One of the most missed aspects of life throughout the pandemic has been social interactions with our friends and family. Schools have adjusted to rules and regulations with ease, but for staff and children the “new normal” in so many schools has meant a loss of social interaction.
The pandemic has brought to the fore one aspect of education that has perhaps been overlooked in pre-pandemic times; the school day, and the way in which it is organised. Now, I’m not talking about flexi-hours for students, or realizing the dreams of teens and adjusting to later start times, but how much time do we dedicate to free time during the school day?
“The impact isn’t just on physical health, but also mental.”
Since the mid 90s, UK schools have reduced their break times to accommodate more learning and to provide more time in classrooms. But what about the value of play and down time?
On average the reduction has seen primary school children lose 45 minutes of playtime, whilst secondary school children have lost 65 minutes per week. The research by University College London’s Institute of Education looked at the impact of this on children’s wellbeing, and found that the benefits of play or break time can be overwhelmingly positive for staff and students.
There are aspects of life that cannot be taught in a classroom – social skills such as friendship and conflict management; leadership and team building skills through activities organised and led by students themselves. Then there is, of course, the physical exercise gains that are enormously beneficial to children. However the impact isn’t just on physical health, but also mental.
“Extending recreation time needs to coincide with a positive school ethos.”
In a study by Princeton University, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that more exercise increased calmness and reduced anxiety. This is good news for learners – if anxiety is reduced then learning is likely to be more effective, and this has school wide benefits and impact.
Of course, extending recreation time needs to coincide with a positive school ethos and one that teaches children how to overcome difficulties in the playground such as conflict management. Whilst play time should be fairly unstructured and student-led, staff must be vigilant in their playground duties. Students well-being is vastly improved by socially interacting with their peers, and particularly after the pandemic, children need more interaction, not less.
Schools require outdoor and indoor spaces for children’s recreation. These spaces should provide opportunities for exercise, such as grassy area for ball games, climbing frames, and other outdoor equipment to challenge children’s natural curiosity, as well as spaces for quiet reflection. Schools that value wellbeing also value and understand the impact and importance of recreation time too. Teachers also need the space to recollect and regroup.
“There is definitely an argument for increasing breaktimes in schools, even if that means a slightly longer day.”
Independent schools in the UK have on average around 20 per cent of the school day given to break times, compared with 16 per cent in the state sector. This is significant because independent schools outperform UK state schools academically – perhaps one way to reduce this gap could be as simple as extending and improving the breaktime provision.
There is definitely an argument for increasing breaktimes in schools, even if that means a slightly longer day. If, by providing longer periods of exercise and time away from studying, children reap the benefits – will this translate to staff wellbeing too?
“Increased breaktimes mean staff can interact with each other, and be provided with light relief from the sometimes heavy workload.”
Schools that have longer breaktimes are actually improving the wellbeing of the children in their care. This will also have a knock on effect for staff, as a longer break means they will have more time to complete work, eat and socialise with their peers too.
Teachers are adept at time management and will often spend their breaks marking, performing administrative tasks and / or helping students. This leaves little time for downtime with their colleagues, which is essential in a school. Staff wellness is paramount to ensure students’ well-being. By increasing the breaktimes, staff can interact with each other, and be provided light relief from the sometimes heavy workload of school life.
If we look at what we have missed most during the last two years, lengthening breaktimes is surely key.
This article first appeared in Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine, out now.