Play in the Secondary School Playground

By thesarahmccalden

In my experience, the secondary school playground is dismal, dull and barren. A piece of grey tarmac where the only thing students are allowed to do is stand around. "No running!" "No water bottles allowed." "No messing around!" "No you're not allowed to play with a ball!" "Boys... stop being silly!" And definitely, "Don't stand on the grass!" Essentially... "Don't have any fun!!!!!"

Aren't we missing a trick here?! This is a lost opportunity for play (and for physical activity as a by-product). Children don't stop playing aged 11 or 12 or 13 or 14 or even 15 or 16, and the research into play is indisputable: it benefits health and wellbeing, behaviour and academic achievement. All the things secondary school leaders want to improve. AND with the government saying children should take part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes per day, allowing the opportunity for play would help schools play their part in achieving this.

Let's define play a little. It's not adult-led. It's not to achieve a good grade in English. It's freely chosen, self-directed and is done for its own purpose and to its own end.

Do you think of "play" as non-serious and non-work related? Do you think of it as the opposite of learning? When you think of play like this, you negate the fact that play IS educational and that whatever their age, children learn through it. What about the term, "playfulness"? Too much laughing not enough learning? What if laughing was learning made fun?

So... my curiosity question is... or rather questions are:

What was your experience of secondary or high school in terms of your free time there? Were you restricted in what you were allowed to do? How? How did that affect your experience of school? Do you work in a school? How could your school become a more playful place and what do you think the benefits would be?

Do you think a more playful environment would help the students to be more self-driven, help them to be more self-confident, help them to try out new things, create new ideas, be more resilient? My own insight is that the secondary school student experience in a lot of schools is extremely passive and that in my view is a real problem. Students don't have a voice and have little or no autonomy. A more playful environment would create a much more active and positive student experience and would increase their self confidence and resilience. 

Should older children who attend school be allowed time to actually play and not just stand around during their breaks? What if they were allowed to run?! What would happen if a chalk hopscotch pattern was drawn on that bleak bit of tarmac? What would happen if a few footballs or tennis balls were placed outside? What if there were a few bikes or scooters? What if there were some playful structures put in the place? What would be the benefits and the outcomes of a break or lunchtime where these types of things were the norm? And what if "playfulness" was a part of the school day more generally? What if lesson time was more playful? 

There is nothing negative (If you think there is- please let me know and we'll debate it) about having these types of things in place and I am certain that schools would be able to measure improvements in the things that matter to them, like attendance, like GCSE results, like behaviour, like the mental health of their students (although I do wonder if this last one is a priority at all, other than on paper). Students actually suppress their play and creativity in schools because of strict behaviour policies, but it shouldn't be like this. Play has an important role in secondary school education. The difficulty lies in reaching the leadership and the decision-makers in these schools and changing their attitudes towards play. When we can do this and when they implement change in their schools, we will see huge benefits for the children in their care and in our society as a whole. 

As ever, you can reach me here: sarah@sarahmccalden.com

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