Children in state schools face a ‘brutal’ loss of time and space to play

Children are facing a ‘brutal’ loss of space and time to play at school, teachers, unions and academics have warned.

A combination of factors is eating into the time children spend outdoors, and will have serious consequences for their wellbeing and mental health.

  • A Guardian analysis of the space available to state schoolchildren in England has found that thousands attend schools with very little outdoor space. Government data shows that more than 300 schools have less than 1,000 square meters and at least 20 have no outdoor space. In almost 1,000 schools there is less than 10 square meters of space for each student.

  • New and unpublished research from the UCL Institute of Education, seen by the Guardian, showed a continued downward trend in the amount of time children have for playtime in the wake of the Covid lockdowns, with the youngest losing the most time.

  • Curriculum demands have increased and continue to limit outdoor time, while staff shortages reduce the capacity to monitor playtime.

  • Across England and Wales, schools are facing difficult financial decisions, which are impacting the funding for site maintenance. Headteachers in the state sector have said they urgently need funding to improve basic services for children.

  • School buildings are crumbling because many are built with Raac (reinforced, autoclaved aerated concrete) that has not been replaced within its useful life. Playgrounds are used to house temporary classrooms. This takes away the little space some schools have for children to spend time outside.

Damien Jordan, head of Fairlight primary school in Brighton, told the Guardian he did what he could to allow children to play with just 800 square meters of outdoor space.

“We are a real inner-city school,” he says. “We have kids who leave here on Friday, go back to their apartment and don’t go back out until they get back here Monday morning.

“We have to be their garden, their football field, the space where parents can talk to friends.”

Jordan said he saw the game disappear from the school day during his teaching period.

“I’ve been a head for 22 years,” he said. “We are now trying to cram a lot more knowledge into the same length of day. The curriculum means that from the age of six or seven, playing disappears. It’s cruel, kids aren’t ready for it yet. The classrooms change from a free space to what looks more like an office.”

Damien Jordan: ‘The curriculum means that playing from the age of six or seven is no longer necessary.’ Photo: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

James Bowen, deputy general secretary at NAHT, the school leaders’ union, was also deeply concerned about the “overloaded curriculum” and the burden it places on teachers and children, meaning that “ensuring that there is time to cover everything. – including ensuring that playtime is built into the school day. NAHT would like to see a reduction in curriculum content so that schools have the time and space to ensure that not only can the curriculum itself be properly covered, but that there is also time for the other crucial aspects of school life. ”

And headteacher Tina Farr from St Ebbes primary school in Oxford said nothing is more important than ensuring pupils have space and time to play. “Just turn on the news and you will see the mental health crisis for children. We must run schools that are in line with healthy child development. We can give them six feeding hours a day and that is absolutely necessary.”

Meanwhile, pupils at England’s top private schools each enjoy more than 3,300 square feet of green space, a Guardian survey has found. Many of these schools offer daily sports or outdoor activities and emphasize their belief in the crucial importance of outdoor activities in developing the minds of young people.

Experts and teachers link the growing problem in the public school sector to the increase in mental health problems among young people. According to the NHS, around one in five children and young people aged 8 to 25 years would be affected by a likely mental health problem.

But as the election approaches, neither the Conservative nor Labor manifesto acknowledges this link. Both parties have pledged to expand mental health services in schools, and the Conservatives say they will also make two hours of PE a week mandatory. But the consensus of experts is that children need at least an hour of physical activity a day, a level many doubt they will reach.

Dr. Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Exeter’s School of Medicine and an expert on the link between play and children’s mental health, said children urgently need more time outside to play. “My background is in mental health care. I keep hearing that we need to improve the treatment of children. Wait a minute – why do we put so much effort into treatment when we could first give them more opportunity to play outside?

“This is low-hanging fruit. Before we spend money on counselors and treatments: let children play outside more when they are at school.”

But she said many school spaces were not fit for purpose. “The environments we place children in are not designed for their health or happiness. And school staff tell us that because of the pressure on them to reach educational levels, they cannot prioritize outdoor play.

“We know science shows that children need to be in nature – we need to find ways to ensure children can do this.”

She said too many barriers had been put in place for children to go outside. “I hope we are in a pre-change phase as I am seeing more interest in play since the pandemic, although I wouldn’t say I am seeing actual changes yet. Schools will not try to offer more play unless the government is interested, so it is possible that it will be adopted as a wider practice.”

Dodd said what she saw in schools was part of a worrying broader picture. “Children lose space and time to play everywhere.”

skip the newsletter promotion

‘Due to severe cuts in municipal budgets, municipalities often do not prioritize outdoor play areas.’ Photo: darek/Alamy

Dr. Jackie Applebee, a GP in Tower Hamlets, east London, said: “There is compelling evidence that exercise benefits mental health, particularly outdoor exercise, so people with less access to outdoor green space are disadvantaged.

“Severe cuts to municipal budgets mean that councils often do not prioritize outdoor play areas and cuts to education budgets mean that schools, which are heavily inspected and punished, inevitably prioritize the classroom over the playground.”

The crisis follows decades of local governments and state schools selling off their playing fields, by approx 10,000 sold under the Tories between 1979 and 1997, and hundreds have been sold since.

Until 2012, government regulations required that a high school with more than 600 students needed 35,000 square meters of playing fields, which equates to approximately 58 square meters. for every child. But under Michael Gove as Education Secretary, the government dropped the demands and introduced new rules that meant schools only had to provide an unspecified “suitable outdoor area” for PE lessons and games.

The Department for Education defended the change as it would make it “easier and cheaper” to open new schools, with some free schools opening in renovated office buildings that offer little outdoor space.

But a Guardian analysis of the school complex, based on government figures, shows that these changes have resulted in thousands of children attending schools with little or no outdoor space. More than 300 schools have an area of ​​less than 1,000 square meters and at least 20 have no outdoor space at all. At almost 1,000 schools, students have less than 10 square meters per student. And state schools in the most deprived areas of England have the lowest amount of outdoor space, with 18% less per pupil than those in the country’s least deprived areas.

Steve Chalke, the head of the Oasis Trust, which runs schools in deprived areas of England, said local authorities were not securing enough land for children to live and breathe. room. I see very cramped new schools where the staff say to me, ‘You can’t swing a cat here.’”

“Local authorities do not think about the next generation when they build too many homes. Once the space is gone, it’s gone forever. Children need green space for their mental health and to our long-term regret we will neglect this.”

Recent research into the amount of time students spend outside shows the same decline in supply. In 2019, Ed Baines, senior lecturer in psychology and education at the UCL Institute of Education, found with his colleagues that the youngest children in primary school, aged five to seven, received 45 minutes fewer breaks each week than children of the same age. in 1995. High school students lost 65 minutes in the same time. His recent work, shared exclusively with the Guardian, indicates that this trend has continued, with the youngest children losing an extra 14 minutes a day.

Baines said: “The latest figures come with the caveat that they were made as children returned after lockdown restrictions ended in June 2021, but the trajectory is deeply concerning. All our research shows that young people also have much less social interaction with friends outside of school.”

A group of childhood and education experts recently launched a ‘play plan’, backed by MP Kim Leadbeater, calling on the Department for Education to include play for all ages in the curriculum, in addition to maths and English.

Michael Follett, the director of Opal Outdoor Play and Learning, one of the organizations behind the appeal, said children’s poor health could be tackled by emphasizing play in all aspects of their lives – but especially in schools. “There is a current and escalating crisis in childhood. Children are less fit and less active. They are increasingly suffering from mental health problems on a scale we have never seen before.

One of his colleagues, Neil Coleman, said: “We hear again and again from headteachers: ‘The children don’t know how to play.’ If they don’t get enough time to play at school, the reality for many children is that they don’t play anywhere.”