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What’s Better For Primary Pupils – Structured Breaktimes Or Free Play?

Imagine your class returning from lunch attentive, engaged and ready to learn. Could structured breaktimes the answer, or do children need time out to roam free? Lloyd Burgess investigates...

  • What’s Better For Primary Pupils – Structured Breaktimes Or Free Play?
  • What’s Better For Primary Pupils – Structured Breaktimes Or Free Play?
  • What’s Better For Primary Pupils – Structured Breaktimes Or Free Play?
  • What’s Better For Primary Pupils – Structured Breaktimes Or Free Play?

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You’ve lined up a fun lesson plan for the afternoon; you spent ages planning it and there’s a lot to learn – but you’re sure the kids will be so into it that they’ll barely notice the bell for home time. Then the children come back from lunch, squabbling, and it takes half an hour of careful negotiations before they᾿re ready to return to work.

It’s situations like this that have seen structured breaktimes become increasingly popular in schools.

Water Hall Primary School in Milton Keynes implemented structured break and lunchtimes around seven or eight years ago, and headteacher Tony Draper has seen many benefits. “What we found going round schools was that even if the classroom behaviour was great, breaks were like ‘heads gone time’,” he says. “We wanted children to enjoy breaks, but also to go straight back into learning afterwards, rather than teachers having to pick up the pieces from arguments, incidents and accusations.”

Water Hall used materials from the Youth Sport Trust to set up planned exercises for the children, and worked with teachers and TAs to find suitable activities for their classes. “They’re fun, PE-based games,” says Tony. “It’s not ‘stand up, sit down’ and all that. The children enjoy them and they develop skills like skipping, throwing, catching and running.

“Initially we just did it at breaktimes, but it was working well so we wanted it to have an impact on lunchtimes as well. Now, every day the TAs lead 15-20 minutes of planned exercises at the start of lunchtime, then the children eat before heading back for afternoon lessons.”

The result, says Tony, is that children get plenty of exercise that’s fun – rather than regimented – and they still engage with friends, without anyone feeling left out or excluded. Any minor issues can also be dealt with there and then by the TA.

Make or break

Dr Ed Baines, senior lecturer in psychology and education at the UCL Institute of Education, has studied the benefits of free play on schoolchildren, and is more cautious about situations in which adults direct children᾿s activities.

“Structured activities, clubs and so on can be positive if pupils can opt out or do something else of their choosing,” he says. “But it becomes problematic when children are forced to choose from a small menu of adult-led activities. These are often introduced with the best of intentions, but there’s little consideration for the importance that free play has on children’s development.”

Dr Baines argues that even if these activities are more game- or play-oriented, any structure makes them more like an extension of PE. “Much of what children do in school is directed by adults, as it has to be, but breaktimes are a relatively short respite from that formalised learning,” he says. “They are more than just a welcome pause in the day, they are an important time when children get to be themselves, to do what’s meaningful to them and to learn important social, emotional and communication skills. If schools are considering structured breaktimes they need to be mindful of the increasing control and direction that adults impose on children’s lives.”

But at Water Hall, Tony hasn’t seen any resistance to the scheme whatsoever. “The children enjoy it, so parents are happy,” he says. “There’s a massive variety of things too, so it’s not just like an extra PE lesson – it᾿s different.”

Shape up

Fit for Sport’s Engage to Compete programme has a similar understanding. “We have a passionate belief in driving activity for all,” says CEO Dean Horridge. “So, it’s not about sport, which can disengage more children than it engages – though sport can still be included. Our first assessment of the schools we worked with was that breaktimes were not very organised, with a game of football in the middle and everyone else running round the outside trying not to get hit with the ball.”

Fit for Sport᾿s solution has been to separate the playground into low-, medium- and high-intensity zones. “This means football can still go on in the high-activity zone,” says Dean. “The medium zone has things like tag games, running and skipping, and the low-intensity area is for children who, for whatever reason, just don’t feel very energetic on that particular day.”

The system is based around monitoring which children are in which area each day, so you don’t get the same group of pupils spending every lunch and break sat down in the low-activity zone. “The view is to try to promote them into the higher-intensity zones,” says Dean. “And a key part of this is training the lunchtime staff.

“These wonderful ladies and gentlemen in schools can make a big impact on children, so we actually ask them to put on a tracksuit on and get involved. And once you give them the confidence and competence to do so and they see the effect they can have on the children, they really enjoy it. It builds relationships with the children and because they’re active themselves, they feel better, and that rubs off on the pupils.”

Engage to Compete has found that disruptive incidents in schools have decreased by up to 70 per cent under its structured approach. “We have an independent evaluation on the impact of our programme which we try to send out to as many schools as possible,” says Dean. “Until they see the evidence, it’s sometimes difficult to realise that this is something in which they need to invest.”

Get involved

And it’s not just physical skills that structured breaktimes can help, social skills can also benefit. Free play, of course, provides this in a very natural way, but what about those children who struggle to make friends amidst the cut and thrust of the playground? These are the young people that education consultant Jennie Hine and Chuckle Productions’ director Sara Christie sought to support when they worked together to develop a project that aids social inclusion.

“We ensure that the lunchtime program includes activities that promote the fine and gross motor skills as well as social and emotional skills, all within a structured lunchtime group,” says Jennie. “Our overarching aim is to ensure social inclusion for all pupils by identifying what we call focus children – those who need some support – and developing their ability to make positive and sustainable friendships.”

At the moment there are six focus children who are joined by what Jennie and Sara refer to as support pupils – but as far as far as all of these students are concerned they᾿re just coming to a Chuckle lunch group.

“The message that we reinforce throughout the sessions is that we’re all different and we can accommodate those differences in a kind and respectful manner,” says Jennie. “We do that by playing lots of fun and imaginative games and activities that improve a range of skills including developing gross and fine-motor skills, turn taking, spacial awareness, listening to each other and problem solving. Also, an important focus is that children learn a calming-down strategy.”

With funding from Sovereign Play Equipment, the programme was piloted for two terms starting in January this year, at Cooper Perry Primary School in Stafford. “We run it for two lunchtimes a week; I lead on Tuesday and Sara leads on a Thursday, and we each have an assistant with us,” says Jennie.

“The six focus pupils come to both sessions, then there are eight support children on the Tuesday and another eight on the Thursday. But all children come along thinking they’re just attending one of the many clubs running throughout the school.”

The first term of Chuckle club takes place in a mobile classroom on the edge of the playground, while towards the end of the second term there᾿s the option for children to take part of each session outside. “The idea is that the children would be out playing, and the mobile classroom would serve more as a satellite,” says Jennie. “They can come back here if there’s an issue, and from here we can observe and facilitate where necessary.”

“From the observations we’ve seen so far the pupils are much more confident than they were when they first came in. After the first term, I said asked the focus children what they feel like they’ve learned in the Chuckle lunch club; one said ‘to make more friends with everyone in different classes,’ while another commented, ‘to be kind and to listen’.

“Their classroom teachers have said these pupils are now much more assured in things like speaking, sharing, working with peers, and showing care and concern towards others.”

Work it out

There are many benefits to structured breaktimes – as there are for free play (see below) – and with a busy curriculum there’s no easy answer as how best to compromise between the two. But you need to ask yourself what your school is looking to achieve from implementing structured breaktimes.

Would it be every day, or just some days? Are you zoning the playground? Are the play workers fully trained and on board with the programme? What are you gaining and what could be lost?

“I think that’s the challenge,” says Juno Hollyhock, executive director at Learning Through Landscapes. “I completely understand the rationale for doing it; supporting children to engage with peers or enjoy activities they wouldn’t normally do – that sounds absolutely excellent. The concern I have is if it’s replacing a period of time where children should be letting off a bit of steam, and engaging in non-adult-directed play.

“There’s another very important aspect for me around imagination and creativity in that, for example, a child might be pretending to invent underwater ice-cream-making machines – and that’s a perfectly valid play activity that I can’t imagine an adult coming up with. A good play worker should be a facilitator. She can engage, encourage and support pupils without forcing a strict regime onto what should be fun and imaginative play time. That’s the middle ground for me.”

The benefits of free play

Dr Ed Baines outlines the five major positives of unstructured lunchtimes…

1 A break from structure
The freedom to play however you choose is important, otherwise breaks become more like an extension of lessons – so not really a break at all. Some research has found that breaktimes between lessons actually lead to more concentration and engagement in class.

2 Engaging in free play
There is much research suggesting that free play is important for children’s development. They are organising, negotiating, deciding when someone has bent the rules, and everything can be negotiated, discussed and argued. They can explore objects physically and get to know the limits of their own bodies and minds, making sense of the world around them.

3 Time to meet with friends
Today, many children have fewer opportunities to meet with peers outside of school due to concerns about things like traffic and stranger danger. Breaktimes are therefore important, as the chance to be with friends may contribute to more positive views on school, and perhaps even be one of the most important components of a sense of school belonging.

4 Social skills and moral lessons
When children engage with each other on their own terms, they begin to learn many skills that are not easily taught via formal instruction. This can include negotiating entry to games and groups, managing conflicts, handling loyalty and betrayal, being assertive or accommodating, learning to trust – or not – certain peers and social awareness and sensitivity.

5 Physical exercise
It is important to remember that free play already provides opportunities for children to engage in physical exercise. Of course, this is rather more ‘hit and miss’ than all children participating in a class activity. But for those children who are already physically active – structured activities might offer them little more, while also removing their freedom to choose how to be active.

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