Covid recovery: Promoting playground play and social skills

Written by: Jenny Mosley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are anecdotal reports that some pupils are finding unstructured playground play and socialisation difficult after two years of living with Covid. Jenny Mosley looks at what primary schools might do about this

“Those who play, rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humour.”
Dr Stuart Brown, founder, National Institute for Play

The abundance of research – past and current – is unequivocal. Play is crucial to children’s wellbeing, resilience, and ability to learn. Indeed, the National Literacy Trust (NLT, 2017) states that play lays the foundations for literacy, communication, and spontaneity.

There is an outcry from many primary schools that the pandemic has created huge problems regarding unstructured play in the playground. Common worries I have come across include:

  • Children cannot share.
  • Children have lost the ability to relate positively to each other.
  • Tempers flare quickly.
  • Children crowd round first-aiders with invented “hurts” (just to feel connected and safe).
  • Football and other arguments spill into afternoon lessons.
  • Lunch-time supervisors complain that children are being rude to them.
  • Teachers complain that midday supervisors are not sorting out the problems.
  • Children complain that nobody is listening to them.

The list is endless. But be reassured, while we seem to have a spike in these issues post-lockdown – this is not new!

I have been working in education for 48 years. In 1984, the local authority in Wiltshire asked me to write a first ever handbook for midday supervisors because so many heads were worried about problems at lunch-time.

Since then, I have endlessly written books for heads and middays, and hundreds of booklets and cards with playground and other games for children.

The reasons and underlying causes

What it comes down to is that – Covid or no Covid – there are many reasons why play-times and lunch-times can be so vulnerable for some pupils.

  • Midday supervisors very rarely receive focused training.
  • There are rarely policies or whole-school approaches to dining halls and lunch-times. Even healthy eating policies are in short supply (in my experience).
  • There is never enough time for schools to hold regular “plan, do, review” meetings involving midday supervisors and senior leaders.
  • Communication channels are not clear and midday supervisors complain they are not told important facts about children to help them deal with them better.
  • Most importantly, there is a failure by the adults to “teach” play and/or create opportunities for children to learn traditional or new games.

Over the years, I have been in thousands of schools and their playgrounds. Since September 2021, I have been going back into schools with face-to-face training. Schools and midday supervisors are doing their utmost to support children at lunch-times but there are issues. These issues will probably have been there all along, but the pandemic has exacerbated them.

FREE RESOURCES: Jenny Mosley is offering readers of Headteacher Update free access to two high-quality resources to support playground play. Pocket Playground Games: Volume 1 (24 pages) and Pocket Wet Playtime Games (36 pages) each and offer a wealth of ideas for play-time. They are available free to readers until the end of May 2022. You can access them via the following link, using the password PLAYHTU:

Some recommendations for schools

First, midday supervisors need training – whether it is one of your experienced staff who works with them, an online resource, or face-to-face training with simple resources to access.

Second, children need training too! Weekly circle times are essential. They develop a sense of community and team-work, teach children social skills and explicitly develop empathy. However, more importantly, they teach children the value of games.

Vibrant circle time teachers have always interwoven games throughout the session – and joined in themselves. The games teach children turn-taking, how to accept defeat and victory well, how to get excited and then calm down, how to include and respect all players, how to help each other, and how laughing together builds trust and friendship.

Third, PE teachers need to teach six traditional games a half-term so that every child knows a set of enjoyable games that they can all choose from. All middays need to be invited into PE lessons to learn the games with the children.

Fourth, place middays on “patrol and play” duties and encourage them to start-up big traditional games every so often so any lonely or bored children can join in. For example, Grandmother’s Footsteps, I Sent a Letter to My Love, In and Out the Dusty Bluebells, Detective, Wink Sleep, Hunter and Hunted. You can read my previous article for Headteacher Update about playground games (Mosley, 2017).

Fifth, 20 years ago, I was writing in my book Positive Playtimes about how schools need to work with children to create a “football contract” – which every child has to sign. On it there are lots of important clauses including Football Free Friday, where they agree to play an organised game like rounders etc.

Sixth, draw a map of the playground, look at it together (middays, senior leaders, etc) and work out how you can set up areas where children can enjoy different types of activities.

Remember, some children need to run freely, some are attracted to chill out areas, some want to join a big, traditional ring game, some want the long skipping rope, some want to make dens and engage in nature, some feel happier with creative activities and playground chalk, some want picnic blankets and books, some want gardening – it is a huge never-ending list.

Craze of the Week

Where many schools go wrong is, having locked away lots of the equipment during Covid, they have suddenly plonked it all back outside again. We need to go much more slowly and thoughtfully…

Remembering back to our own childhood games helps a lot. When I am training, I get all the midday supervisors, teaching assistants, and teachers to do this and a long list emerges: French skipping, hula-hoops, marbles, conkers, off ground tag, two balls, “can we cross the golden river”. Honestly! Hundreds of games have turned up from our collective memories.

After discussion, we come to realise that we never played with all the different things at one time. We played one game. We went “mad” on it. It was called “a craze”. We got good at it, competed continuously, to be better than our friends, and then dropped it just as quickly.

The function of a school is to start “A Craze of The Week”. For example, Halling Primary School in Kent tweet (@HallingSch) their craze every week to keep everyone up-to-date. Parents and grandparents often suggest crazes – it’s whole school fun!

Playground recovery

What we all need in our wellbeing and recovery programme is a hearty focus on play and social time. I would like us all to:

  • Play games at the beginning and at the end of staff meetings. Adults need fun just as much as children do.
  • Teach playground games as part of PE.
  • Find ways to boost respect for midday supervisors – invite them to start-of-term assemblies on how to play safely and happily. After each holiday (and Covid isolation) children go backwards, and we need to help them start the term off well.
  • Engage in whole-school training to support the midday supervisors. Invite them to play sessions with the children so they can actually learn the games themselves.
  • Teach more vibrantly by integrating quick games to boost the children’s skills.
  • Have fun!

Further information & resources

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