Where have all the playtimes gone?

A study published last week by UCL Institute of Education and the Nuffield Foundation found that over the last 25 years children aged 5-7 have 45 minutes less break time than before, and 11-16 year olds have 65 minutes less. 

The erosion of playtime is unsurprising, given the increasing focus on exam results and school league tables over the last 25 years. I imagine it’s just a case of teachers trying to fit more and more into the school day.

Whatever the reason, it’s still important to consider the possible consequences. Psychological research has shown for years that concentration wanes after 30 minutes

The fact that we persist in having longer lectures and longer exams for students, and as grown-ups have longer meetings, is testament to our stubbornness in the face of evidence rather than anything else. Yes, some tasks require longer amounts of time, but doing exactly the same thing or listening to exactly the same voice for lengthy periods is not the best way of achieving things if we want everyone to be focussing as optimally as possible. Yet how many of us will sit through meetings that last hours without clear and regular breaks scheduled in? Or work away at one thing for the whole day even when we can feel our concentration slipping?

Expecting children to concentrate for hours at a time at school is equally as nonsensical, although most teachers I know work hugely hard to change topic frequently and keep attention from wandering. Making breaks smaller could only be a good thing if they were more frequent (which as far as I know they’re not).

There’s also the matter of play. Play is an autotelic activity – which means it is something that we like to do for its own sake. There is too little opportunity for play as a grown up, in my opinion, and I think we should be making more time for this both during the school day and during adult working hours. Somewhere along the line play becomes “silly” or even “scary” for adults, and we lose a sense of openness, creativity and spontaneity which could bring a lot to our working lives as well as enriching our personal selves. 

The value of play is not in the added value it brings though, it’s in the sense of freedom and fun that it has itself. In a time when young people (and their teachers) are being measured more and more both students and school staff really need some kind of counterbalance.

Before we start bashing schools for their attitudes on this I think we could look at what we ourselves are doing. Perhaps the study on lost playtime points to an achievement-focussed culture that we’re all involved in, and therefore all responsible for. 

When is the last time you did something just because you liked it, not because of some secondary gain you thought it would bring about? What do you get a sense of pure pleasure from? Can you make time for that thing this week…? 

Prioritising playtime is something we could all be trying to change: in our schools, yes, but also in our work cultures and our expectations of ourselves.

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