"Thus says the Lord of Hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets."
In Zechariah’s vision of the Lord's return to Jerusalem the children playing in the streets reflect all that is good in a society that has overcome its difficulties. With the old people looking on there is a feeling of safety and wellbeing.
The vision seems far removed from the reality of today where many parents can no longer risk allowing their children to play outside. Cars have invaded the traditional play areas, and even those areas set aside for children's play carry worries of abuse and abduction which, whether likely or unlikely, are taken up and amplified by the media.
It is widely recognised that children learn a lot from play. In the very early years, from the time a baby can grasp a rattle or embrace a teddy the child is using play to make sense of his or her environment. In the same way lessons learned through play as the children grow older will often have equal or greater significance to those learned in the classroom. Paul’s observation to Timothy;
'An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules' (2 Tim.2;5)
Is one that is set in the minds of the children as they dodge and weave in tag or football. They need no referee. Lessons of fair play and honour are learned over a game of marbles. With encouragement from the teacher on duty they learn social responsibility caring for the lonely and those who fall over.
This learning, not directly addressed by the programmes of study of the National Curriculum, is in line with the attitudes and values outlined in the Curriculum Council's guidance of 1990 which looks at Education for Citizenship as one of eight cross curricular themes.
Devon's recent Environmental Education initiative addresses itself fairly directly to the subject of 'Learning through play beyond the classroom.' Pointing out that children spend 25% or more of their time outdoors at school it promotes thought and discussion on the nature of the play experience that is available to them. The nature of the physical environment in which they play is rightly seen as being of great importance.
At our school we have two playgrounds. The small area has basic climbing apparatus, ramps, a wall, a picnic table and many painted markings. The second larger playground is marked out as a netball court and also has a hopscotch area. It has been branded 'sterile' by some staff, although recently some picnic benches have been moved in to give the children somewhere to sit and talk. Despite the play apparatus in the small playground children prefer the larger playground for its greater space to run around. It is generally agreed that the majority of undesirable incidents occur during the lunch break when all juniors are out at once. Children identify the competition for space between football and other activities as one of the greatest causes for concern. In their book about 'Children's games' Iona and Peter Opie commented on a situation like this.
'We have noticed that when children are herded together in the playground, which is where the educationalists and psychologists and the social scientists gather to observe them, their play is markedly more aggressive than when they are in the street or in the wild places.'
The ideas and suggestions of pupils must be taken seriously. Playtime must belong to them. It is their time and provided that an agreed code of conduct is adhered to respecting the rights and feelings of all, they must maintain this ownership. In some schools a pupil council has been set up in which their ideas can be shared and, where practical, put to good use.
Pupil involvement in school management was a recommendation of the Elton report, 'Discipline in Schools' of 1989.
Although children should, where practical and safe, be driven by their own imagination and motivation the presence of adult helpers adds another dimension to opportunity. Sensitive instruction in traditional games or related skills can enhance the quality of their subsequent experience of those activities. For example, there are six different forms of the game of marbles, taken from a Victorian games handbook that might be developed.
Devon's initiative 'Take Ten for Play', which assists in the training of mealtime supervisors, addressing another recommendation of the Elton report, looks at the games they can introduce both new and traditional in addition to ways of promoting a positive atmosphere and strengthening the children's self esteem. The use of volunteer parental help at playtimes is one that needs careful consideration. Although there are implications for the legal requirements with regard to supervision there is much to be gained from this source. Parents bring with them a wide range of talent and experience from which our children can benefit.
Playtime can be a time to reinforce curriculum learning. Dinah's experience of 'learning' on the playground in ‘The Demon Headmaster’ is perhaps a little over the top, but we can give children the choice to take part in activities that enhance their understanding of National Curriculum subjects. Number tracks, hopscotch, and grids help in playing maths games. A simple orienteering course or treasure hunt with clues and with or without a map can promote geography skills. There is a wealth of science ideas to be gleaned from the environment of the school if children are encouraged to observe. Children need to be taught how to make the most of these facilities. What use are markings on the ground when children don't know what they're for?
Given adequate resources, which must include financial resources as well as the space and the personnel, we can do much to improve the environment in which children play. We can provide areas for discrete forms of play; imaginative play with toy car tracks or telephones, group physical play such as football or chase games and individual skill play such as marbles or conkers. We can provide areas where they can be quiet or talk with friends, perhaps in a garden with paved areas, plants and shrubs giving children the opportunity to nurture and watch things grow. We can set aside space for skipping games, throwing and catching and other small apparatus games. In this way we can aim to reduce as far as is practically possible conflict of interests between pupils sharing the same physical space.
Competition for shared space must be at its height when weather dictates the need for an indoor playtime. In this situation the range of choice might involve chess, board games, construction toys and jigsaws as well as the traditional comics. A parent or supervisor might take a lunchtime story club or older children might be given the responsibility of leading activities with the younger end of the school.
Even in the relatively safe streets of Jesus' time it appears children left purely to their own devices were apt to be a nuisance. Jesus compares the Pharisees with;
"...children sitting in the market place and calling to one another. 'We piped to you but you did not dance, we wailed but you did not weep.' "(Luke 7; 31)
The school represents in itself a 'Micro society' of its own. The quality of this society, like Zechariahs New Jerusalem, must also be reflected by the standard and spirit of play that we observe at break times. Although we can have little control over the dangers of society as a whole, we are able to influence greatly those activities that happen in our playgrounds. Playtime is about choices, and for our part opening up the range of choices that lead towards positive play, whilst at the same time limiting the possibilities for negative behaviour. Encouraging activities in which children learn to interact and cooperate with each other, testing their own abilities and the reactions of others in a safe environment. The quality of these times is very important to us as educators. Our challenge therefore is to overcome or limit as far as possible the negative influences and channel the considerable benefits of this vital part of the school day; to know what we are expecting children to learn and how we can manage the resources available to us in order to make the best use of them in encouraging that learning.