The importance of school breaktimes

Unstructured play helps students to learn
Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

Playtime promotes development and learning in younger and older children. Reducing and withholding breaktimes at school may therefore interfere with learning opportunities. Unstructured play should be considered a core feature of the school day.

Children have a right to play. Article 31 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to “rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities”. Research shows that unstructured play builds social, emotional, and cognitive skills, as well as facilitating learning in school.

A key time when children play is during breaks in the school day, and yet breaktimes have been reduced in recent years – between 1995 and 2017, breaktimes in England were reduced by 45 minutes a week for the youngest in school, and 65 minutes a week for older children.

“Pupils who struggle at school, spending breaktimes catching up on classwork or homework will be doubly disadvantaged, with less opportunity to benefit from the learning and development that occurs during breaks.”

Breaktimes are sometimes withheld from pupils for punishment, behaviour management, or catching up with work. Not only does this reduction and withholding of breaktimes potentially infringe on a child’s right to play, it also affects their learning and development. Play gives children the opportunity to experience and practice managing different emotions, promoting resilience and social relationships, in addition to encouraging exercise.

Children are positive about breaktimes, valuing the chance to socialise and choose their own activities. They report wanting longer lunchbreaks. Pupils from less wealthy families are disadvantaged – primary schools with more poor children have less time for breaks than those with fewer poor children, while fee-paying schools have longer breaktimes than state schools. To compound this disparity, children living in poverty, of which there are an estimated 4 million in the UK, may have fewer opportunities for play at home due to their domestic or environmental circumstances.

Pupils who struggle at school, spending breaktimes catching up on classwork or homework will be doubly disadvantaged, with less opportunity to benefit from the learning and development that occurs during breaks . Similarly, those who have behavioural problems and get into trouble more frequently may be more likely to miss out on important time to release energy due to withholding of breaktimes as punishment. Missing breaktimes may be making things worse.

“Reducing breaktimes increases class time but takes away valuable recreation and leisure time which in itself provides important learning opportunities.”

There is no legislation ensuring all pupils have breaks, so it is up to individual schools to make sure children get the time for play they need. The good news is that play is cheap and enjoyable. Schools don’t need to invest in expensive equipment for children of all ages to benefit from playing – they just need to make sure the time and space for unstructured recreation is fairly provided for everyone.

Schools and teachers are under great pressure to improve pupil performance. Reducing breaktimes increases class time but takes away valuable recreation and leisure time which in itself provides important learning opportunities. Breaktimes are crucial for ensuring all children, no matter their ability or background, have access to places and time to play. Breaks should be considered a non-negotiable part of the school day.

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