My big sister got into nursery nursing college by telling her interviewers that the best bit of the school day is "playtime". Most children would agree: those 15 minutes of freedom to run around, catch up with friends and, well, play are the highlight of their day. It's different in my school. When the children go out to play after lunch they immediately split up: Greg looks at the cars over the fence, Amy goes into the little house and stays there banging the window open and shut, and Stuart tries to look for things to eat or put up his nose.
Like other aspects of the school day, children with learning difficulties have to be taught every step of the way about play: interacting with each other, taking turns, following rules and using their imaginations. Some find play a particularly hard time and become lost and disruptive without the structure and routine of the classroom.
Playtime, then, is a big part of our learning day and teachers and teaching assistants are all involved. We have to staff playtimes well enough to encourage Amy out of the little house, show Greg what fun he could have with a toy garage and cars, and make sure Stuart doesn't ingest anything poisonous. It's not just a matter of supervision; we have to get involved and interact with the children, and we are always thinking of new things to do outside such as bubbles, kite-flying and dressing up.
Some of our pupils with autistic spectrum disorder would enjoy the chance to indulge in twisting, spinning, flicking or twiddling (known as "stimming"), but there's usually someone there to help them make better use of their time. Some people argue that children should be allowed to express themselves through their stimming activities, and I agree up to a point.
There comes a time though, when too much of this is self-perpetuating and getting the children nowhere; they need to be encouraged to do something purposeful outside. It's good to see some pupils are now able to play team games with less supervision and even use their imaginations a bit: dressing up, chalking on the playground and enjoying themselves in games of chase.
The best teachers of play are other children. It's fun and stimulating when the local mainstream school joins us, but the children still need deliberate and focused teaching. At present I'm interviewing for teaching assistants and am always interested in their attitudes to play. Is it their favourite time of the day? How can they encourage children to develop important social skills through play? Can they think of 20 things to do with a bucket of beanbags and a stick of chalk? If so, welcome aboard.
Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym