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”
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
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.
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 materialsdisperse 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 elementswill 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.
I was recently asked to sign an online petition to oppose the cutting back of school playtimes in response to Covid-19 arrangements in primary schools. I usually work in schools every day, but since lockdown I’ve only been into one. Before signing, I wanted to find out a bit more about what’s really happening out there. So we published a quick Twitter poll and out of 50 respondents, 50% said that playtime has been reduced in their school.
This is obviously a small sample, but if it is even close to being representative of schools nationally then over 2.25 million children in England between the ages of 4 and 11 could have less outdoor playtime than before the pandemic.
“For social and emotional wellbeing, children need opportunity for all types of play, including play with their peers and physical outdoor play, both of which have been and, to some extent, continue to be restricted. This restriction is likely to felt particularly acutely by children without siblings who are close in age and by children who don’t have easy access to outdoor space.”
In their 2018 paper, Moore and Lynch* concluded that wellbeing, happiness and play are intrinsically linked:
“Findings illustrate the degree and complexity with which children understand the influences on their happiness (well-being) to be interrelated, highlighting an expanded view of play as a subjective aspect of childhood that is intrinsically connected to well-being and happiness.”
What an OPAL school had to say
I decided to speak to a school that will soon complete the OPAL Primary Programme to find out if they had reduced the time children get to play. Helen Easton, Assistant Head at Ivydale Infant’s in Islington, told me:
“No not at all. From 10.15 onwards the playground is in almost continuous use. We had improved play at the school before the pandemic and everything got better, especially concentration, relationships and behaviour. The children know we take their play seriously and it is their right. Children need the quality of play we provide here more than ever now.”
I was interested to know how the school manages the logistics of playtimes. Helen said:
“Lunch time runs for 1 hour and 45 minutes. We make sure that every child has a full hour of playtime, plus they have two fifteen-minute playtimes in the day as well. We have five bubbles and five areas, we have tried to provide resources and key points of interest for each bubble, like the sand pit or the water play and rotate them weekly”.
I was also interested to hear that not all of the impact has been negative. As a large school with a small space Helen observed:
“It feels more manageable now, children have more space and there is less noise. New children have definitely formed bonds with their classmates quicker and there is more collaborative play than before within the class.”
Trying to cope with logistics of socially distanced feeding and toilet breaks has pushed schools to their limits and, in many of our primary schools, outdoor play is likely to have been one of the casualties of the pandemic. Although this is understandable, it is counterproductive for children’s wellbeing, happiness and development. As we navigate schooling during this difficult time, we need to make sure that play is not forgotten.
Michael Follett, OPAL Director
Do you have evidence of how primary school playtimes have changes due to Covid-19? Please share with us by getting in touch or Tweeting us @OPAL_CIC.
*Alice Moore & Helen Lynch (2018) Understanding a child’s conceptualisation of well-being through an exploration of happiness: The centrality of play, people and place, Journal of Occupational Science, 25:1, 124-141, DOI: 10.1080/14427591.2017.1377105
Sport England, in their 2019 Active Lives Children and Young People study, found that the biggest motivator of physical activity in children aged between 5 and 11 is ‘Play’! Perhaps unsurprisingly playing was found by Sport England to be even more popular within this age group than team sports, swimming or any other activity. This is why Sport England and the Department for Education, which has a mission to reduce childhood inactivity, want to see every school improve their playtime provision as much as they can.
The recently updated The PE and School Sports Premium guidance reflects this shift in policy. The first two of the five key indicators are now “providing targeted activities or support to involve and encourage the least active children”, and “encouraging active play during break times and lunchtimes.”
Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) CIC exists to support schools that want to permanently transform the quality of the playtime experiences they provide to pupils every day. This support is especially critical because, when playtime provision is good enough, play promotes learning, development and healthy physical and mental wellbeing in all children, and schools are a great way to reach children effectively in vast numbers!
Around one fifth (typically 20-22%) of a school day in the UK is allocated to playtimes, yet, unlike the rest of the day, there is no policy drive to ensure that the quality of playtime provision meets any standard.
No school would employ a teacher who didn’t have the necessary qualifications, training and skills to do an excellent job for every pupil. No parent would want their child to attend such a school, so why is it accepted in 20,000+ primary schools that the people who have responsibility with supervising playtimes are allowed to do so with no proper knowledge or training? The supervision of primary school playtimes is predominantly carried out by people on minimum wages, with no management and with no clear direction from school leadership. The cost to the nation is an estimated £750 million every year. Surely the least we might expect for this money is that staff are doing the best job they can, with the necessary skills and resources?
The £245,600 of growth funding awarded by Sport England and the National Lottery to OPAL will, between May 2020 and December 2021, enable OPAL to recruit and train more Mentors located in every English region. So that all schools who want to improve their playtimes to meet the government indicators will have dedicated support available throughout their 12-18 month training programme. In addition to doubling the number of Mentors providing support to schools, the funding will enable the provision of on-line training, which will be freely accessible to all schools playtime support staff.
There will be new research published, networking and conference events, there will be lots of great ideas for staff to consider for the play environment, and there will be help available for parents and carers who want to boost play outside of school.
If you have any questions about the funding, see our FAQs.
Follow OPAL on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with the latest news.
Protecting play: Low resource ideas for supporting play during lockdown by Rachel Murray
coronavirus lock-down has meant life has changed dramatically for children and
simple everyday activities present new challenges. If children are to thrive, as
well as making sure our children feel safe and are well looked after, we also need
to allow play to continue. In supporting children’s play, we need to ensure as
much freedom of choice as possible for children.
normal times these freedoms include where and when they play, who they play
with, and how they play. During lockdown, many of these choices have been lost
or greatly restricted, as playgrounds are locked, friends remain at home and
schools are largely closed. Parents, carers and children find themselves in new
and unexpected circumstances. However, what has not changed is that play
remains vital for children’s physical and mental health. It is still important
that we try and protect children’s choices and let them play and be playful during
this challenging period.
appreciate that different families are facing different issues at this time. Here
are some low resource ideas to help support children’s play during lockdown. We
hope there will be something of use to you, or that they may spark a play
memory or an idea that you can make your own.
Top tip – Use what you have
Don’t be put off by Facebook posts of parents building entire wooden
playhouses, of greenhouses full of perfect seedlings or 8 tier rainbow cakes
with extra sprinkles! Work with the skills and interests of your own family.
Use what you have in your house and within your means. Play does not have to be
expensive – pots, pans, cushions, blankets, dried pasta and rice, felt-tips,
recycled plastic bottles, clothes pegs, paper and washing up liquid are all
great play items.
Classic party and playground games –
no resources needed
There are a reason that some games persist through the years and can be
classified as ‘oldies but goodies’. Here are some simple playground and party
games that require no resources and can be played in or outdoors.
games – Granny’s footsteps, What’s the time Mr. Wolf?
Hiding games – Hide n Seek, Sardines. If you’re short on space, hide a toy.
Clapping patterns and songs – pat a cake, See See my darling, A sailor went to
sea, sea, sea. You might know some others. Some have nonsense or cheeky lyrics!
Make up your own! The British Library have more info here: http://www.bl.uk/playtimes/videos/an-intoduction-to-clapping-games
Rock-paper-scissors (or the more complicated Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard,
Guessing game classics – I spy,
Charades, 20 questions
Low resource creative play
Den building – use blankets, cushions, pegs, sleeping bags. Find more ideas
Junk modelling – use recycled materials to craft unique creations and
contraptions. If your house can cope with a little overspill and creative mess,
creations can be added to over a number of days.
Colouring, sketching, painting, printing – use what you have! Potatoes,
fingers, feet, toilet rolls, brushes, feathers, Lego etc.
Loose parts art – nature inspired if you can play outdoors (search Andrew
Goldsworthy or James Brunt for inspiration; think sticks, stones, daisies,
dandelions, cherry blossom). Man-made loose parts could be Lego, cocktail
sticks, buttons, dried pasta, rice of beans, whole spices, sequins or just
small squares of paper.
Dressing up – it doesn’t need to be real costumes. Hats, ties, waistcoats,
wigs, headbands – who are you going to be?
Put on a show! – dance, sing, play instruments, learn the Cups song or The
GitUp dance, pretend to be Simon Cowell, hand up a sheet to make a pop-up
Bubble play – washing up liquid and water will do. What makes a good bubble
blower? Try out slatted spoons, sieves, flower pots, bend a paper clip, use a
toilet roll tube. Or make a bubble-snake! – https://youtu.be/MJPCNaefZ4I
Low resource active play
Obstacle course – indoors or outdoors. How can you stay off the floor?
French Skipping – also known as Elastics. If you don’t have other people to
play with, you can use chair legs to hold the elastic. Classic rhymes (England
Ireland, Scotland Wales…), or make up a routine to a current tune.
Target challenge – ‘shooting hoops’. Use a soft ball or a rolled up (clean!)
sock and chuck it at a bucket! Make up a
points system, move the bucket further away or have several goals.
Hopscotch – use chalk to mark an outdoor course; masking tape works well on
laminate floor and carpet.
Get outside for your daily exercise – if you can, get outdoors. Go for a walk,
a scoot or a ride. Make your own ‘spotting lists’ or ‘treasure hunts’ before
you go. Can you find a flying insect, a purple flower, a yellow car, a graffiti
tag, a rainbow in a window?
Community supporting playful ideas
Draw a rainbow to display in your window. Mix it up – how about a rainbow Pokemon
or a rainbow heart? How can you add your own creative twist?
Window wonder – use your windows to help entertain others! Hide teddies for a
‘Bear Hunt’, or eggs for an Easter egg hunt. What else would the children in
your neighbourhood like to see? You could leave positive signs for friends that
walk past your house or draw their favourite toys and TV characters.
Paint and hide rocks – use sharpies, paints, old nail varnish. Wash your hands
before you paint. If you pick up a rock from outside, wash it for 20 seconds
when you wash your hands.
Make some noise – if you take part in a ‘clap for support workers’ event, you
can make your own shaker or musical instrument to make some noise!
Dig out old games Is there
anything you haven’t played with in a while? When was the last time you played
Snap? Or did a jigsaw? Have you got an old console that you haven’t used for a
while? Have you got any toys tucked away that haven’t been played with for
Don’t worry, be silly! Talk like
a pirate day– ooh arr!Have a backwards day – clothes on backwards, walk backwards, pudding before
dinnerLet someone else do your make-up, and wear it out on your daily exercise
Funky hair dos – let someone give you a funky hair style and wear it for the
Swap clothes with someone in your family
Kitchen disco – turn the music up and dance, dance, dance
and don’t forget…….THE FLOOR IS LAVA!
Murray is a mentor for OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning
non-profit organization dedicated to improving play in schools
Play is essential to the mental and physical well being of children wherever they are. During the period of lock-down we will continue to support schools, parents and carers with ideas to enrich children’s play opportunities. We will do this by posting links to the many other organisations providing great ideas, posting bi-weekly updates of ideas from the OPAL team and linking with some of our national partners.
Schools want to improve playtimes, they may want to improve behaviour, create happier playtimes, increase physical activity or mental well-being. But it is not a matter of simply laying some playground markings, putting in a trim trail or adding a few loose parts.
Michael Follett set up OPAL – Outdoor Play and Learning – as a community interest company over five years ago. Since then, hundreds of schools across the UK, as well as schools in Canada, New Zealand and Australia have successfully completed the OPAL Primary Programme.
Here, he explains how he persuades Headteachers to invest in play development.
A blog for PTAs and parents on the best way for parents to support better play in primary schools. PTAs like to raise money for brightly coloured playground equipment in an effort to support schools to improve playtime behaviour.
In this blog Michael Follett describes how PTAs can use their hard-earned money to make a lasting difference to playtimes for every child in their school.
OPAL Community Interest Company has helped make play better in hundreds of primary schools and early years settings. Our experienced team will be able to help you create happier playtimes, create better play spaces and enable staff to support wonderful play through our OPAL Primary Programme and our design and advice services.