Why is play so important in schools?

Matt Robinson, chief operations officer at Learning Through Landscapes, explores the vital role of play in education and how to create a safe outdoor space.

High-quality play is an essential part of childhood.

It is the primary way in which children and young people engage with the world around them. In recognition of that, Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that every child has the fundamental right to relax and play.

Through free play our children gain social skills, develop physical literacy (speed, power, agility, coordination, proprioception and more), they develop an awareness of nature and the community around them, they learn the skills of judging physical and emotional risk.

They learn to self-regulate, to be independent, to develop skills of concentration and creativity. 

Finally, let us not forget how life-affirming and downright fun play is, great for our mental health, and particularly valuable for the children who have more stress and concerns in their life.

Play provision has changed

Outside of school, children’s play has seen dramatic changes in the last couple of decades.

Funding for children’s play spaces and play services has dwindled. Traffic has restricted children’s opportunity to play in their own street, or move safely around a neighbourhood to a suitable play space. Parental fears and culture around children being unsupervised.

These factors, and more, have led to a significant decline in children’s free play outdoors.

The time spent when I was a child in freely chosen outdoor, physical, and social play activities has been replaced by indoor, online, often sedentary and predominantly solitary play for many of our children. 

We also see that children are living in an ever more adult-directed culture, being directed between one adult-led club to an adult coached sport, and back home to complete homework under the supervision of another adult.

This therefore leaves our schools as the only place of outdoor free play for many children.

Playtime used to account for 20 per cent of pupils’ time in school. However, research from University College London has shown that break times have shrunk by an average of 45 minutes since 1995. We also know that the reduction in break time has been greater in schools who serve lower socioeconomic and urban schools. 

School break times have also become more adult directed, with a lot of anecdotal evidence about the introduction of limits on children’s play through stronger adult supervision and creeping (but usually misplaced) health and safety concerns.

This huge change in children’s opportunity for play has to be considered alongside the dramatic decrease in children’s mental and physical health. Many studies are now linking these changes to a fundamental lack of time spent playing independently.

Putting this together, we often observe schools with break times that are problematic.

Arguments and fall-outs abound, physical games or even sports interfere with groups seeking a quieter space. Significant accidents can occur, and layers of rules are introduced to impose control, with supervisory staff finding themselves as referees rather than play facilitators. 

The good news is that a good play experience can evaporate these problems. Schools with great play experiences see far fewer accidents, spend less time sorting arguments and bad behaviour.

I believe that much of this change in society and in schools is down to a lack of valuing of children’s play, with too few adults understanding the true benefits of play for their children. As teachers we focus on what we can control – formal learning time – and forget how valuable and important a great break time is for students.

So, what can schools do? They already have many of the tools required to support great play at break times, before or after schools. We usually have a safe outdoor space, adults who understand the children, and time allocated each day for a break time or three.

I would suggest starting with a few straightforward steps:

Build a team

As with all things in education, a group will carry a new project forward and sustain it far more than one person. We created the Playtime Revolution toolkit as a way of facilitating discussion and training anyone who supervises play time: it is a great place to start and free to use. Appoint a Play Leader role within the school, just as you would a curricular specialist.

There is a lot of free reading for your play team – start with ‘The Good School Playground Guide’, ‘Inspiring Inclusive Play Design’, ‘The Loose Parts Toolkit’, ‘No Fear- Growing up in a Risk Averse Society’, ‘Managing Risk in Play Provision’, and ‘Supporting Children’s Play in Schools – A Reading List for Teachers’. 

Speak to the experts

Your children are the experts in play in your school. They will tell you what is wrong, what opportunities there are, and be creative with ideas. Be careful to consult carefully – we ask children ‘what would you like to do?’ is the place to start. They will tell you about running, balancing, reading a book, singing and music, games they want to play. They will tell you what stops their play (hint: it is often the adults), and what can be done about it.

Develop a vision and policy for play in your school

This needs to be embedded in policy, included in your school handbook for parents, and shared with any new staff members to help prioritise play in school.

Observe and audit

We spend time before school, break and lunch just watching the play that is (or is not!) happening. At Learning through Landscapes we often use the ‘Play Types Poster’ from Play Scotland and use this as a tally chart to understand the types of play occurring. This can highlight opportunities for new types of play, perhaps a dominance of one type of play at the cost of another play type.

Undertake this observation annually to refresh what is happening.

Tackle the challenges

What are the issues you have with breaktime? Is it a reticence to be out in weather that is not perfect? Perhaps some of your spaces are too small or divided up? Does football dominate? 

Are girls and minority groups really listened to over their play preference? Do some of your children just not have the skills they need for play? Whatever the issues are, you will find a solution. 

Speaking to play organisations or my team at Learning through Landscapes will often uncover simple solutions that other schools have adopted. You can develop outdoor jacket libraries, create different play opportunities, support children to develop play skills, improve spaces and resources, and solve any problem.

Make a plan, but take a first step

You cannot do everything at once, but we can start with small steps, a plan to develop staff skills, encourage children to discover new play they enjoy, and a plan for making improvements to the grounds. For many schools, this plan takes months to develop and years to implement. You do though need to find small steps which staff and children recognise as successful, spurring them on to more.

Review your progress

As with any curriculum area, consider how you and the children review the changes and improvements made. This leads to a feedback loop which enables informed changes to the plan. How do you measure success in play is a question worthy of your time, and will lead to a more successful implementation.

Share success

As you make changes and see the improvements, make sure you take time to share the successes and changes. Pictures in the school, communicating with parents, have a stay and play session with parents instead of a parents information meeting.

These are all ways of sharing the play experience at your school. Investing in play is one of the most important things a school can do. Your school grounds can become the most, and maybe only, outdoor play experience for your children and their families.

I promise it will transform children’s health and wellbeing, reduce stress for staff, and improve all aspects of your school. 

Further Information: