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Outdoor Play and Playground Conflict

By Sarah Pietrzak - 17th August 2010

Several years ago I taught an inner city school in the UK. The sports teachers refused to allow the children to play on the field at recess or lunchtime in case they messed up the field. Instead, several hundred teenagers were crowded onto 4 tennis courts and one small concreted area about the size of two basketball courts.

It was like a regulated version of Lord of the Flies.

Whenever I was on duty I knew that I would remain unscathed, but the same could not be said for many of the students there. Trying to supervise such a multitude of students in such a confined space meant that fights and bullying were almost an inevitability.

Such constraints meant there were racial and social divides that were magnified a thousand times over. Whilst I’m not naïve enough to think they don’t exist everywhere, I also think giving kids some physical space means a reduction in potential hostilities. In addition, giving kids the opportunity to be physically active is another issue I think is vital for their emotional and physical well being. We all know the benefits exercise has as grown ups. At this school, for large groups of teenagers spending hours in a classroom, the only difference between being confined at school was that sometimes they saw the sky instead of a ceiling.

Time and time again I would be reduced to begging at staff meetings to allow the kids to use the field at break times. I knew it meant the boys would be able to play their beloved sports and run off some steam and it would allow the girls to either participate in sport or have a much needed break from each other.

Time and time again I was told this was: “just the way things were.” I grew to hate that phrase with a passion. It was more important apparently to have a nice neat field, than meet the needs of these kids, many of whom came from deprived backgrounds and were in desperate need of stimulation and to be able to participate in team sports.

Coming from Australia where the schools I had taught at gave the kids plenty of room to play, this philosophy where the wants of the teachers were valued more than the needs of the students was a complete anathema to me.

I wish I could tell you I made a difference when it came to playground wars, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. It was and is one of the greatest regrets of my teaching career, that I wasn’t a better and stronger advocate for these kids when it came to experiencing the great outdoors.

As a mother myself now, I am a passionate advocate on the issue of outdoor play. To me, it matters as much as what my child learns in the classroom. Tradition is to be respected, but entrenched attitudes that do nothing to better the well being of my child will be challenged all the way to the school gate.

Editor's Note: I love this book on Outdoor Play by Susie Cameron and Katrina Cook - Small Fry Outdoors - Inspiration for Being Outdoors with Kids

Comments (3)

Playground space

I can't believe that school would be so silly. Wouldn't it be amazing if they suddenly received 100's of letters from all over the world urging them to open up the school field...? Send the address and I'll start my letter immediately!!!

ZoeyMartin's picture

Outdoor Play

I think outdoor play is so important - to adults and kids of all ages. Admittedly the adult version of outdoor play is often exercise. But time out spent at the beach or on a walk is so important for balance (I think). And I've especially noticed with my toddler that outside play in the morning (swimming, going to the park) makes a huge difference to her mood for the rest of the day.

Playground Wars

I guess, the teachers from that school in UK should see it as - if the kids were given permission to "let off steam" by playing sport during recess, then they would be better as well, in the classroom. Hence a win win situation. What is sad is when they don't see to the needs of these kids. I'm glad the schools here are a lot more open minded and see the need for kids to go out and have fun, let off steam, during their breaks.

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