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Playtime not optional

Yes, it is bonkers to ban conkers, says Sally Goddard Blythe. Outdoor activities are good for the brain as well as the body

The recent Research Focus article on teachers' playground safety worries ("Are they bonkers to ban conkers?", TES, December 8) sparked a national debate over whether schools should abolish outdoor play.

That such a policy is even being considered is a sad reflection on the priorities of our time. Physical play is essential for learning.

From infancy to adulthood, play enables us to exercise the senses, the intellect, emotions and imagination. Through play a child interacts physically with the environment, heightening awareness and improving co-ordination.

Freedom to move helps to develop balance and motor control, both systems being important for the development of eye movements which are necessary to read, and hand-eye co-ordination which is necessary for writing.

Control of balance is also involved in the development of spatial awareness. Swinging, spinning, rocking and rolling all involve stimulation of the balance mechanism in the inner ear; hopping, skipping, climbing and running help to improve co-ordination between the balance mechanism and the motor system.

Tests carried out on a large number of children who have specific learning difficulties at the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, Chester, have shown that up to 80 per cent are still unable to skip at eight years of ge.

Several studies have now shown that specialised movement programmes can help to improve not only the ability to skip, but also spill over into concentration, reading and writing.

A study carried out in a Frankfurt kindergarten found that increased accidents in the playground were directly related to lack of movementbody control.

A movement training programme was included in the daily routine for 15 minutes a day. After eight weeks, the incidence of accidents was reduced by 50 per cent.

Rough and tumble play also seems to be vital to all healthy young mammals. In addition to the sensory, motor and social aspects of this play, it is suggested that such activity helps to prime the emotional brain and its connections to the forebrain, which are heavily involved in impulse control and behaviour.

Yes, accidents do occur in the playground. Yes, bullying tends to take place during playtime. However, it is also true that there can be insufficient adult supervision in some playgrounds, and keeping children quiet and sedentary is not the sensible way to respond.

Rather than abolishing physical play, surely we should be increasing the level of supervision so that playtime is a safe, enriching and creative part of the normal school day.

Sally Goddard Blythe is based at the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, 4 Stanley Place, Chester CH1 4HL TelFax 01244 311414 Email: inpp@virtual-chester.com

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