Here is a thought test. Imagine a world without testing for primary school children. Would they still be able to thrive? Would they still develop social skills, resilience or strong and healthy bodies? Would they still be driven by their innate curiosity to find out about the world around them and their part in it? Now imagine a world where children were deprived of play and ask the same questions.
Why is it that a world without testing for primary school children seems impossible, but a childhood without play is already a reality?
In my work as a play consultant to primary schools I am often asked if there is evidence that better play in schools will improve the school’s test results. The question should be, will the obsession with test results and the exclusion of play improve the child’s life?
For the past 18 years I have been supporting primary schools to transform the way they understand and provide for every aspect of play in their schools, and I am realising I am not doing enough. My organisation has worked with around 300 schools since 2007 and improved play for more than 120,000 primary children, but there are 27,000 primary schools in the UK, so at the current rate it will take us 1,000 years to work with all of them. Something else is going to need to change.
Around half of UK primary school children only play outdoors with other children during the school day. In urban areas it is much less than half. Traffic, stranger-danger fears, working parents and loss of marginal land, along with the development of addictive technology, have driven play out of childhood and it is not going to come back without a concerted effort by adults.
No-one in charge
Schools can be part of the solution. In the school day around a fifth is dedicated to free time or play time. That adds up to 1.4 years of a child’s seven years at primary school. When I have conversations with head teachers and senior leaders, I ask, ‘Who is in charge of that 1.4 years? What values or policy are informing decision-making? What are staff trying to achieve with this precious part of childhood?’
I know the answers already. There is no objective other than to get through lunchtime without fights and accidents. Rather than viewing this time as a precious resource, where we can compensate children for their loss of quality outdoor play elsewhere, schools employ the minimum number of people on the lowest wage possible, without aim, support status or management, and hope for the best.
There is no-one in charge of those 1.4 years. There is no understanding of the incredible complexity and value of the play process. There is no concept of playwork or the role of the adult in supporting play. The adults in the playground are working in a vacuum without any meaningful training or support because schools don’t value or understand play.
If you are reading this and think your school is different then you are in the minority. I have spent the past 20 years of my life in school playgrounds and this is the picture in most schools.
Who is to blame? The same person who is in charge of play in schools. Nobody. Somebody should be taking charge of the quality of play in our schools. Somebody in Government should be in charge of making sure play does not disappear from childhood. But nobody is in charge of play either in schools or in Government.
OPAL has transformed the quality of play in hundreds of schools across the UK and now has been taken on by the Toronto District Education Board to improve the quality of children’s lives across Ontario. The programme works by combining a vigorous school improvement framework with a deep knowledge of playwork and the play process, plus lots of practical experience about which resources present long-term play value.
It is possible for schools to become providers of amazing play. In schools that have done well, children are getting an hour or more of exciting, creative, social, imaginative play every single school day, and many provide their great play offer beyond the school day too.
There is plenty of money around to make this better. Improving the quality of life for every child in the UK does not have to cost a penny more than is already in existing budgets. Schools currently spend £400 million on supervising playtimes, but the job is a policing role, not a playwork one. The introduction of Playwork Principles training and standards into these jobs would make a huge difference.
The sports/PE/physical activity premium adds another £350 million to available funding. If every school created a lead post of play co-ordinator to manage the missing 1.4 years of a children’s time, play in schools would improve dramatically.
Sport England receives hundreds of millions of pounds a year to try to get people more active. If a tiny fraction of this were diverted into supporting a policy-based approach to the improvement of play in schools, then all of the children who don’t like sport but love to play actively would have their needs met.
Making the change
Childhood has changed so rapidly in the past 20 years that it has caught us all out. We just don’t know what the impact of many of these changes are; five hours plus a day screen time, huge drops in core physical strength, lack of daylight, the loss of primary experience and agency in children’s lives, loss of freedom and loss of self-direction and regulation.
What we do know is that if anyone were in charge of ensuring a better quality of childhood, these would not be on their list of objectives. If we leave nobody in charge of the quality of play in childhood then nobody is going to make it better.
- Michael Follett is director of Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL), and author of Creating Excellence in Primary School Playtimes
- OPAL is a not-for-profit Community Interest Company dedicated to ensuring every child has high-quality play opportunities in school.
- 2018 winner in the European Move Together Awards for best schools activity programme
- 2018 finalist for ukactive Kids Award