Stop playing around with our breaktimes

29th May 2015 at 01:00
Reducing free time may mean fewer behaviour problems but it has many negative consequences - for staff as well as students

Playtime used to be an unquestioned part of the day but not many schools still hold to the traditional timetable. Very few have morning and afternoon break beyond key stage 2, and very few allow a full hour for lunch. Free time is slowly but surely slipping away.

This is a problem for both students and teachers. "Children need to play as much as they need to eat, drink and breathe," says Jeni Hooper, child psychologist and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: step by step positive psychology to help children flourish.

Adults need a break, too. We all need to refresh our minds and shake out the kinks. But morning break is often postponed now until at least two lessons are completed, sometimes three. Lunch is squeezed and squashed, and afternoon play has all but disappeared. It's happening across all sectors: primary, secondary, mainstream and special. So why are we making the school day a more frenetic, less civilised period of time for everyone concerned?

Behaviour battles

Often, the reason given is behaviour. Without the light-touch supervision of trusted teachers - the kind who take the time to sort out squabbles and listen to all points of view in their attempts to be fair - student behaviour can suffer.

It is also the case that children with special educational needs, particularly those on the autistic spectrum, can find playtime a difficult experience.

Quiet children, shy children, victims of bullying - these pupils are thought to benefit from restricted breaks. Time spent calming things down is time that you can't spend getting on with creating your lessons. And what about those lessons? Learning is a serious business and playtime is somehow cast as frivolous. We measure and we check and we test and we record and, crucially, we are judged on what happens in our classrooms. Our job is to educate children, not stand around in windswept playgrounds drinking tepid coffee. We have to get on with the job and we have to get on with it as fast as possible in these days of pace, pace, pace.

For children to make the sort of progress we need to justify our pay packets, we must control them. We need them to be focused on the serious stuff.

Nourishing needs

Every lunchtime, as I shovel down my food and rush to afternoon lessons, I wonder if we shouldn't take another look at playtime and reconsider the role of regular breaks.

There's a reason why the early years stage is play-based and it's because children learn when they play. There is evidence to suggest that the break itself, the chance to let off some steam, to run around and squeal with friends, has learning benefits too. Children, just like adults, reap the rewards of having a change of scenery.

Among other things, play helps children to develop "executive function", Hooper claims. "This important cognitive skill is the foundation for effective learning. Children who lack the opportunity to practise this because they are over-regulated will struggle in school," she says.

"Basically, play is central to how children learn to manage themselves physically, emotionally, socially and mentally. Constant adult direction risks making children passive and helpless, and also rather disaffected."

And what about those social skills that businesses value so much? Cooperation, teamwork, communication, problem-solving - don't pupils pick them up at playtime? Aren't there valuable lessons to be learned from finding out that if you aren't kind to your friends, or if you don't stick to the rules, then the other children won't play with you?

And what about those young people who spend their school lives under the close supervision of teaching assistants? Isn't playtime the ideal opportunity to experience independence and develop relationships with peers?

An old-fashioned approach

Some schools do still hold to the traditional timetable and the positive effects are widely felt.

"Children come back in after the afternoon play full of beans and ready to go again," says Gaz Needle, a primary teacher from Oldham. "It also gives teachers a break and allows them a little time to recharge, ready for the final push of the day."

Having recognised the benefits of spending time with his colleagues, building relationships and decompressing from classroom pressures, Needle spends at least 30 minutes in the staffroom every lunchtime. This is a very different experience from that of the many teachers who wolf down a sandwich while putting out paint pots.

"I think this has made me a better leader and teacher, as I am not going from lesson to lesson without a break," he says.

In an educational age where there is a worrying drive to control children in a huge variety of ways - how they put up their hands, even where they direct their gaze - we erode their agency even further when we restrict playtime.

Breaktimes are perhaps the one chance for many to freely interact with their peers and to truly direct themselves. We stand in grave danger of damaging children's capacity to learn the things that we say are important.

Nancy Gedge teaches at Widden Primary School in Gloucester

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