Never such innocence again. – Philip Larkin
You left your imaginary friend in the far corner. You ran over the tarmac in tightly fastened shoes, watching the tiny cobbles of black scatter. There was somebody close to you, striving to get within touching distance – and you danced, laughing, sometimes shrieking, the adrenaline jumping in your ears. ‘Tig – you’re it!’
This is a memory seemingly shared. But for how much longer?
A recent BBC report has revealed that a number of primary schools are taking measures to shorten their school days, holding increasing power to alter timetables. This means, in some circumstances, ‘playtime’ at break and lunch becomes shortened. (1)
The adult bureaucracy may be thinking itself smart – cutting down on this ‘free’ time, perhaps to allow for more lessons, earlier finishing times and so on. Yet this appears part of a culture where what is considered ‘free time’ is equated with a lack of usefulness, even laziness. Even children typically are taught not the importance of relaxation, but that, exclusively, of aspiration – with ever-growing focus on scores and league tables.
Yet whilst aspirations are often beyond immediate grasp, we can learn all the time to feel happy with the skin we’re in – especially essential as a young person.
Play provides an immediacy which should not be undervalued. The subjectivity of the term, suggesting that adults cannot equate it with meaningful value, leads to it being snuffed. Yet to the child, or at least I can remember, the prospect of ‘playtime’ brought with it a tingling sense of excitement. It was fun, the opportunity for fresh air and to interact with friends. At a deeper level, it fosters the exploration of the imagination, not just as a mental process (as in reading) but physically. For ‘play’ is within the power of individual, involving free choice and personal direction. Playing games, group play with others, getting involved in imaginative scenarios – the list goes on. The environment of the playground especially, can be informative in the way of free interaction getting children to learn about others, for themselves.
In this way, play is a valuable process of self-education.
Furthermore, research gathered out by the National Children’s Bureau reveals widely acknowledged benefits of ‘playtime’ for children, especially according to that conducted by Blatchford and Baines (2006)(2). This can be categorised into areas such as physical benefits – including the opportunity to exercise and children becoming more aware of their own capabilities, as well as emotional benefits – such as providing opportunities to interact with and understand the behaviour of others. ‘Play’ allows for untrammelled thinking and encourages children to apply, as well as expand their own rationale, as is evident in the ‘invention’ of new games; some which are surprisingly complex!
Within the all-too-typical focus on curriculum, ‘learning’ seems to be cast as something imposed, delivered in a transaction between teacher and student. Yet whilst ‘curriculum’ may mean very little to a child, ‘play’ holds prospect and promise – and should be celebrated as a process through which children can learn themselves. They are their own teachers; they have their own authority, and this matters. Yet in shortening school days and play with it, we are not only reducing chances for this, but perhaps even the life chances of children. For some, playtime may be their only opportunity to interact with other children and adults in a safe environment.
Further research confirms the detrimental effects of cutting playtime. Pellegrini, for example, found that the longer the amount of time children spent on standardised tasks without a break, the less attentive they became(4). The very language involved here is interesting – in terms of ‘standardised’. This emphasizes the highly regulated structure of much of the school day. This is not necessarily negative, but it is imposed from above – whereas play, out in the yard for example – is a process through which children can learn to regulate themselves. People ‘look out’ for each other, build dens, forts, feel excited. The anticipation of going on the school field was enough to fill me with enthusiasm for the day.
I certainly felt the difference at high school, when instead of ‘looking out’ for each other, much of ‘breaks’ consisted of ‘looking in’ to mobile phones, media updates, the television blaring on the wall of the canteen. Even then, in my first year, I sill attempted games of ‘tig’ – until running around outside in a more constricting uniform and under looks of disapproval by welfare staff brought it an eventual end. It was never the same as primary school anyway, where playtime was simple, acceptable, free.
Are we rationing fun to fuel the need for speed?
If we carry on as if ignoring that play matters to children, the we seem to be heading in the direction suggested by McCulloch, ‘creating a generation under stress(4)’. Both cutting play and the school day often seem advocated as a way of ‘saving time’, getting children home faster, allowing teachers to mark work and plan quicker. It is this sense of rush which is significantly fabricated by societal demands, and a pressure which should not compromise children. And if ‘saving’ is desirable – what is wrong with ‘spending’ time? Quality time to explore one’s own thoughts and immediate surroundings is simple, yet valuable. An opportunity for children’s freedom should not be treated as an inconvenience. As worryingly revealed research showed in The Guardian, carried out through Children’s Society’s annual Good Childhood report with The University of York, the UK’s children are some of the unhappiest in school in Europe, with 11% actually in state of consistent dissatisfaction over their school experience(5). With concepts such as ‘play’, ‘games’ and even ‘free time’ coming increasingly characterised as optional, a reward or even negative in some educational environments – is it any wonder? The phrase ‘that’s enough fun and games for now’, as a kind of discipline, is used with surprising frequency, for example.
Although changes are needed to address this, a number of factors suggest that cutting playtime isn’t one of them. Through play we learn the pace of life, the rate of others responses – rather than having it imposed always from above. Research has shown that there is a strong positive correlation between ample time for play with ‘free time’ enjoyed in childhood, and adult social success too(6), so we shouldn’t jump to believe that too much ‘play’ may threaten future adult interaction.
I am writing this because I miss the concept of play, and how it is less of a reality for me now. I hope that other children have the fun like I once did, simply involving myself and others in the school playground - no mobile phones, no fancy equipment, not even a ball. I am not deriding technology, and of course it offers extensive benefits for children, such as in the classroom, but in the playground – that is where it is possible to become connected to something else entirely.
Through play, children can connect with their childhoods, their imagination, their innocence. The authorities’ way of ‘playing’ with school hours and times is a whole different concept – governed by ulterior motives and ‘savings’.
One notable aspect is the Ofsted banners often embossed over school railings. It is a kind of symbolism, I sometimes think; in this way the sight of children playing is subservient to the state of educational bureaucracy plastered on top.
Play holds its own value and something which I believe still can be seen as ‘it’ – the chaser in the playground, the thundering energy, the enthusiasm for the day. Something we need to uphold. Whatever savings are made, play can’t be bought back. And that’s a hard lesson.