now states that elementary (primary) school pupils are allowed a 15-minute break on days when a PE class is not scheduled. But once pupils enter Grade 6 (Year 7), unstructured breaks are phased out.

Squeezed out of the timetable

Like so many other trends that emerge across the pond, we are now seeing echoes of this approach in England's schools. While learning through play is enshrined in the early years curriculum, there is growing evidence that it is being severely squeezed elsewhere.

"One of the unintended consequences of introducing the national curriculum and the massive army of new assessments over the past 20 years is that playful learning is being squeezed out of primary school," says David Whitebread, senior lecturer in the psychology of education at the University of Cambridge. "We used to see it right through primary, now it is probably restricted to reception and Year 1."

Meanwhile, under the same pressure to prove its worth in terms of test results, playtime itself - genuine free time when children are let out with yelps into the playground to clamber, climb, run and shout - has been cut back. Ed Baines and Peter Blatchford, psychologists at the University of London's Institute of Education, looked at how the situation in the UK changed between 1995 and 2006.

They found that, in 1995, 42 per cent of junior children and 70 per cent of infants had an afternoon break. The majority of primary schools today still have an afternoon break for infants, but only 26 per cent let older pupils out again between lunch and home time.

Lunchtime lasted more than 65 minutes in 31 per cent of junior schools and 23 per cent of secondaries in 1995. By 2006, only 12 per cent of juniors and 5 per cent of secondaries gave pupils and staff this long. While the most common lunch hour is still between 55 and 64 minutes, 18 per cent of juniors have less than 55 minutes and 22 per cent of secondaries have less than 45 minutes.

This news horrifies Sakib Kabir, a chatty, confident 10-year-old at Harry Gosling Primary School in Whitechapel, London, who is shocked to hear that anyone would ban break times. "That's out of order," he declares. "It would be like prison, with everyone wearing orange, lifting weights." Fellow pupil Thajkera Khanom, 10, agrees. "It is free time. The whole day we are doing lessons, so that is not free time. But at break we get to talk to friends - in lessons we have to concentrate on work."

Harry Gosling Primary is surrounded by buildings: flats, offices, houses. There is no horizon. But the playground has been designed to evoke open landscapes far away, including a grassy hill complete with an outlook post and riddled with tunnels. There are young trees and tree stump steps.

Jennie Bird, headteacher at Harry Gosling, together with children, governors, parents and staff, has recently spent a year deciding how to get the best out of what was a flat concrete space serving 459 pupils. The timing of breaks is typical of most primaries - morning and afternoon for the infants, morning only for juniors and one hour for lunch. What was important to Bird was how to get the most out of those minutes.

"We had just one chance to get it right," she says, and so the school has become the first in London to use a PlayPod - a container filled with scrap materials from industry, such as cables and foam, which children use in the newly created play area. The decision to go beyond pupils' requests for swings, slides and a swimming pool (although there is a trim trail, quiet area and football area) also reveals a particular attitude towards play - it is about not just "letting off steam" but using your imagination.

"There is nothing here that dictates play," Bird points out. "The little wooden lookout could be the top of a castle or the crow's nest on a pirate ship. The idea is to encourage that kind of imaginative, storytelling play."

About 40 per cent of the school's pupils claim free school meals and 97 per cent are bilingual. And so, in a built-up area surrounded by council estates, one of the other priorities for playtime is the opportunity not to "play" but to be quiet.

"There's a therapeutic component to a successful lunchtime," says Bird. She remembers in particular watching a boy walking peacefully on his own along the woodland log trail with no jostling or rushing. Just enjoying some space.

The state of play

All of this raises the question: what is play? And does it really have benefits? We all know play when we see it, but it has many definitions. One, from Pellegrini, is what happens when you focus on the means of doing something rather than the end result. It is the opposite of work.

It is also something that has been found across all cultures and throughout human history. Archaeologists have discovered dice, gaming sticks and various forms of balls dating back to the Palaeolithic era. In Berlin, a Greek vase from about 440BC shows a boy playing with a yo-yo. And the Greek philosopher Plato wrote about the importance of play.

By the 1920s, a strong "play ethos" permeated educational thinking, with play as a means of learning becoming accepted. In the 1967 Plowden report, play was even cited as "vital to children's learning", with the report saying that the distinction between work and play, for young children at least, was false.

But since that high-water mark, this philosophy has been in slow but ceaseless retreat, with many pointing to evidence that child-centred learning was not working in some schools. In the wake of these concerns about standards came the introduction of the national curriculum, the assessment system and later the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. The idea of using playful means to learn has by no means disappeared, but it survives through proving its worth towards educational goals - a valuable but narrow form of play. And this is where the idea of free-form play during break times really begins to suffer.

Baines and Blatchford's report for the Nuffield Foundation says that schools give two main reasons for cutting break times: poor pupil behaviour and a need to cover the curriculum.

It seems that we think children aged 7 cannot afford 10 minutes off in the afternoon and children aged 11 need simply enough time to walk from class to class and eat. And children, of course, learn that this is how things are and how they should be.

"I did miss afternoon play in Year 3," says Thajkera. "It was a big change after doing it for two years."

Sakib adds: "In Year 3 you're getting on in school and have proper learning. In Year 1 and 2 it's just easy stuff."

"But you get used to the afternoons," adds Thajkera. "I like to get on with doing things, you get more done." Old before her time?

At Broadfields Primary School in Edgware, London, no one has an afternoon break. The school day is arranged with a long morning broken up with a 15- minute playtime and a relatively late lunch hour. For key stage 1 pupils (five- to seven-year-olds), this means that they come back into class at 1.20pm and go home at 3.05pm.

"The afternoon is quite short, so we feel it is important that they have the learning time without a break," says headteacher Robin Archibald. "It gives a good amount of time for one lesson and then the day can be rounded off with a storytime or activity in the hall like music and movement."

Archibald arrived eight years ago when the junior school was in special measures. Since then it has amalgamated with the infants and the new primary school is rated as good. Although 40 per cent of pupils claim free school meals, results are above the national average. And the school now has a new building with a space for play that would fill many of the country's primary children with envy. The point is that this is a school that takes play seriously but has nonetheless felt the need to squeeze traditional playtime.

Year 6 pupil Joe Walsh, 10, likes to spend playtime doing running around games. He remembers that there was still afternoon play when he was in Year 2, but thinks Year 3 was the right time to drop it "because you're getting grown-up".

"I think 11 or 12 is too old for playtime because that's the age you hit secondary school and things get far more serious," he adds. "But if they stopped playtime at this age, well it's sort of getting boring. I'd find other things to do."

Maya Shah disagrees. She is also in Year 6 and spends her break times playing Stuck in the Mud or Jenga, juggling or just talking to friends. "We need fresh air - if we stayed in class all the time I'd feel really hot."

In her own way, Maya is supporting the findings of a 1963 landmark research project by Marian Diamond of the University of California, Berkeley, which followed up earlier work at McGill University in Canada that found that rats allowed to run around the house did better at maze tasks than those raised in cages. Diamond wondered if raising rats in "enriched" environments meant actual changes to the brain. And so one lucky group of baby rats were put in a cage with toys and fellow rats, while their less fortunate friends were placed in solitary, bare confinement. At the end of the experiment the brains of those rats raised in an enriched environment were found to have a thicker cerebral cortex - the part of the brain that plays a crucial part in memory and thought.

This finding fundamentally changed how people thought about the brain. Rather than the brain's structure - and therefore intellectual ability - being set at birth, it was plastic, with the potential to grow and learn throughout life, depending on the environment.

Why we should take a break

Play, which is more prevalent during childhood when the brain is developing rapidly, seems to strengthen the connections in the brain that enable it to work quickly and efficiently. Recent research has even shown that rats that do not get enough play end up being anxious when faced with new situations, aggressive with other rats and sexually unsuccessful.

But how much play do we need? Pellegrini tried a series of experiments to find out what happens when children have to learn without a break. Working with a public school in Athens, Georgia - a small city northeast of Atlanta - he first studied a group of 20 children in three year groups: kindergarten (Year 1), Grade 2 (Year 3) and Grade 4 (Year 5).

Researchers assessed children's attention before and after break time and found, unsurprisingly, that children were less attentive during long lessons than during short lessons and that older children were more attentive than young ones. They also found a kind of "rebound" effect whereby those children who had been kept in class 30 minutes longer were more socially interactive during break.

Repeating the experiment, and this time looking at what happened after break, the researchers found that children were more attentive after break time. A third experiment in which children were given an indoor break - to see if it was physical activity that helped them to refocus - found that there was no relation between physical activity at break time and attention afterwards. It is having a break that seems to be important, not simply doing exercise.

This series of experiments was carried out prior to 1995 - before Atlanta cut recess and before afternoon breaks disappeared from most English primaries in an attempt to drive up standards - and yet the slow death of playtime in our schools continues.

So perhaps it is best to turn to the people who best know the benefits of play to make the case for it. When should playtime be phased out?

At Harry Gosling Primary, the Year 6 children are discussing how old is too old to play. "I don't know, some people still play football at 22," says Year 6 pupil Abdul Basit. Sadia Anjum has another view: "I think all ages can play. It doesn't matter how old you are."

Certainly Google's senior executives would agree with Sadia. But what do they know about innovation and success?

Photo credit: flickrScottamus

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