Play is important. Sometimes we learn best when what we’re doing doesn’t actually feel like learning. The primary education sector is highly attuned to this; the secondary sector, rather less so.
Even the under elevens are having their playtimes squeezed, though. A report by University College London compared data from more than 1,000 primary and secondary schools in 2017 with data collected in 2006 and 1995. Children aged 5-7 now have, on average, 45 minutes less break time per week than children of the same age in 1995 and pupils aged 11-16 have a whopping 65 minutes less! Moreover, the proportion of secondary schools allocating less than 55 minutes for lunch rose from 30% in 1995 to 82% in 2017. The lunch hour, it appears, is the preserve of older generations.
The authors of the study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, raise concerns about the rise in obesity and mental health problems. A cynic will argue that, with playing fields having been sold off and technology coming to dominate leisure time, schools are actually assisting the fight against obesity by limiting lunchtimes. I would argue that cynics, myself included, could use a little more play time.
Ironically, we could probably count the 11-16 year olds themselves among the sceptics who would rail against the idea of needing more play. “Playtime” is perhaps a misnomer – refer to it as that to anyone above Year Seven and you’ll receive the death stare that says ‘I’m not six, you know’! Rename it “free time”, on the other hand, and you’d probably have a 100% conversion rate; a lesson there in the significance of lexical semantics, so where do we find the time to teach them these things and still allow adequate downtime for rest and relaxation?
That brings us onto the other hot topic of productivity. Separate reports routinely shame the UK labour market as one of the least efficient. This might have something to do with overburdening school children, thereby draining them of energy and impetus. If pupils came to us each session with batteries recharged, we could begin demonstrating that it’s possible to do more with less.
Perhaps even more importantly, don’t staff need time to recharge too? The secondary data from UCL’s report elicited little surprise because a 55-minute lunch break sounds generous to me. Many is the time I’ve missed out on some much-needed staffroom merriment after making the lamentable choice to stay behind my desk because just getting across the site and back would have eaten up 15% of the allocated time, and I had to eat (as well as check emails, mark books and input data). Never mind the kids having the opportunity to get outside and have a kickabout, I’d relish the chance to work off some tension with a midday jog, just as one of my old English teachers (back in the nineties) found the time to do and as I myself did in a former office-based life. If nothing else, more time to actually take a break and converse with colleagues would be a godsend.
If the youth of today choose to sit behind their phones at break time, then so be it. But arranging teacher play dates definitely needs to become a thing!
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