Why we need to put pupils' friendships above learning

As pupils return to school, their focus needs to be on learning to be sociable again, says Connie Bennett

Connie Bennett

Schools reopening: Why teachers need to focus on pupils' friendships

As classroom doors remain closed, interactive whiteboards switched off and playgrounds empty of play, a key question many are asking is what the true cost of children being out of school is.

Educational attainment is the key argument we hear from politicians when prioritising children returning to school. Writing for the Mail on Sunday in August, Boris Johnson declared: “Time spent out of class means lower average academic attainment, with a lasting effect on future life chances.”

However, there is another incredibly damaging factor at play in lockdown: the impact of remote schooling on children’s friendships and social interactions.

Think back to your own primary school days, and what are the stand-out memories? Learning long division in a classroom? Or running around the playground and trading marbles at break time (or Pokémon cards, if you’re a younger reader)? 

Schools reopening: The social health of children

Most children in the UK have been out of physical school for the past six weeks, and in 2020 were out of school for a whopping five months. Because of social-distancing measures in society as a whole, parents have been unable to get their children together for playdates as they usually would. 

Humans are sociable animals, and we’ve heard time and time again about the toll the pandemic has had on the mental health of both children and adults. But the true impact of lockdown on the social health of children could have a lasting impact.

The way young children interact at school and in the playground is usually imaginative and physical. They have a natural aptitude for creating new games, imaginary worlds and complicated rules, which, when explained to an adult, seem to make no sense at all. On the playground, I usually observe children charging around or hanging off climbing frames. Even the less physically active children still do something: making patterns out of leaves or plaiting each other’s hair.

Inside the primary classroom, especially in an early years setting, so much of the learning content is taught through games and active play.

Online schooling has, out of necessity, resulted in a shift to more passive online learning and completing worksheets. This virtual learning environment dramatically reduces the interaction between children within lessons, as well as in their free time. 

Lockdown has prevented many children from interacting in person, although they have been desperate to stay connected. They’re interacting with each other via parents’ phones and tablets – but mostly sitting, inactive, and talking. Talk without play for children is an unfamiliar setting.

When adults sit and talk, they have a multitude of things to talk about, from climate change and the current state of global politics to what happened on EastEnders last night. For children, their array of conversational topics is more limited when they’re not being given stimulation or they can’t physically play. 

Coronavirus: Playing havoc with young friendships

On a walk together, children can natter for hours, creating magical games or walking along the pavement trying not to step on the cracks. Yet, sitting on the phone or on FaceTime, early years and key stage 1 children are limited in their ability to communicate. 

For slightly older children, the subjects of conversation fall to things that are common experience: usually each other. There has been a surge of friendship issues in schools stemming from children talking about each other, because some don’t have many other conversation topics available to them. 

Even when schools remained open, the lack of after-school clubs and playdates were playing havoc with young friendships. Understandably, parents want their children to stay connected, but giving very young children unlimited and unstructured time online is problematic. 

Their current boredom during the pandemic means that they’re generating drama. This drama has become their new imaginative play, but it’s weirdly fused with their real lives. Of course, these problems have always existed, but were usually more prevalently with teenagers than primary-aged children.

While all age groups are suffering from social isolation, arguably the most long-lasting impact will be on the youngest pupils. The basic social skills of communicating with other people and learning to share are grounded in the early years classroom, and these skills develop throughout primary and secondary schools into understanding how best to navigate a plethora of social situations. 

While social media and online messages pose many challenges, teenagers get more out of them than children. Younger children need to be physically together, playing. 

Let’s get children back to school, but not just to catch up the academic attainment gap. This narrows our definition of education, when social skills are paramount for children’s mental health and future interactions in society as adults. 

As teachers, we are put under pressure to assess children and prioritise academic progress, and no doubt there will be even more pressure to ensure that children catch up on missed learning. As pupils make their return to school on 8 March, we need to ensure that we’re not focusing on academic attainment at the expense of play. We must allow sufficient time for the children to get used to being sociable again, rather than rushing into a rigorous academic timetable.

For staff and pupils alike, school is currently our main source of real-life interaction. Children still can’t go to each other’s houses, and staff can’t meet more than one person outside our household. So the school community is more important than ever, and putting play and social interaction at the heart of what we do is essential. 

This pandemic will have a lot to answer for, and the impact on young friendships and social skills will be another thing on that list. 

Connie Bennett is a key stage 2 and key stage 3 teacher in the South of England

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