For many of us, the pandemic has encouraged a re-evaluation of what’s really important in our lives – whether it’s a promise to spend more time with our loved ones, a reduction in working hours or an effort to deepen our meaningful connections with others.

Schools were quick to adapt to new COVID-related laws and mandates concerning social distancing, vaccinations and everything else – but how ready are we for the consequences that lie in wait for us later down the line?

Social aspects

The combination of social distancing and school closures caused many young people to experience increased anxiety and mental health challenges. Is there anything schools can do to help address these?

I’d offer one simple suggestion – to lengthen and improve the quality of break times. An aspect of education that’s been completely overlooked in recent months is the school day and how it’s organised; by increasing the opportunities students have for play and socialising, we may be able to improve their academic performance.

Since the mid-1990s, schools across the world have consistently reduced the length of their break times in order to accommodate more learning. Giving students more time in the classroom may well have led some students to achieve more in examinations, but also miss out on key social aspects of their education.

Everyone working in schools will know how there are certain areas of life that can’t be formally taught in a classroom setting. These include social skills, of the sort that are important to forming friendships and managing conflict, as well as the leadership and team building skills that often develop naturally in the course of play activities organised and led by students themselves.

The power of play

And yet reductions in school breaks have seen primary schoolchildren lose an average of 45 minutes of playtime per week. The drop is even larger at secondary, amounting to 65 minutes per week – despite researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education finding that the benefits of play at break time can be overwhelmingly positive.

A separate study carried out at Princeton University and subsequently published in the Journal of Neuroscience further found that increasing students’ levels of exercise served to boost calmness and reduce anxiety, resulting in improvements to students’ levels of mental health.

If learners’ anxiety can be reduced, it can have a profound, school-wide impact. Many UK schools already have excellent playground areas, parts of which could be turned into interesting spaces with the help of volunteers or your PTA. These spaces might offer opportunities for physical exercise – grassy areas for ball games, outdoor equipment that will challenge children’s natural curiosity – but also spaces for quiet reflection. The latter can play a vital role in helping children to unwind after lessons.

Better outcomes

Longer break times will enable schools to provide their students with lengthier periods of exercise and time away from studying, so that they can better enjoy their time at school as a whole. When we look back on our own school days, what do we remember the most? I’m pretty sure the answer won’t include additional maths lessons, but rather those pleasant Tuesdays spent playing with friends.

UK independent schools currently set aside an average of around 20% of the school day to break times, compared with an average of 16% in the state sector. This is significant, given what are widely considered to be the better outcomes for students attending independent schools. There are other factors at play here, of course – but this is one that shouldn’t be dismissed.

Schools that offer longer break times will actively improve the wellbeing of the children in their care, and stand a better chance of successfully balancing their social and emotional wellbeing with the need for academic rigour.

Julia Knight has been an international teacher since 2012, and is currently principal at EtonHouse International School Bahrain; follow her at @KnightWilliams