Roger Hurn discovers how a cat, a rat and a monster can transform that outdoor time between lessons into an opportunity to develop fitness, co-operation and social, language and negotiating skills
The school playground is the ideal gym - it's free, pupils are automatically members and they can use it almost every day. But most children are not getting enough exercise, so is your school making the most of playtimes?
Do the pupils dread them and just hang around looking and feeling bored? Do they know how to play?
Is the only real game going on in the playground something which resembles a medieval battle - and is otherwise known as football? And do those who supervise the playground have the knowledge, skills and, most of all, the desire to do more than just patrol it clutching a mug of tea?
"Playing a range of structured games at playtimes can not only get children fit and healthy but encourages social development, language and negotiating skills," says Do Friend, early years adviser for Newham Council in east London. She says games such as The Cat and the Rat (see box) require children to think on their feet and work together in a complex and co-ordinated way to achieve their objectives.
Appointing and training children to be play leaders is an excellent way of encouraging social inclusion, as well as boosting pupils' self-esteem.
Teaching playground games in PE lessons can help. But to see real benefits, teachers and lunchtime supervisors may need to consider getting training outside of the school.
Elaine Cox, a teacher at Olney First School near Milton Keynes, Bucking-hamshire, went on a training day to learn how to organise and play games constructively.
"We learned that everyone in the school has to be committed to the idea of active playtimes for it to succeed. Playing games has to become part of the school's culture," she says.
Rachel Hooper, a teacher at Baring Road Primary in Lewisham, south east London, applied these lessons in her school. "Some of our children were finding the playground a bit intimating at playtimes while others were just plain bored," she says.
"This was not a good situation. We learned that playtime has to have a purpose beyond giving the teachers a break and the children a breath of fresh air. We introduced them to a range of games - some modern, some traditional and some we invented ourselves.
"It encouraged youngsters of different ages to play together. For some pupils, just the act of turning a rope so another child could jump over it represented a big step forward in learning how to co-operate."
Pam Hammond, the special needs coordinator at Brockham Primary, Brockham, Surrey, says active playtimes encourage inclusiveness, which especially benefits vulnerable children.
"No child enjoys feeling bored, lonely or bullied at playtime any more than teachers want to waste valuable teaching time sorting out squabbles which originated in the playground.
"A well-ordered and structured playtime with adequate and appropriate resources, where everyone knows what is expected of them and where they can join in with lots of interesting, exciting and co-operative games, is the perfect antidote to this."
So then, how to make playtimes in your school more active? Scotts Park Primary School in Bromley, Kent, gave the children a questionnaire to find out what was happening in the playground and what they thought.
"Basically they wanted a lot more things to do," says Jen Farley, a teacher. "So we made the playground more child-friendly by buying extra equipment and also by teaching kids how to play traditional games. We also trained some of the older children to be 'playground pals'.
"They took to it like ducks to water and we have calmer, happier playtimes where the children use their energies more productively"
Roger Hurn is a writer and education consultant. His book, Active Playtimes - Over 70 Playground Activities for Fit, Healthy and Happy Kids is published by A C Black
PLAYING BY THE RULES
Here are two games, for ages four to 11, which encourage co-operation, active listening, thinking and observational skills and spatial awareness.
The Cat and the Rat
The children line up in four equal rows, leaving a corridor between each one, with the rows in touching distance of each other. The children in each row hold hands. One is picked to be the caller, one to be the rat and another to be the cat. A time limit is set. The rat runs up and down the corridors with the cat chasing it. When the caller shouts: "Stop that rat", the players in the rows stop holding hands with each other and instead join hands with the children in the row across from them. This changes the direction of the corridors and the rat must adapt to the change or be trapped. The caller should change the direction of the rows quite frequently. The game ends when the rat has been caught or the time limit has been reached. Then the children who've been the caller, the cat and the rat choose others to take on their roles for the next game.
One child is the "monster". This pupil takes a ball and stands with their back to the rest of the children. The monster throws the ball backwards over their head. If someone catches the ball, the monster is out and the child who caught the ball takes the monster's place. If no one catches the ball, one child picks up the ball and hides it behind their back. All the children now put their arms behind their backs and chant: "Monster, monster, big and tall, bet you don't know who's got the ball."
The monster then turns around and tries to guess. He or she points to one child and roars: "Monster, monster is no fool, monster says you've got the ball." If the monster is wrong, the child shows their empty hands and chants: "Monster, monster, big and tall, I'm not the one with the ball."
The game continues until the monster guesses correctly and swaps places with the child who was hiding the ball.