"Rainy days and Mondays always get me down... " sang Karen Carpenter, showing surprising insight into the tribulations facing schools at lunchtime.
Working with schools to create "happy lunchtimes", it is remarkable how much can be achieved without the magic wand that many headteachers suggest I might like to bring along.
Take those rainy days. Many lunchtime routines continue for no other reason than: "That's the way it has always been."
Most schools, upon conceding that the rain is here to stay, require that pupils return to their classrooms. The police call this kettling: confining a large number of individuals in a small space in an attempt to maintain order. As with a kettle, the pressure inside quickly mounts and there is an ever-present danger that it might bubble over.
For lunchtime staff this situation is unpleasant to supervise: an unstable mixture of freedom and constraint that can lead to problematic behaviour and conflict.
Despite retreating to the staffroom, teachers know that they will have to return to classrooms before too long, and may find pupils in a less than ideal state for learning.
For pupils the situation is worse. They are deprived of the opportunity to socialise with friends or siblings from other classes. They are cooped up with others whose idea of a good time is the polar opposite of theirs. (Try reading, drawing or socialising quietly when surrounded by children who would rather be playing football or careering round the playground.)
Deprived of their regular contacts and activities, children are left to console themselves with a box of jaded games and activities that may well be missing a few vital pieces.
Well, that may be "the way it has always been", but there is a case for change, and here is how it could be different.
Classes are grouped into convenient clusters (perhaps by year group, key stage or location). Each cluster is assigned a set of rooms, all of them themed to suit a different personality type. One room is used for quieter activities (drawing, crafting, reading, etc). Another room is the social club, where children seated in a circle can play games together. If you are stuck for ideas, countless books and websites have examples.
There is also a film room, taking advantage of the fact that everyone inside has chosen it and will therefore not disturb others by trying to recreate the playground instead of watching the screen. The fourth room is stocked with board games, Lego and the like for those who wish to form smaller social groups.
For this to work, a few simple rules have to be applied. First, children must choose a room when wet play starts and stay there, thus avoiding disruption. Second, staff must be able to declare a room "full" if it is oversubscribed. If a room is frequently full, this activity could be run in two rooms in future. Third, each room should have its own rules, conducive to the type of activity taking place (take turns, keep the noise down, etc). Staff should be able to relocate children not playing by the rules.
Each room should be resourced appropriately, pooling resources and refreshing them where necessary. The school council could consult on the exact nature of each room. It could also do some fundraising or meet the parent-teacher association to pitch for some money.
If lunchtime staff usually supervise more than one room, try pairing the more social rooms with the quieter ones, allowing staff to allocate most of their attention where it is needed. Schools may be able to bring other space into play, such as libraries, ICT suites or even indoor halls if they are not used for dining.
For children this change represents an improvement, so try pitching it as a trial and be clear about your expectations. I know trials that have lasted a very long time in order to motivate positive behaviour.
Improving wet play is just one piece in the jigsaw of creating happy lunchtimes. Creating mutual respect, using a consistent system to promote positive behaviour and creating an inclusive and diverse range of play opportunities are some of the other puzzle pieces that together help address the Carpenters' other insights... "Hangin' around, nothing to do but frown."
Steve Harris works with schools to create "happy lunchtimes" without the use of a magic wand. Details at www.wellbeingeducation.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org.