‘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.
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.