• School break times are shorter than they were two decades ago, meaning children are missing opportunities to make friends, socialise and exercise.
• School policy should be evidence-based practice, and everything is telling us that we need more breaks, not fewer.
• Consider an initial audit of how your school play space is currently used and then use this to structure your playtime policy.
• Ofsted is keen for schools to monitor the impact of structured breaks and playtimes.
Most children look forward to playtime or break time. They can’t wait to get outside for a break. Others find break times too chaotic and noisy, and some dread being picked on, ostracised and excluded. They can’t wait to get back inside. For some pupils with SEND, break times are a time of social difficulty and vulnerability.
Break times need careful planning and organising so children can use them as a time to develop and grow, as we all recover from the impact of COVID-19. It is how we develop such a programme that is the focus here.
The current ‘state of play’
School break times are shorter than they were two decades ago, meaning children are missing opportunities to make friends, socialise and exercise.
A study conducted by the UCL Institute of Education indicates that, even prior to the pandemic, children were half as likely to meet up with friends in person as in 2006. Lead author Dr Ed Baines, of the UCL Institute of Education, said:
‘Despite the length of the school day remaining much the same, break times are being squeezed even further, with potential serious implications for children’s wellbeing and development.’
Lunch breaks have also reduced. While 3 in 10 secondary schools reported lunch breaks of less than 55 minutes in 1995, a Nuffield Foundation-funded study suggests that figure has now increased to 82 per cent, with a 25 per cent of secondary schools reporting lunch breaks of 35 minutes or less.
So, if we acknowledge that school breaks and playtimes are valuable, what justifications can we present to protect these times for social, emotional, and physical wellbeing?
Twelve reasons why we need breaktimes
1. Break times are time away from challenges in the classroom, providing cognitive rest and recuperation.
2. They increase classroom engagement and make children more attentive and more productive.
3. They reduce disruptive behaviour in the classroom.
4. They help children practise social skills and role-play with peers.
5. They help children learn negotiation, cooperation, sharing, problem-solving and self-control.
6. They make children more flexible, creative and independent.
7. They provide children with a way of managing stress and of coping.
8. They allow children to rest, play, think, imagine, exercise and be resourceful.
9. They help reduce sedentary behaviours.
10. They allow children to learn which physical activities they enjoy.
11. They allow teachers and children to mix in a different environment and build relationships.
12. They improve children’s learning and overall academic achievement.
Effective strategies to support the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of our learners
School policy should be evidence-based practice, and everything is telling us that we need more breaks, not fewer. See the ‘Worked example - School breaktime model policy’ in the Toolkit as a template. So, how do we create positive and productive break times and playtimes that support our learners’ social, emotional (SEL) and physical wellbeing?
Strategies to help younger children engage with break time games and activities
You might consider an initial audit of how your school play space is currently used (see the ‘Form – Play space audit’ in the Toolkit), and then use this to develop your playtime programme. Here are some ideas.
• All teachers need to agree on some playground games they will all teach in PE during the term.
• Recruit children as ‘play zone managers’, for example, a ball games zone, a traditional games zone, a make-believe zone, and so on.
• After playtime, encourage children to bring into class good news of lovely play, kind behaviour, great games, and so on from the playground.
• Skipping chants and skipping challenges are always a good fallback.
• Encourage children to demonstrate clapping games in assemblies where all the children and adults can practise together.
• Structured break time in secondary schools
Research funded by the Nuffield Foundation, School break and lunch times and young people’s social lives: A follow-up national study made some interesting recommendations.
• carefully consider the time available for breaks and work to ensure that pupils have adequate breaks in the day
• aim to develop a policy on breaks in the school day
• develop student voice on break times, the activities and clubs on offer
• reconsider the practice of withholding break time as an individual or group sanction or for pupils to complete work, especially if this is used routinely
• review their approach to the training of supervisors.
Policy makers should consider legislating for time for pupils to have breaks.
What works in schools and colleges?
The document What works in schools and colleges to increase physical activity, published by Public Health England, outlines eight key principles:
1. Develop and deliver multi-component interventions, adopting a ‘whole of community (school/college) approach’, as this appears to be most effective for increasing physical activity.
2. Ensure that staff have the confidence and competence to offer high-quality experiences and activities.
3. Engage student voice.
4. Create active environments; open space, forests, parks, and playgrounds are positively associated with physical activity levels.
5. Offer choice and variety of physical activity opportunities for young people to take part in, including free play.
6. Increase the amount of time spent being physically active during PE and other lessons to improve physical development, educational outcomes and emotional development.
7. Promote active travel, as this can play a key role in contributing to children’s and young people’s physical activity levels.
8. Embed monitoring and evaluation so that you can evidence the impact of active breaktimes on student wellbeing.
Ofsted is also keen for schools to monitor the impact of structured breaks and playtimes, with an expectation that children are taught about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and can self-monitor from the early years.
Schools concerned about learning time, curriculum and results may eliminate break time to accommodate more teaching time, but I hope this article has shown that well-structured and focused breaks and exercise may actually improve the learning and wellbeing of our students as we all help us to get back on track post COVID-19.
• Break time cuts could be harming children’s development, UCL News, May 2019: https://bit.ly/3FXbb4t
• School break and lunch times and young people’s social lives: A follow-up national study, Nuffield Trust, May 2019: https://bit.ly/34cYdTe
• What works in schools and colleges to increase physical activity, PHE, updated March 2020: https://bit.ly/3r0aq6D
Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
- Handout – Twelve reasons why we need break times
- Form – Play space audit
- Worked example – School breaktime model policy
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