Does your school have a play policy?

Genetics are wonderful things.

This is me with two of the four grandsons eating ice-cream after a big week for us all.

I have been all over Western Australia last week and haven’t seen these fine young men in weeks. The smaller one of these two guys has just finished leading a dance performance at school assembly and the bigger one is just about to successfully complete his second year at high school.

I was thinking about my grandsons when I read this little story by a teacher/grandmother online recently…

…I had promised my then 4-year old grandson to take him to the local ice cream shop one summer evening.

He had been playing with some neighbourhood friends and if we were going to get to the shop before it closed we needed to leave. As I put him in the car, he protested because he wanted to play some more.

Well, we were driving and I turned to him and asked, “What kind of ice cream are you going to get tonight?’

He would not answer me. So I turned to my husband who was driving and said, “I guess I’m getting the silent treatment.”

From the backseat we heard, “I don’t think they have that kind of ice-cream.”

I like this story because it shows you the fun of child development but it also shows you that as adults we forget to prioritise child’s play.

I strongly suspect that the teacher/grandmother here really wanted to go to the ice-cream shop (A sugar hit at the end of a day’s teaching can be an awesome thing!), while her grandson was trying to tell her that she should listen to the Harvard Medical School and know that an extra half hour or so with his friends would certainly be more beneficial for the grandson, than getting him hooked on concentrated sugar!

If I could wish leave a legacy to all of my eight grandchildren it would be this that I regularly gave them permission to play well and often outside.

Harvard Medical School say that there are six crucial ways playing outside helps children:

1. Sunshine.

Yes, sun exposure — especially sunburns — can increase the risk of skin cancer. But it turns out that our bodies need sun. We need sun exposure to make vitamin D, a vitamin that plays a crucial role in many body processes, from bone development to our immune system. Sun exposure also plays a role our immune system in other ways, as well as in healthy sleep — and in our mood.

Our bodies work best when they get some sunshine every day.

2. Exercise.

Children should be active for an hour every day, and getting outside to play is one way to be sure that happens. They can certainly exercise indoors, but sending them outdoors — especially with something like a ball or a bike — encourages active play, which is really the best exercise for children.

3. Executive function.

These are the skills that help us plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate, and multitask; they are crucial for our success. Creativity falls in here, too, and using our imagination to problem-solve and entertain ourselves. These are skills that must be learned and practiced — and to do this, children need unstructured time. They need time alone and with other children, and to be allowed (perhaps forced) to make up their own games, figure things out, and amuse themselves. Being outside gives them opportunities to practice these important life skills.

4. Taking risks.

Children need to take some risks.

As parents, this makes us anxious; we want our children to be safe. But if we keep them in bubbles and never let them take any risks, they won’t know what they can do — and they may not have the confidence and bravery to face life’s inevitable risks. Yes, you can break an arm from climbing a tree — and yes, you can be humiliated when you try to make a friend and get rejected. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; the lessons we learn from failure are just as important as those we learn from success.

5. Socialization.

Children need to learn how to work together. They need to learn to make friends, how to share and cooperate, how to treat other people. If they only interact in very structured settings, such as school or sports teams, they won’t — they can’t — learn everything they need to know.

6. Appreciation of nature.

So much of our world is changing, and not for the better. If a child grows up never walking in the woods, digging in soil, seeing animals in their habitat, climbing a hill, playing in a creek, or staring at the endless horizon of an ocean, they may never really understand what there is to be lost. The future of our planet depends on our children; they need to learn to appreciate it.

Years ago I worked with a wonderful Principal at Eden Hill Primary school in WA his name was John Alford. John retired back in 2009 after near 20 years at the school and was such an influence on his school that his retirement was mentioned in Hansard of the WA parliament.

One of John’s simple but brilliant policies was that students needed to play and play often if they were to learn well.

John made play happen from when students arrived at school every day.

He had structured games organised, sporting equipment out and even supervised the deadly wall-tennis game where children were known to fight over a lost game until near death, every morning. (It also happened to be the best place to greet parents on their arrival at school.)

Does your school have a “Play Policy”?

No I don’t mean “No hat no play!” or “No running under a roof!” I mean do you have a plan to

· involve your students in physical activity,

· teach them how to play well together

· Learn team building

· Understand winning and losing

· teach students conflict resolution and

· how to engage all students.

U.S. research is disturbing on this topic, the figures show

· 42% of children’s opportunities to be physically active in school fall during recess,

· 44% of step counts during the school day occurred at recess time

· 40% of children’s waking hours were spent at school

· 60% of school districts have no formal recess policy

And even more disturbing. Only 22% of school districts in the U.S. require daily recess for elementary school students, with less than half of these requiring at least 20 min of recess per day.

Australian kids spend more time at school and much more time at recess and lunch time but most have no policy or plan to get the best out of the playtime available, we just simply leave it up to the kids to figure it out!

If you have been in my position as an assistant principal in a primary school you realise that you have a conga line of pain presenting itself at your office in the minutes after every break.

I have banned Year Three and Four boys from going anywhere near a soccer ball because I have had to waste up to an hour and a half a day sorting out the total mayhem of a game gone wrong and tearful recriminations of students who have far too much testosterone and far too little understanding of what a rule is and how to actually play a game.

Many primary and high schools I work with report that behaviours are worse after recess and lunch time and that students are often late back to class, tired and unmotivated after lunch.

So we need a positive plan for all of those “unsupervised” times where students tend to left to get on with it. Findings from existing research consistently suggest that a positive physical play environment is conducive to facilitating positive growth in children’s:

· emotional control,

· teamwork,

· cooperation,

· goal-setting,

· peer relationships,

· sharing,

· problem solving and

· conflict resolution

These outcomes do not happen by just leaving students to their own devices.

(Let’s face it if you give students the chance to play with their own devices they will end up coiled up in a corner being mind-murdered playing Fortnite or worse.)

An April 2012 report by Mathematica Policy Research for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation identified the following positive impacts when a quality, organized play time was implemented in primary schools:

· Less bullying

· Better behaviour and readiness for class learning

· More time for teaching

· Safer schools

· Satisfied teachers

What makes “quality play?” A wide range of education and health research identifies some common best practices for schools to include in implementing a “quality recess break.”

The following components are recommended:

· Daily recess for all students of at least 20 minutes. Outdoors preferred

· Teach positive playground expectations

· Create student choice and universal participation by offering multiple activities at every break.

· Map the playground to designate different areas of play

· Provide game equipment to increase participation and to decrease congestion on play structures

· Provide group games, led and supervised by adults, as one option to actively engage kids and help build social skills

· Provide adequate planning and staff training.

Simple planning that involves every teacher, teacher assistant and administrator who does duty supplemented by a trained Play Coach and a trained supportive parent team can look at all of the dimensions of break times to ensure that great stuff happens.

It all starts when you (YEAH YOU!)

Start a Wellness Team in your school.

The school wellness team members should be drawn from teachers, teacher assistants, administration, non-teaching staff, parents, schools and local business people who recognize the benefits of being active, are great advocates of healthy play and provide a helping hand or a round of applause for any wellness initiative in a school.

Better recess and lunchtime outcomes will make everyone happy particularly if you (YEAH YOU!) provide the support to your colleagues to take play seriously.

Wellness team members can:

· Integrate lunch and recess into the school’s wellness policies.

· Assist with fundraising for game equipment.

· Recognise and assist volunteers with painting/repainting game markings on the playground.

· Recognize staff who do an exceptional job at recess and support them with training and funding when they enthusiastically ask for more help.

· Write recess/lunch updates and success stories for the school newsletter.

· Assist with playground rubbish pick-ups to clean and beautify the school playground.

· Focus lessons on the benefits of play in all curriculum areas, particularly mathematics.

· Plan healthy, active events for students, families and community members.

Set up a playbook resource to teach and use.

Then you need really cool games to play in a playbook package designed for students at all level.

First get a repertoire of games and teach them to everyone… and I mean everyone; all teaching, admin and office staff who might come in touch with a student who is playing a game… everyone’s life improves when they learn how to play!

Here’s a small library of 340 games that will cover most of the age ranges, children’s needs and playground situations.

Teach as many games as you can to both the kids and the teachers so they know what is going on.

Set Up your play ground

Map out where kids can play and what they can play from your play book.

Even the most restive space can be used with a little bit of planning and some simple adaptations

Know which social skills you need to teach.

You can’t just throw kids into a game and expect them to “get it”. Without teaching exactly what “it” is. Games that teach conflict resolution are top of the list.

Conflict is inevitable among communities, including in schools.

It’s easy enough for adults to solve kids’ conflicts.

“Lena, I saw you take Josie’s ball. Give it back and say you’re sorry.”

This type of adult intervention doesn’t empower students to solve their own conflicts. Conflict resolution is a learned skill; it takes practice. Adults can help kids develop this skill.

Try these four conflict resolution techniques to build empowered, confident students:

Rock Paper Scissors.

Did the four square ball bounce in or out? Who was first in line? Who gets to use the red marker first?

These types of conflicts occur countless times in primary schools, so rather than let small conflicts escalate and take valuable time to solve, teach students to play a simple game of Rock Paper Scissors. Here’s how to play:

Counting to three (or while saying “rock paper scissors” or “Ro, Sham, Bow”), two players bounce their fists in the air.

On “three” or “scissors”, players pick either rock, paper or scissors—as shown in the image. If both players choose the same object, they go again. Rock crushes scissors; scissors cut paper; paper covers rock. (Note: there is no physical contact necessary to play this game.)


Children are known to blame others when a problem arises, (i.e. “He did it!”)

Adults know that it often takes more than one person to start a conflict.

Teaching children to recognize emotions, both in themselves and others, helps. Using an I-statement, such as “I feel sad when you don’t play with me,” allows children to identify their emotion instead of blaming others. Guide children through talking out their conflict with I-messages before discussing possible solutions. In time, children will become better at using I-statements without adult guidance.

Fighting fair Guide

Provide guided steps for students to take when resolving conflicts.

Post this poster anywhere near a conflict could occur, including the staffroom and whenever people get stuck!

Student Mediators

If students are struggling train students in peer mediation. Make a roster where everyone gets to be a mediator at least twice.

Train students how to help other students work their way through a conflict. Have the mediators work in pairs and be on duty for a day at a time. This embeds “fighting fair” as an essential part of your school and that they are all just as responsible as any teacher for resolving conflicts that arise.

There is so much stuff here for schools to think about.

My challenge to you is to forward this little starter to an administrator and ask them if they have considered creating, making or updating their recess/lunch/play policy and tell them that there is a really good little learning clip at the end of this blog…

It has to end playfully!

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