A Balancing Act

22nd February 2019

Rose Hardy, Headteacher of St Margaret’s School, Bushey, talks to Optima Magazine about the importance of ‘play’…

Play is more than just a bit of ‘down time’ for children. While they do need regular breaks from the mental stimulation and challenges of daily lessons, play gives them the opportunity to explore and challenge themselves without the restrictions or rigid structure often seen in the classroom. Play is also a crucial part of a child’s development, as through playing they learn more about their own character and that of their peers. During play time, children learn about responsibility, independence, social skills and resilience. They also have a level of control over their actions that is not seen in the classroom. But this sense of freedom has to work alongside the confines of playground rules and for many children this is the biggest lesson they must learn at play times.

For many children, the playground can be a place of enhanced opportunities. When children are asked about what they think is important in their lives, playing and spending time with their friends is usually close to the top of the list. Playing is a natural way for children to communicate and schools need to give children the space and freedom to play safely while knowing when to intervene and when not to. With different boundaries to the classroom, the environment should offer a safe but stimulating environment upon which to participate in physical challenge and to learn about imagination and cooperative play. Children will also begin to learn more about having personal goals (and goals as a team) and what it means to achieve them. Building on perseverance and physical strength is also important during periods of free time.

Skills developed during play time can also transfer to the classroom and will often lead to greater confidence in lessons. Children develop a willingness to push themselves and rise to challenges through their playground activities. Both collaborative and independent work are seen in the classroom and the skills for both are developed in the playground. Group and team games require organisation, negotiation and compromise and these transferable skills are often first learned in the playground environment.

Children who use play time well will return to the classroom more relaxed and able to focus on the challenges in front of them and on all that is to come in the next lesson. Learning how to best utilise their free time is an important lesson in itself for children as their play has an important role in helping them to appreciate the importance of wellbeing both at school and at home.

Play is an area of life that doesn’t have to have the learning objectives or success criteria that children are so used to seeing in the classroom. Without doubt, the personal health and wellbeing benefits of play are evident in every school across the country. Children need opportunities outside of the classroom to rise to non-academic challenges. The playground is often shared by children across a wide range of ages too and therefore gives them an opportunity to aspire to succeed in games and activities as they witness the abilities and achievements of others around them. Playtime is also vital in developing a sense of worth in areas other than academic studies.

Certain aspects of play are of course learned with experience and (in some cases) others need to be taught or given scaffolding. Structured play will often involve teaching staff leading the play and modelling or giving instructions. Free play time allows children to use what they have learned from structured play by making it their own and making their own decisions and rules. Structured and free play each have their place in schools and it is very much a question of balance. Children that are less confident will often favour structured play with the support and encouragement that it gives them. They will, however, eventually progress from having challenges set for them to setting their own challenges and having the confidence to explore their own ideas and express themselves freely.

Times have changed today and schools are recognising the value of playtime and how it needs to be an integral part of the learning experience for a child whilst at school, especially during the primary years. There is also some evidence that children are less creative and imaginative than they were 20 years ago due to the impact of technology. The playtime environment therefore gives greater scope for creative and imaginative play to develop.

The playground is also a great place to break down barriers, learn about others and what makes each and everyone of us different. Embracing diversity during play also involves acceptance of other cultures and beliefs and understanding that everyone has different abilities, different ideas and ways of tackling a challenge or obstacle. This also helps children to feel a greater sense of comfort with their own differences and in turn, to feel more comfortable in themselves during their free time.

Playgrounds filled with diverse cultures and traditions also prepare children for later life in the workplace where they will have learned to understand the importance of community spirit, boundaries and taking turns or sharing which can only be a positive thing. As children continue to play with lots of different children this will help them progress in their own educational journey and beyond; they will adapt to new environments and cultural differences more easily and comfortably too.

Having recently installed a new adventure playground at our school it has been heartening to see the pupils rise to the challenge of the more difficult activity elements. A sense of determination is obvious and the children tell me not only of the goals they have set themselves but are excited to come and tell me when they have achieved them. Simple traditional games like skipping and balancing games also allow them time to work on their own and at their own pace to achieve a goal. It is also a idea to have a rota in terms of using play equipment as it means that everyone gets their turn at attempting new challenges and children understand further, the concept of sharing.

Most schools would agree that a healthy playground environment has a sense of excitement and a ‘buzz’ about it. There is the need to adhere to playground rules, which consider others but the free play element is often where the real magic happens. Independent learning through play is hugely rewarding for children too, because even the shyest or least confident of pupils get to push themselves outside of their comfort zones and strive to achieve new goals, which is wonderful to witness.

Pupils need to recognise that teachers and parents value play in schools too. When they reflect on what they have learned that day, week or term, children should be encouraged to include what they have gained through play and need to know that play time or recreational time is something that adults and teachers also value for themselves in their own adult lives; it is, after all, what makes us human.

St Margaret’s School is an independent day and boarding school for girls aged four to 18, located in Bushey, Hertfordshire • www.stmargaretsbushey.co.uk

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