Play in schools
Children spend a lot of time in school. As part of their school day children have a right to be given time and space to play.
During the school day, children should be given plenty of time and space to relax and play freely with their friends. Children say that playtimes are an important part of the school day.
98% of the children surveyed as part of the Wales Children’s Omnibus Survey (2022) said they look forward to playtime at school. 82% said they especially like playtime as it allows them to spend time with their friends.
Studies have shown that school playtime projects that aim to provide children with richer play opportunities lead to a range of improvements in children’s:
- academic performance
- social skills
- relationships between different groups of children
- enjoyment of and adjustment to school life.
Playtime projects can include providing traditional play activities, playground equipment, loose parts play materials and staff who understand play. Access to playtime projects results in happier pupils, significantly fewer incidents and accidents, and pupils returning to class ready to learn.
In General Comment no. 17, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends giving children time, space and freedom to play as part of the school day. It notes that schools have a major role in promoting the right to play in the following areas of school life:
- curriculum demands on both teachers and children
- educational pedagogy (as an important part of supporting effective learning)
- physical environment of settings
- structure of the day.
Including time to play throughout the school day
It’s important for children to have opportunities to be playful in school outside playtimes. Playful activities should be central to learning – for older children as well as for those in early years.
The UN says it is important for learning environments to be active and participatory. Creating a broad and balanced teaching and learning environment that also embraces children’s health and wellbeing can provide a better, more positive learning experience.
Research by The University of Manchester found that when boundaries between schoolwork and play were more ‘blurred’, children felt a greater sense of control over their learning experience.
Developmental psychologists at Cardiff University have found that humorous play helps children connect with others – such as friends and siblings – and build positive, warm relationships.
We have worked with these psychologists to develop resources for schools. These Giggle Games resources aim to give teachers and children more opportunities to share humour and play in the classroom. They are available free of charge to primary school teachers and children in south Wales.
Ensuring schools provide time to play
In the Wales Children’s Omnibus Survey (2022), 61% of children say they have missed playtime. The most frequent reasons for this are to catch up with work or because a teacher feels they had misbehaved.
The Welsh Government Framework on embedding a whole-school approach to emotional and mental well-being places a strong emphasis on the importance of play. In particular, the Framework notes that the removal of playtime as a punishment denies children their right to play and can cause stigmatisation and anxiety, too.
A position paper from the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology (DECP) highlights that playing is critical to children’s wellbeing and development. It recommends that playtime in schools should not be taken away as punishment.
The authors of the position paper worked with Play Wales to develop Protecting playtime ideas, which can be found in A play friendly school: Guidance for a whole school approach.
Providing space to play in schools
Estyn’s Healthy and happy – school impact on pupils’ health and wellbeing report highlights the relationship between supporting health and wellbeing and providing space to play in schools. Schools that take a whole school approach to supporting health and wellbeing also provide an environment, the facilities and space for children to play, socialise and relax at playtimes.
Most schools have a tarmac area, which will support active running games and sports. Consideration should also be given to providing a calm space for pupils who want to spend some time alone.
A well-landscaped green and natural space provides positive features for play, such as places to hide and explore. However, if these spaces are not accessible to all children or are restricted in some way, they can cause frustration. Schools should review their available space and have a long-term plan for protecting and enhancing their play spaces.
Schools should provide a rich play environment where children of all ages can feel free to play in their own way, on their own terms.
It is important to provide plenty of loose parts play materials for children to play with at playtime. Not having enough resources can cause conflict and tension.
Loose parts create richer environments for children to play in, giving them the resources they need to extend their play. Loose parts aren’t prescriptive. Instead they offer limitless possibilities, giving children more opportunities to change and handle the resources and more choice about how they do it.
Our toolkit, Resources for playing – providing loose parts to support children’s play, has been developed to support adults working in the play, early years and education sectors in providing loose parts play.
Giving children permission to play
General Comment no. 17 discusses the importance to children of supportive adults who ensure they are able to enjoy their right to play.
To create a culture where play is allowed, school staff need to actively support play. Play should not be dismissed as frivolous and a waste of time, it should be acknowledged and supported. This means that play should not only be used as a vehicle for learning, or for meeting educational or health outcomes.
Staff who supervise playtime should have a good understanding of play. They need to support and actively encourage pupils to make their own choices with minimal adult intervention. They can help ensure that playtime is not overly organised or regulated.
An important first step towards creating a culture where play is allowed is to develop a school play policy. This should endorse play and list the actions the school is taking to protect children’s right to play. You will find a sample school play policy in our A play friendly school guidance.
The importance of community access to schools, particularly in under-resourced communities, is recognised in the Welsh Government’s Framework on embedding a whole-school approach to emotional and mental well-being. It is also recognised in guidance supporting the development of Community Focused Schools in Wales.
Our toolkit, Use of school grounds for playing out of teaching hours, is designed to help head teachers, governors and local organisations work together to make school grounds available to local children outside the school day.
Other useful resources
Right to play workshop
This workshop is designed for playworkers, participation workers, youth workers and school staff to facilitate in schools and other structured settings. It aims to raise awareness about the right to play and empower children and teenagers to campaign for better play opportunities.