A few days ago former primary school head teacher Juliet Robertson got in touch after reading my blog post on the school that banned children from having best friends. Juliet is now a leading educational consultant; her blog I’m a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here! is for my money one of the most lively, creative outdoor learning sites on the web. She had some fascinating insights on the topic of school bans, and agreed to share them here. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what Juliet has to say – especially if you have worked in schools yourself.
What was your personal experience of a school playground ban?
Several years ago my son’s school put in place a “no touch” rule at playtimes. It created outrage. The press picked up on it, the Director of Education intervened and the head teacher – a hard working, well-meaning, sensible person – suffered as a result.
How did the children react?
My son and his friends thought the whole matter was ridiculous. A kind of anarchy spread, where children were deliberately running around pretending to touch each other – especially in front of the playground supervisors.
Why do you think the head took the action he did?
The facts behind why he took this approach were complex, but I believe he felt his hands were tied. It was a result of stress, frustration and perceived lack of other options. I would also suspect they were born out of ignorance and lack of understanding too.
What do you think lies behind these bans?
By tradition, the education sector does not fully recognise the value of playtimes. In all my 20 years of teaching, I’ve never had formal access to play or playtime training – even when doing my PGCE [postgraduate certificate in education]. Occasionally courses would come up on traditional games or skipping, but never free play. So I’d argue we have a whole sector trying to manage a period in school that they’ve never really thought about. They have had neither the time nor the opportunity to consider a holistic and participative approach to playtimes. They do not realise that a wee bit of love, care and positive action can make a huge difference. Thus what happens is that heads and other education professionals get frustrated about the perceived playtime millstones around their necks, the incidents, and the time spent on sorting out playground issues. At times it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
How did you become interested in play?
I only stumbled by chance into play matters, through some work I was doing on school grounds improvements back in 1999. When consulting children, playtime issues kept on coming up. We addressed them through acting on their suggestions. It started with the children digging a huge, deep hole in the ground. They stuck at this project for a whole month, and were thoroughly absorbed and engaged in it.
I used to spend a lot of time outside at breaks and lunch times. It was a way of counteracting claims of bullying, violence etc. I could see what was going on, and generally I was proud of the children and the fantastic things they got up to at playtimes in all the schools where I was the head. I always used to put out old furniture and bits and pieces for children to use, just because it seemed a pity not to.
Have you any quick, practical suggestions for managing playtimes better?
When I was a head, almost all “incidents” happened when the bell went and children were in transition back into school. So we’d work out who was potentially vulnerable and find ways managing this 2-minute window. Also with “harder than average” classes, there’s a lot to be said for the class teacher being there outside when the bell goes to meet and greet their class in a friendly way. Often the retelling of an incident magnifies a fairly minor incident into something much bigger.
Finally, what can schools and educators do over the longer term?
I think school staff need to have a more concerted focus on the benefits of the hour or so of play/lunch times, and to value what happens out there. After all it is as much time as a child may spend on maths or literacy each day. Schools urgently need to re-consider the worth of this time, and its impact on a child’s life.
For example, I suggest that schools look at the current “success stories” around playtimes such as the Scrapstore Playpod initiative and Grounds for Learning’s Natural Play Projects.
Schools have to accept that playtimes and school grounds need ongoing and continued attention. Informal learning is just as important as the formal activities. If you don’t believe me, think back to what you remember most about schools. I’m sure most of us have prominent playtime memories.