Author Archives: Claire Colvine

  1. This girl can… play

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    Sport England’s Active Lives survey revealed that children say play is their favourite way to be active and their hugely successful This Girl Can campaign struck a chord with the message:  

    No one gets to choose how you exercise other than you. Your body, your call. And whatever that looks like, we think it’s worth celebrating.’ 

    But when it comes to school playtimes did you ever think that it’s just boys who want to play in mud, jump high, flip upside down, run fast, climb, scream and conquer the monkey bars? If so, read on and discover the transformational effect that prioritising play in primary schools has on girls.

    There are multiple biological, psychological and social benefits presented to all children through play, but this blog focuses on the improved opportunities for physical activity for girls, plus their increased confidence and happiness.

    The Five ways to mental wellbeing report was researched and developed by the New Economics Foundation, commissioned for the Government’s Foresight Mental capital and wellbeing project. This research recommended five actions that could be taken to improve mental health and wellbeing; one of these being ‘be active’ and, in particular, to take part in physical activity that you enjoy.

    Improving play at Blue Coat Primary

    Go back six years and Blue Coat primary school in Gloucestershire was poised at the very beginning of their OPAL (Outdoor Play and Learning) journey. The headteacher had recognised that playtime was under-developed at the school. On closer inspection, an unconscious gender bias was revealed, where a relatively small number of active, physically competent boys were dominating relatively large areas of the playgrounds. Girls were figuratively and literally being pushed aside. Of course, this did not mean that girls were not playful, but it did mean that observations of playtime showed that girls’ play was quite marginalised and muted, and that behaviours such as hiding in the toilets, hovering around and holding lunchtime supervisors’ hands or just waiting for play to finish were evident. Since becoming an OPAL mentor and visiting many more schools I have observed how this bias is prevalent in the way most schools provide for play.

    Girls love playing actively too

    As soon as changes began, the Blue Coat girls immediately responded to all the new opportunities with relish! They were hungry for more. Simple additions like playground chalk, loose parts and active play kit (eg hula hoops) were snapped up and positively affected play.

    When permission was given and some historic, heavy-handed rules were lifted, many girls showed that they love being upside down and that some of them had great physical competence when it came to flipping, spinning, cartwheeling and handstanding. Their competence and skills were enjoyed by other children and inspired physical play in others.

    New games and activities quickly emerged. Opening the school field for the whole year, rather than just on dry, summer days, gave groups of girls the space to do ‘social balancing’; full body challenges presented through imaginative and fun activities such as human stacks and pyramids, synchronised tyre dancing and acro-gymnastic displays.

    One girl jumping over another girl in a tyre while other children play in the background

    Improving health, wellbeing and happiness

    Girls at Blue Coat now have greatly improved opportunities to express themselves physically, take risks, and go ‘100% full throttle’ if they desire; running as fast as they can, leaping as far as they dare, carrying and dragging large loads of loose parts and zooming around on go-karts! 

    This all contributes to improved mental health, wellbeing and happiness, as reported by the girls  (and the boys) through regular dialogue, including play assemblies and pupil play surveys. 

    The OPAL approach means that no child is left out and every child can reap the benefits of amazing outdoor play every day. Playtimes make up 1.4 years of a child’s life at primary school – let’s make them count.

    Rachel Murray, OPAL Mentor

    Rachel Murray was Play Coordinator for Blue Coat primary in Wotton under Edge from 2014-20 and is now an OPAL Mentor supporting schools across the West of England region.

    Many thanks to Blue Coat for acting as our case study for this blog. All photos are provided by Blue Coat Primary and cannot be reproduced without their express permission.

  2. Take a risk on play

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    During winter, we often see children’s opportunities for playing reduce significantly due to fears for their safety. The paths are slippery, and the yards and fields are icy or full of mud. Where necessary, significant risks to children’s safety and wellbeing need to be reduced. But most winters we curtail children’s risky play because of skewed perceptions, instinctive reactions and secondary risk management (Elizer’s mum will go ballistic if she goes through the knee of those new school trousers!) The result? An unreasonably harsh application of safety measures.

    Risky play or playing with uncertainty enables children to place themselves in situations that have a sense of jeopardy and risk without overexposure to the serious likelihood of harm (Gordon & Esbjorn-Hargens, 2007; Pellis, 2013). When creating risky scenarios in their play, children might more accurately be described as being in control of generating the feeling of being out of control. Ellen Sandseter researched the risky play of children in their early years and found that these forms of play were significant to children. The children called it ‘Scary fun’. Children seek opportunities to develop this scary fun in their play because it’s exhilarating and thrilling, gives them a sense of pride and achievement when mastering a new challenge, and influences their self-esteem, self-confidence and peer relationships.

    From her research with children, Sandseter (2010b) identifies eight different ways that children play with risk:

    1. Playing at height – experiencing climbing, hanging/dangling, balancing and jumping
    2. Playing at speed – running, sliding, cycling or rolling at speeds that feel out of or on the edge of control
    3. Playing with dangerous tools – using an axes, saws, knives, hammers and ropes etc.
    4. Play near dangerous elements – the excitement of playing when there is a risk of falling in or off into something, perhaps water or mud
    5. Rough and tumble play – physical contact play with swords and sticks, or just wrestling
    6. Playing free of adult supervision – playing as exploration and discovery perhaps in new spaces but particularly with a sense of freedom from supervision
    7. Play with impact – playing on the dodgems or at least recreating opportunities that trigger the same feelings from exaggerated collisions
    8. Vicarious play – playing where the thrill is derived from watching others.

    When children play in the ways that Sandseter identifies, they are finding and generating experiences that give them real feelings of exhilaration and excitement nervousness, anxiety, even fear. Playing in this way enables children to test, explore, extend and refine their capabilities continuously, and the possibilities afforded by each other and their environments.

    Playing with uncertainty in these ways requires children to practice a high degree of risk management for themselves. Playing with uncertainty stimulates physical and biological responses that influence the way children feel and then requires them to work out what they want to do about those feelings. Children’s risk management processes include understanding, predicting and evaluating (executive function, hypothesis testing), and importantly translating all that processing into meaningful bodily response (hierarchical integration of brain-body systems).

    Playing with uncertainty is training for life

    Throughout life, there is nothing more certain than we will be faced with uncertainty and challenging experiences that will make us anxious, nervous, uncomfortable, exhilarated, even scared. Playing with uncertainty and engaging with risk through play is the perfect training ground for a life full of uncertainty. Put simply, when children are empowered to generate play that for them presents a sense of risk, we are enabling them to build the sense of confidence and self-esteem, coupled with experiences and skills, that contribute to their developing resilience.

    Weighing up benefits and risks makes for better practice

    Children’s attraction to novelty, flexibility and change, and to the creation of uncertainty (Pellis, 2013) is perfectly matched with their need to discover the world around them, and for the creation of experiences that make for a good life and healthy growth and development. However, as adults and carers of children, we are all too often a little risk-averse. When observing/supervising playing children we regularly overreact, looking to the worst-case scenario rather than allowing the observable facts in front of us to inform our judgements, this can result in the unnecessary curtailing of play opportunities.

    Rather than jumping in and stopping play based on our first reactions, it’s a good idea to take just a second or two more to think:

    • What is going on here?
    • How is it going?
    • Why are the children choosing to do it?
    • What are the benefits?
    • What risks are children actually taking?
    • Are children being cautious, managing their or each other’s behaviour?
    • Given the benefits and the risks do I really need to stop this?

    Where there is time to do this (it only takes seconds), we can avoid overreacting, and instead carefully respond, reflecting on the details of the situation. We can think what processes may be beneficial and what are the real risks, consider potential options and formulate more reasoned responses and interventions.

    Better practice equals better play

    When we pay attention in this way, we routinely find that children are aware of possible dangers and are taking steps to manage the risks already. When we take these extra few seconds to look, listen and think before acting, the only intervention or response required is often to continue applying a little oversight. One thing is for certain, when adults start to pay attention like this, they learn about children and play, and their attitudes and behaviours towards children and their play change, and children’s opportunities for play improve.

    Ben Tawil and Mike Barclay, OPAL School Mentors and Directors of Ludicology

    The OPAL Primary Programme can help you harness the power of play at your school. Get in touch and start your journey today.

    References

    Gordon, G. & Esbjorn-Hargens, S. (2007) Are we having fun yet? An exploration of the transformative power of play. Journal of Humanistic PsychologyVolume 47, pp.198-122.

    Pellis, S. and Pellis, V. (2013) The playful brain: Venturing to the limits of neuroscience. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.

    Sandseter, E. B. H., Kleppe, R., & Sando, O. J. (2020). The prevalence of risky play in young children’s indoor and outdoor free play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 1-10.

    Photo by Michal Janek on Unsplash

  3. How can schools improve children’s wellbeing and save money?

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    Money. There’s never been enough of it for everything our primary schools need to do, arguably even more so right now amid a pandemic. So, if there’s a way of using limited funds more positively and efficiently, which an entire school can benefit from, would you be interested?

    The number of English primary schools has slowly decreased over the decades, from around 21,000 after WW2 to under 17,000 today. However, the pupil population of individual schools has been steadily increasing (back in 2015 there were already 87 schools with more than 800 pupils), resulting in a current national average of one adult in the playground at lunchtime for every 36 pupils.

    “The average state-funded primary school now has 282 pupils on its roll… Since 2009, the average size of primary schools has increased by 43 pupils, the equivalent of more than 1.5 extra classes per school”

    Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2019, Department for Education

    The application of the 1:36 ratio results in the presence of many untrained adults in the play environment. Supervisors are left to work in the absence of any strategic or policy-based approach from the school, leading to decisions and practices which diminish the quality of play and make playtimes even harder to manage. Common examples include separating children by age and confining children onto relatively small areas of Tarmac for most of the year. Inevitably, overcrowding and boredom caused by lack of engaging play opportunities lead to inactivity, high levels of low-level accident reporting and increased behavioural incidents. As a result, the staff call for even more staff or less playtime. Schools don’t need more staff – they need better training!

    Investing in staff – including lunchtime supervisors – makes sense financially. When supervisors change from a policing role to a playwork-based enabling role, the following usually happens:

    • playground incidents quickly decrease as play quality rises
    • there are fewer demands on senior leaders’ time
    • playground staff have many more positive interactions and fewer negative encounters with children
    • ball games are no longer the dominant activity
    • teachers get more time to teach after lunchtimes.

    Sport England’s 2019 Active Lives Children and Young People Survey found that: 

    • Active play and informal activities remain the most common way for children in younger age groups (Years 1-6) to be active.  
    • The first Active Lives Children and Young People survey showed that enjoyment above all other elements of physical literacy is the biggest driver of children’s activity levels.  

    Everybody’s time costs money and schools are very expensive institutions to run. The hundreds of schools that OPAL has worked with since 2006 typically save between £2,000 and £4,500 per year in recovered time.

    Schools are eager to spend a great deal of money on fixed play equipment, especially low-level, ‘low risk’ trim trails, despite children finding them to have limited, short-term play value. After the initial wave of excitement has passed, it isn’t long before fixed equipment becomes ‘just part of the furniture’, effectively ending up as an overpriced seat or coat hanger. A medium sized primary school typically spends around £50,000 a year on the mediocre or poor supervision of play. Wouldn’t investment in play be better spent on the quality of this workforce through training in the basics of Playwork than on fixed items that provide a small amount of benefit to a small number of children?

    The same question about spending money wisely also applies across the UK nations. The total cost for the supervision of playtimes is three quarters of a billion pounds every year. In Wales and Scotland there are polices and strategies to help schools provide a vision of what this investment should be used for. In England there is nothing!

    The inadequate training of more than 130,000 primary school lunchtime staff has to be questioned at school and governmental levels.

    There are 4.7 million primary school children who desperately need better play opportunities in their lives. Every ten years, £7.5 billion is wasted on staffing that is not fit for purpose.  The transformation of school supervisors into a properly trained school playwork team can have a positive impact across every aspect of school life. A national playwork workforce could revolutionise the quality of practice, save schools thousands of pounds and improve every child’s mental and physical wellbeing.

    Neil Coleman, OPAL Mentor

    Note: The PE & Sport Premium guidance now emphasises Active Breaks twice within the five key indicators, so schools can use some of their PESSP grant to develop the skills and knowledge of the staff who will supervise playtimes.

  4. Five top tips to help you navigate playtimes during the pandemic

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    Now that schools have returned, most senior leaders are struggling just to make the logistics of children having lessons, eating, and coming and going from school safely. Despite these challenges, we believe that the provision of plenty of quality outdoor play is more important than ever and should still be a high priority for schools. 

    We’re working with our OPAL schools to help them to provide the best possible quality of play for children within the constraints they are facing. As part of this support, we recently ran a special web conference with Mark Hichens, our consultant microbiologist, to understand the science behind transmission and how it can be applied to playtimes. 

    Here are five of the resulting top tips to help your school navigate playtimes during the pandemic. 

    1. Natural loose materials disperse the viral load almost instantly. This means that sandpits, earth digging, pebble pits are all very low-risk play resources.

    2. Water with a bit of washing-up liquid or bubble-bath added is a great play resource. Not only is water and bubble play great fun but it actually helps kill the virus.

    3. Fixed play equipment exposed to the natural elements will be ‘safe-enough’ after 24 hours outside, but we advise 72 to be extra sure. This means equipment can be accessed by one cohort for the week, left from Friday lunchtime until Monday lunchtime, and then used by another cohort without the need for time-consuming cleaning.

    4. The same principle above is true for all weather-resistant large loose parts and bikes and scooters. They can be left out over the weekend and used safely by another group on Monday.

    5. Playing outdoors poses much lower risks than doing anything indoors. With sensible hand washing routines this reduction in overall risk means that cohorts will be safe-enough sharing play resources during outdoor playtimes.

    Research shows that play contributes to children’s physical and emotional health, wellbeing, approach to learning and enjoyment of school. Given the importance of play in children’s lives and current concerns about children’s physical activity levels, mental health and educational attainment, there are considerable benefits for children and schools in making the most of playtimes. 

    Find out more about the OPAL Primary Programme and book a call with one of our mentors if you want to embed excellent playtimes at your school. The results really can be transformational.

    And follow us on Facebook and Twitter to find out more about a new web conference coming soon and open to all schools.

    Michael Follett, OPAL Director