Make Every Minute of Playtime Count

Make Playtime Count

Are long playtimes a thing of the past?

When we think of our school days, we often have fond memories of break times, socialising with friends, enjoying the fresh air and having time to relax, away from the pressures of the classroom.

Playtimes are essential for developing friendships, having a break from learning and for stretching your legs. We all feel better and refocused after a break from whatever task we are doing, as a break improves concentration levels and improves our wellbeing.

Reduced playtimes today

However, we live in a world where school demands are increasing, where obesity levels are rising and concerns are growing about children’s mental health. So, it is particularly worrying to discover that school break times have been reduced by as much as an hour over the past 20 years! So why are today’s school children missing out on these vital break times, reducing the time that they can make friends and giving them less time to get active?

Financial cutbacks, increased academic pressures and an attempt to avoid bad behaviour at playtimes, have all been reasons given for cutting down children’s essential school playtimes.

A recent study, by University College London’s (UCL) Institute of Education, comparing data from 1,133 primary and secondary schools in 2017 with data collected in 2006 and 1995 reveals :

“At key stage 1 in primary school, where children are aged five to seven, pupils now have 45 minutes less break time per week than children of the same age in 1995. Meanwhile, pupils at key stage 3 and 4 (aged 11 to 16) have 65 minutes less than two decades ago.”

Lead author Dr Ed Baines, of the UCL Institute of Education, pointed out that: “Despite the length of the school day remaining much the same, break times are being squeezed even further, with potential serious implications for children’s wellbeing and development.”

He said “Not only are break times an opportunity for children to get physical exercise – an issue of particular concern given the rise in obesity – but they provide valuable time to make friends and to develop important social skills, experiences that are not necessarily learned or taught in formal lessons.”

In the concerning BBC article ‘School break times cut short to cram in more lessons’ Hannah Richardson cited that “the researchers had found what they described as a ‘virtual elimination’ of afternoon breaks, with only 15% of infant pupils and just over half of juniors having one.”

Schools are in control

The general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, Paul Whiteman stated “Schools are certainly teaching a more challenging curriculum, and budget cuts mean that resources are stretched, which may also be contributing to fewer or shorter break times.”

The BBC shared that “Head teachers’ leader Geoff Barton said there was enormous value in unstructured free time for children to socialise and let off steam, but schools had to balance this consideration against all the other demands expected of them”.

However, a Department for Education spokesperson has explained that “The government has given all schools the autonomy to make decisions about the structure and duration of their school day.” The government explains that it recognises the important role that physical activity plays in schools with the aim to improve both physical and mental wellbeing.

He added “We are clear that pupils should be given an appropriate break and we expect school leaders to make sure this happens.”.

Schools therefore can choose to lengthen playtimes, but the pressures of results, means schools are taking drastic measures to increase teacher contact time and reduce pupils’ free time. It is a fine balance to be maintained, which sadly is sometimes being tipped towards more work and less play.

Make the most of every minute

The recent BBC article also shared that “Playing video games and watching television had overtaken spending time with friends as the most common after school activity. The researchers said this finding highlighted how ‘school is increasingly the main, and in some cases the only, context where young people get to socialise’ “.

So, it is now more important than ever that pupils maximise their down time, however reduced, by having access to inspiring and welcoming outdoor play spaces. It’s fortunately now common place to have a fun and exciting play space for children in the EYFS, however there are plenty of ways of making a KS1, KS2 or Secondary playground more inviting and stimulating, encouraging children to communicate, socialise, take time out or to get active.

The children at Whitemoor Academy in Cornwall are all smiles at playtimes, exploring, swinging, climbing and sliding on their Play Tower. Pupils love being up high and looking down on the world below, as well as gathering underneath for a chat away from the crowds.

Schools like The Grange in Scunthorpe have maximised the benefits their KS2 pupils gain from transforming a formerly small, rectangular area, to include an outdoor gym, performance and discovery area. Their teachers report that their children are now benefitting from outdoor play: mind, body and soul.

Tor Bridge High in Devon has seen the benefits of installing top quality 3G sports pitches, ensuring pupils can get active at break times, encouraging teamwork and socialising with friends. Tor Bridge Primary is also celebrating the wellbeing of it’s pupils gained from stimulating, outdoors, active play through it’s Treetops Adventure Play System. All demonstrating Tor Bridge Partnership’s dedication to promoting fun, social and active playtimes.

Decline of playing together outside of school

A further worrying trend identified by UCL is that since 2006 children are now half as likely to meet up with friends outside of school, reducing their chances further of developing positive relationships with others. This coupled with schools withholding breaks from classes, when pupils are badly behaved or not finished their work.

With social gatherings outside of school on the decline, it is more important than ever for children to have somewhere in the community where they can gather to relax, chat and play in safety. Parish and Town Councils are now recognising the need for providing fun and inspirational parks, for their community to discover and explore.

Gwennap Park has recently seen a large overhaul and the community are thrilled with their amazing new play space, complete with a speedy, invigorating Zip Wire, cosy Jungle Play Den, fun Spinning Carousel, challenging Cone Climber, colourful Spring Surfer and much, much more. It also is designed to provide children of all ages with ample space to run and play, enjoying the fresh air. Fiona Barnard Clerk of the parish council describes the park as “so creative and imaginative” and is so pleased now that the park is being used so much more than in the past. The local community are excited and thrilled with their new park and impressed with the quality of their new play facilities.

Learning through play

Caught in an education system where playtimes are being reduced, teachers are fortunately now fostering strategies in class that promote higher levels of communication and learning through discovery, experimentation and play during lesson times. Pupils are now often asked to discuss their ideas with talking partners, increasing participation and improving social skills, encouraged to join in active games that reinforce learning, as well as getting more physically active through daily class exercise routines, brain gym and yoga sessions etc.

Teachers will also often take curriculum learning outside, where many pupils feel more engaged with a change of scene and often making better use of the resources available outside. An outside classroom area has become a popular and effective addition to any school grounds.

So, although we may all wish we could increase the amount of free play children access throughout their school lives, enabling future generations to have more chance to eat, socialise and make friends, this may not always be feasible. But, fortunately, we can rest assured that schools and councils investing in the development their outdoor play environments are reassuringly reaping the rewards in improving the future health and wellbeing of their children.


Make Every Minute of Playtime Count was last modified: May 5th, 2020 by Steve Bell

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