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What’s the Simplest Thing a School can do to Improve Every Pupil’s Mental and Physical Health?

‘Children’s time for playing outside with friends has decreased by around 90% over the past twenty years, so playtimes in school have become essential in promoting children’s happiness, health and development, especially for all those pupils who aren’t engaged by sports.’

Neil Coleman argues, ‘play isn’t about things you can buy, it’s about how you think.’

Something significant in children’s lives has gone very wrong in recent years, and now we are seeing the seriously negative effects of this damage. The government’s response has been to throw money at the issue, but whilst it has been welcome in some areas it has missed the target repeatedly in others.

Look at the money spent on the PE and School Sports Premium. Over £1.2 billion has been sent out to schools since the scheme began after the 2012 Olympics, yet nothing significant has changed in terms of health. What’s going to happen in schools when the government eventually tires of spending £billions every year without seeing an improvement, and pulls the plug?

Yes, those pupils who enjoy sports have done well out of it over the last few years but what about the millions of children who don’t enjoy football, netball, hockey or being made to run when they don’t like it? They’re the children who tend to be inactive, poorly developed in physical literacy and, more often than not, overweight, yet they have seen the least benefit from the money because it hasn’t been aimed at their interests, their needs. They remain exactly as they always have been; bored, unfit and marginalized. Instead the money has mostly gone to the wealthy and powerful sport organizations which promote short-term, high cost solutions such as external, “parachuted-in” coaches which turn up for a brief time and only support a select few children. What about asking them how they’ll engage every child at the school, not just those best at sports?

That approach is just not sustainable, because one day the money will stop. It is the permanently employed yet under-skilled staff (teachers, TA’s and lunchtime supervisors) within each school that should be trained in delivering PE, Sports and all other forms of physical activity, including Play, so they can ensure benefits to all pupils, for decades to come.

Recent research by many universities has shown that play has remarkable benefits for the mental and physical health of children, but very few schools ever think much about the quality of playtimes they provide. Play is provided by a primary school for 20% of each week: three times as much time each week as PE, and five times that of the brief, outdoor walking/jogging/running schemes popular in some schools right now, so why not invest where the biggest gains can be made, for the long-term?

By invest I don’t mean spending money on equipment. I’ve visited many schools where every conceivable item in a catalogue has already been bought, the outside surface is fully covered in matting or rubber and there are coloured lines and notice boards everywhere, yet as soon as you ask the children if they enjoy their playtimes they always say the exact same thing; “we’re bored!”

Play isn’t about things you can buy, it’s about how you think. Training school staff how to think the right way, so that every pupil in a school enjoys every playtime, is the only long-term solution that makes sense.

Children’s time for playing outside with friends has decreased by around 90% over the past twenty years, so playtimes in school have become essential in promoting children’s happiness, health and development, especially for all those pupils who aren’t engaged by sports. When a playground is overcrowded and filled with tension, the potential for bullying, accidents, negative behavior and boredom increases greatly. The usual reaction by staff to the presence of ‘problems’ is to try to control the children, often through segregating them by age and by restricting the things they can do. So much for breaktimes being a child’s free time!

High quality playtime provision ensures that gross motor (running, climbing, throwing, kicking a ball, etc.) and fine motor (hand-eye coordination, dexterity, proprioception) development, learning (cognition, resilience, problem-solving), mental recovery, social development, emotional development and enjoyment with school life are all enhanced, every breaktime!

Play really is a ‘win-win’. The problem is, very few primary schools in England actually provide good quality playtimes right now. Schools already have the time and the supervising staff in place, so all that’s usually missing from the provision of a top quality play experience is relevant training, and the desire from senior leaders to make it work.  Children can be in the same school for seven years, so something has to engage them every single day or they’ll become bored and frustrated very quickly, so while investing time and effort in the improvement of playtimes through knowledge and understanding of ‘what really works’ might not always be top of the list for a Headteacher, the benefits gained in terms of child development, wellbeing, attitude, health, behavior, enjoyment and learning are well worth the commitment.



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The author

Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) supports the improvement of play provision in hundreds of schools across the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Europe. Neil Coleman mentors primary schools for OPAL across much of the east and south-east of England, including in London. Neil is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, which meets monthly at the Houses of Parliament. Meetings are co-Chaired by Steve McCabe MP & Baroness Floella Benjamin.

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