School playtime: fears, anxieties, and a more optimistic take

Over the years I’ve done a fair amount of work with schools, the focus being on ‘playtime’, a designation that could be found guilty of offending the Trades Description Act, were it applicable to some, perhaps many, schools.

Too often ‘play’ or ‘breaktime’ represents an unwanted lacunae within the school day, a day otherwise devoted to more worthy and directly educational purposes.

Conceptually, too, play or break time presents a difficulty for schools.  Schools are highly ordered, hierarchical institutions, their governing motif the timetable that slices up and controls time and purpose, breaking the day into predictable and repetitive chunks.  Order is all.

Break or play time present a different face, for here the absence of formal purpose – no march to testable outcomes here –  represent a potential threat to order and regularity.  Maybe it’s a Freudian itch – deep within schools’ sub-conscious lurks the fear of disruption.  The idea of children as naturally unruly – just waiting to break out – is a well-worn theme, pretty much throughout recorded time. Viewed this way, play or break time acts as a receptacle for schools’ fears and anxieties, the natural response to which is the manufacture of rules, restrictions and prohibitions. As surely as the school fence or wall hems in the school grounds, so do playground and behaviour policies hem in and restrict pupils’ use and experience of what is meant to be their break.

There are, I think, two features, two negative attributes, that underpin many schools’ response to play or break time: lack of trust; and a view of children as essentially incompetent, inadequate judges of their own capabilities and interests.

I shall leave that last thought dangling and not detain you further but, rather, direct your attention to a New Zealand report in TVNZ News which is of a more optimistic hue.  It’s   about Swanson Primary School (Thanks to the nephew of Mark Halden’s – of Glamis adventure playground fame – wife, Mel, for finding the article)  By way of a taster, here’s an extract:

‘Swanson School signed up to the study by AUT and Otago University just over two years ago, with the aim of encouraging active play…However, the school took the experiment a step further by abandoning the rules completely…’

Read it, perhaps as an antidote to my earlier rather dismal diagnosis.

4 responses to “School playtime: fears, anxieties, and a more optimistic take

  1. Hi Bernard, particularly interesting as we are in NZ visiting my daughter and Grandchild, Alby (23months 14 days!). We have taken him to his nursery a couple of days now and I can confirm that it is the best equipped nursery I have ever come across. Not equipment exactly, but attitude and understanding of staff. Brilliant on risk, it feels like a junior Adventure Playground. Not quite as described in the Swanson playground, but pretty near it!




    • Robin, thanks for comment. I doubt that you’ll want to spend your time in NZ doing anything resembling research, but if you get a chance be interesting to know – perhaps simply anecdotally from nursery staff – whether regulation there is more relaxed, and whether there is a generally more positive attitude to play within formal education. This homework not mandatory! Have a good time in NZ. (It so happens I’ve acquired three nephews now all apprximately same age as your grandchild – as a result I’m just realising I quite like children, all things considered.)


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