School playtimes are needed to burn off children's surplus energy. Or so we think. In fact, that generally-held belief may be nothing more than a myth.
It was Friedrich von Schiller, the 18th-century poet and philosopher, who first suggested that play was essentially "the aimless expenditure of surplus energy". But John Evans of Deakin University, Australia, and Anthony Pellegrini, of the University of Wales, Cardiff, insist that this theory does not stand up to close examination, even though it is accepted in many countries, including Australia and the USA.
Writing in the latest issue of the Educational Review (Volume 49, Number 3) they say that the surplus energy argument is physiologically unsound. Furthermore, studies have shown that children are not particularly active in the playground, and some pupils are happy to spend their breaks indoors.
Evans and Pellegrini say that, for most children, breaks are popular because they are more interesting than classwork. But they also emphasise their usefulness. Strategically placed during and between mentally demanding tasks, they increase children's attention. They also provide opportunities to practise social skills.
Breaks are also useful to a group who are often forgotten when playtime is discussed - the teachers. "Teachers need a break just as much (they might reasonably argue more so) as children," Evans and Pellegrini say. "As class sizes increase, as the curriculum expands and as teachers are made more accountable for the progress students make, these breaks become more important because they provide a brief opportunity to take stock of the day's events. "
Correspondence: John Evans, faculty of education, Deakin University, Geelong Campus, Victoria 3217, Australia.