School playtime bans: a former head speaks out

photo of Juliet RobertsonA 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.

17 responses to “School playtime bans: a former head speaks out

  1. The way things are going maybe childhood will be banned altogether soon, when I was young, from age 5 onward we were allowed to outside to play and wander wherever we wanted to go, we didn’t cause any trouble and we weren’t in any danger, how sad to be a child in these troubled times.

  2. Great post. I think this hits the nail on the head. Teachers and principals are not taught to value play. They’re taught to value academics, achievement scores, and direction following, but play never really comes into our discussion of what makes children successful in life. A couple of great resources for play training, though both are based in the U.S., are The Ooey Gooey Lady, and an organization called Playworks, which I happen to work for in the Salt Lake area. Both are very good.

  3. H Peltan, Ben – thanks for your comments. Ben, I know of Playworks. I follow you/them on twitter, and also Ooeygooeylady who sure is an active tweeter. I observed a Playworks session at a school in Baltimore a few years ago. The programme was very structured. This may be a good starting point in some school contexts, but is not the kind of play that I think kids really need. A conversation for another time and place, perhaps.

  4. Hi Tim

    Thanks for posting this article. I think there’s many issues and productive conversations needed in schools around play. The concept of affordances of places and material, the working through and around issues about risk, supervision, general understanding about facilitating free play, what challenging and adventurous play looks like (and that’s unlikely to be a traversing climbing wall), etc.

    In Scotland, there’s going to be a Festival of Dangerous Ideas taking place in June I’m wondering what the play in schools debate could contribute to this?!?

    Best wishes

  5. For those wondering about the value of playtimes, this is a good book:

    showing how children learn when given the opportunity for free outdoor play with ‘junk’.

  6. Great contribution from Juliet. I think we should plan to include outdoor play in the festival of dangerous ideas in Scotland…it would be a surprising addition to these events which I’m pretty sure Creative Scotland won’t have thought of.

  7. Tim,
    It is tragic how childhood has been getting sanitized. Appropriate risk has always been an important developmental experience of childhood. In the US, the push towards academics has reduced recess and even resluted in the loss of physical education periods not to mention the loss of free unstructured outdoor play. Thank you for posting these wonderful clips.
    Thank you for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas link. I look forward to exploring that immediately!
    Gregory Uba

  8. Juliet – thanks for calling by, and for the link to the Dangerous Ideas event – I agree with Joyce that it would be great to see it look at outdoor play. Gregory – glad you like the video clips. I know you are trying to resist the push away from play and risk – good luck with this. Orielwen – thanks too for the link to that resource.

  9. Tim,
    Not knowing the demographics involved, I would like your feedback:
    In the United States, policy-makers concerned with what they call the digital divide (access to technology for children from low income families) add pressure to imploy computers in classrooms for children as young as preschool as a way of “helping them access technology in today’s society”. These same policy makers often pressure schools to implement rigorous academics (and the resultant loss of recess and play time) in order to close what they call the “achievement gap”.
    Is the elimination of play in the UK schools similarly related to some sort of misguided war on poverty? Or is it simply in response to some fear about inappropriate touching between children (and assumedly teachers) during play?

    • Gregory – that’s a big question! Here in the UK, in the early years there is quite a strong emphasis on play. The problem, many feel, is that the sector is too reliant on under-qualified, underpaid staff, too many of whom are ill equipped to provide good learning environments and opportunities. Excessive risk aversion is one expression of this. Some of the measures brought into the education system – for instance, an emphasis on phonics – are based on their impact (or supposed impact) on more disadvantaged children. But it’s complicated – for instance, schools and early years settings also feel under pressure to tackle non-academic issues like behaviour and exclusions. You may want to check the work of my friend Julian Grenier, who writes for Nursery World, and blogs here.

  10. Quoted above: “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.”

    Good god – what happened since the 60s, 70s, and 80s when the adults didn’t have to be “qualified” to “understand” playtime and recess? Didn’t they play when they were kids? What’s not to understand? We all just went out and did it! We are trying to codify everything that is just natural – at least it happened naturally in the past.

    For those of you horrified by the sanitization of childhood, I refer you to Free Range Kids.

  11. Claire – thanks for the comments. I’m hoping Juliet may reply too, but I think you’re misinterpreting her quote. Nowhere does she say what’s needed is qualifications or the codification of anything. She says what’s needed is understanding and awareness. The mere fact that playtime bans are imposed surely shows that this understanding is absent in a lot of educators. How and where the understanding comes about is another question.

  12. Hi Tim and Claire

    Thanks for both of your thoughts. The challenge faced by head teachers today is that they are in tough territory. If they allow rough and tumble behaviour they are criticised for children getting hurt… If they ban this, they are criticised for an over-the-top reaction. Owing to the many other pressures and expectations placed upon them, the time required to reflect, consider the wider implications of any decisions and learning about the range of possible approaches to managing playground incidents is rarely, if ever there, unless a concerted decision has been made to make this a priority. So whilst head teachers may get what play is about, in the context of managing play at break times, I believe there needs to be more support and training available to head teachers and all staff who work in schools.

    The amount of play ground supervision is an issue. In my local authority at the time of this incident, the allocation of paid staff on duty was 1 adult once the school roll was above 50 children. To have another paid staff supervisor, the school roll then had to rise to 200. Teachers are on unpaid time during their breaks and lunchtimes and cannot be asked to do playtime duties. Most head teachers organise the timetables so that non-teaching staff do a shift at lunch time. However this takes away from class time. Head teachers then have to justify this decision in terms of impact on children. Changing how staff interact with children and manage issues around play takes time to work through and requires a whole school approach along with support from the Parent Council.

    Play, other than in the Early Years sector, is rarely referred to in Government education documents. To my knowledge, in Scotland, the only documents that refer to free play and the value of breaks in terms of meeting children’s needs and potential for impacting on well-being and learning are the two that I wrote about outdoor learning which can be accessed here: and here:

    So when at a national level, very little thought is given to play in schools, it is unsurprising that it is not a priority for most schools who are under pressure to account for improvements in literacy, maths, etc. As a former HT and current education consultant, this concerns me.

  13. Pingback: The school where kids can build dens | Rethinking Childhood

  14. My teacher niece just posted this link on her facebook…such an important debate, thanks for all the ideas and resources. A couple of years ago, I ran an NOCN course for Midday Supervisors, organised by the local Workers Educational Association (WEA)..three local primary schools took part…we looked at play and playground design as well as stuff like conflict resolution, nutrition, child development, safeguarding, equality & diversity…each time we had great fun remembering how to play like children again, but also recognising that today’s childhood’s are very different to ours and today;s children may need more help to learn to play and be free…sad but seems to be true…I would love to run this in every primary school! .

  15. Yes – it’s always good to hear about different approaches – and that schools are up for this sort of training too. Thanks Jane for the comment.

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