On average primary school pupils spend over 6 hours of the week in break time (split between lunch break and usually a shorter morning break between lessons) and high-school students about 5 hours. Traditionally, playtime has been viewed has having less of an impact on the lives of children compared to time spent in lessons. Playtime was simply an opportunity for children to take a break from sitting and spending time in the classroom, and instead have free time to play. But that view is starting to change as educational professionals are re-evaluating the impact that play has on a child’s development.
Playing allows a child to explore, discover, experiment, practice, create, and examine the world around them in their own way. Outside of the classroom children are free to run around, shout, be active, messy, laugh and express themselves more freely. Outdoor free play allows the child to be spontaneous and engage in self-initiated activities. Studies by Myers (1985) and Pellegrini (1990) documented the benefits of outdoor play to a child’s physical-motor development. Additionally, play has been shown to provide children with an opportunity to practice social skills such as verbal and non-verbal communication, turn-taking, shared story-telling and conflict resolution (Saracho & Spodek, 1998). However, new research suggests that the impacts of outdoor play can be further extended if the playground area is further developed into a more structured environment.
Gone are the days where a plain and empty school yard would be deemed sufficient for outside activity at break times. Earlier research had already shown the importance of a well equipped space for students to engage in different forms of dramatic or emotional play (Henniger, 1985). Now various research is suggesting that schools can improve the value of break times by structuring both the environment itself and the activities students engage in.
One British initiative to develop playground space was created in 2001 in the guise of Zoneparc, a collaborative project between the Youth Sports Trust, Nike and the Department of Education and Skills. The Zoneparc concept divides the play area into three zones. The yellow zone is an area where more relaxed, quiet activity can take place (such as general chat and less physical games). The yellow zone has equipment that can double as an outdoors classroom, seating several children. The red zone is designated for sports and has multifunctional courts for different use. The blue zone encourages students to play together through a range of games that develop physical skills and coordination as well as educational knowledge. The blue zone is furnished with a variety of sports and games equipment specifically designed for this use which can be kept in a storage area. The Zoneparc project also includes intensive coaching and training sessions by professionals that ensure the space is used to its full potential. So far, research into the Zoneparc project has revealed very positive results including an increase in quality and quantity of physical activity amongst pupils, a major decrease in bullying, verbal and physical aggression due to the clear separation of active and less active activities, development of new skills and improved self-confidence among all pupils, a decrease in injuries, and better focus during lessons.
Other schools have focused on the activities that pupils engage in during break times, with some trialling a schedule of games or sports rather than leaving students to self-initiate activity. For example, Strawberry Fields, a primary school in Leeds, has implemented a timetable for the playground that designates specific activities to certain playground areas for each day of the week, such as football, tennis, cricket, street hockey and frisbee. Similar to the Zoneparc method, certain areas are scheduled for quiet time and less physical activities such as a more creative tasks. This allows students to engage in certain tasks without disrupting the activity of other students, therefore reducing conflict over a shared space.
Playgrounds could be viewed as one of the most influential environments for a child outside of their home. A 2004 study showed that 71 per cent of mothers reported spending more time playing outside than indoors when they were young, whereas only 26 per cent said their children spent more time playing outdoors rather than on computers, watching TV or on video games. They blamed a lack of time due to increase work hours, and a decreased level of safety in the neighbourhood for the lower amount of time children spend outside now. With this in mind, if schools are able to better utilise the available playground area then the potential benefits to student development, both physical and social, are clear.