Tag Archive: Playtime

  1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. Has Covid-19 led to a reduction in school playtimes?

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    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.

    In her Blog Play in the Pandemic, Professor of Child Psychology Helen Dodd points out:

    “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

  4. OPAL wins funding from Sport England and The National Lottery

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    Children enjoying playtime in an OPAL school
    Children enjoying playtime in an OPAL school

    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.

  5. Take the Play Challenge

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    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.

    Read the blog on the Play England Website

  6. How to make playtimes excellent

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    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. 

    Read the blog on the Parentkind website