To the outsider, playtime might look like nothing more than a fun pastime; a chance for kids to run around and blow off some steam between lessons. And, of course, that is the case. It’s a welcome break in a busy day of learning, but play also has so many more benefits than those children tangibly experience at the time. As Timothy Butterfield wrote for an article about the benefits of play on Harvard’s website, “There is much more to play than originally meets the eye. Children can play together (social play), by themselves (independent play), or within a context arranged by adults (guided play)… [It] can develop students’ intellectual, social, emotional, and physical abilities.”
Echoing Butterfield’s points, Play England reinforce the importance of play in their ‘Manifesto for Play’. “It’s the main way they enjoy their daily lives, make friends and learn about the world around them,” the manifesto states. Among the benefits of play are the development of social skills, creativity, cultural awareness and resilience. It also teaches children to “manage risks, make decisions and develop their identities.” Ultimately, Play England say, “play is essential for happy, healthy, capable and resilient children.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence for the many positive impacts play has for children, it is consistently being squeezed out of school days. A 2019 report by University College London’s Institute of Education found that while the length of the school day has remained more or less the same over the past 25 years, breaks for playtime are decreasing.
As reported by the Times, “Just one per cent of secondary schools now have afternoon breaks, compared to 41 per cent almost three decades ago.” Additionally, children aged 11 to 16-years-old now have 65 minutes less break time per week than they did 25 years ago.
In response, many are making moves to protect playtime and thrust its importance into the spotlight. Play England’s manifesto, for example, exists to push for policy change that centres play as a right. Among their proposals are requiring schools to “protect and develop time and space for play before, during and after the school day.” They also want to see more investment in playwork training and play as the main focus of after school clubs.
Academia has come to the defence of play too. Harvard ran a research initiative entitled ‘Pedagogy of Play’ which explored how play can take a central role in schools, promoting a school culture where playfulness is “celebrated, examined, made visible, and better understood as a powerful pathway of learning.” And sociologist Rebecca A. London, faculty member of the Sociology Department at the University of California, wrote the book ‘Rethinking Recess’ in order to lay out how recess – the American term for breaks or playtime – should be designed intentionally in order to “engage students, improve school climate, build valuable social and emotional skills, reduce behavioural incidents and promote healthy lifestyles.”
Such a strong response to the decline of playtime serves to reinforce just how vital it is in childhood development. Schools should react accordingly, providing the time for play and understanding that spaces for dedicated to it, both indoors and outdoors, are just as important learning environments as the classroom.