We’ve all been there. The thundering steps across the tarmac. The nervous glance over your shoulder. The hand reaching for you with a shout of “You’re it!” Playing tag is a staple of most childhoods and, for me, rushing across the playground at break was the only time my imagination really came alive. It was a moment of freedom, when I could recreate the worlds I had read about in class.
A report from the Nuffield Foundation found that schools have been cutting breaktime since 2006. Anthony D Pellegrini, professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, also reports that many school authorities are attempting to “maximise instructional time and minimise unstructured play time”.
In 2012, a review of more than 40 studies highlighted the relationship between play and creative problem-solving, cooperation and logical thinking. Research by Edward Fisher also found that play can enhance early development by anything from 33% to 67% by increasing adjustment, improving language skills and reducing social and emotional problems. This has positive implications for both educational development and everyday intellectual life.
Play keeps children fit, too. A study by Nicola D Ridgers at Deakin University in Australia found that longer playtimes were associated with higher levels of physical activity. And as the number of primary school children leaving school obese increases, cutting playtime could deprive them of a valuable opportunity to get the physical exercise they need.
Getting together outside of the classroom also enables young people to develop social skills. In fact, playtime may be the only opportunity some children get to interact with other young people in a safe environment. The government’s Play Strategy, published in 2008, defines play as “children and young people following their own ideas and interests, in their own way and for their own reasons.”
Children establish a sense of self through play which is particularly important at a time when “value” in primary education is increasingly being determined by test scores rather than personal development.
Too often young people choose to lose themselves in the instant gratification of gaming on a screen. But in computer games, as in Sats tests, they are scored on their performance, consolidating the idea of competitive hierarchies. Real-world play provides them with a space in which to entertain themselves using their own resources of mind and body, while nurturing a sense of self-worth.
Many of the reasons for reducing the school day come down to convenience – less congestion and a quicker journey home, for example. But this is often for the benefit of adults, not the children.
Play needs to be preserved in the school routine, so that children can appreciate it as part of the learning experience. Attempts to cut or treat it as an optional extra risk perpetuating the view that it is an indulgence, rather than essential. With defined times for play, students can look forward to finding themselves, even when they do not find lessons the easiest. Schools need to pay homage to the benefits of play, rather than playing with it – and fast.