Do shorter school break times harm children’s health and wellbeing?

By Janet Scott, CACHE Subject Specialist

‘Breaktime and social life in schools’ (BaSiS) is a recent research project to consider the impact of reduced break times to holistic health and wellbeing. The research study was carried out by the Department of Psychology and Human Development at the UCL Institute of Education of London during 2017-2018 with the final report of findings published in May 2019.

This research goes on to show that over the last two decades there has been increasing pressure on schools to increase standards of education in line with a changing curriculum, whilst the length of the school day has remained ‘more or less the same’. As a consequence, break times are being ‘squeezed’ out, according to Dr Ed Baines, co-author of the report, with potentially ‘serious implications’ for children’s well-being and development.

UCL researchers found that, not only have afternoon breaks virtually vanished in some schools, but lunch times have also shrunk, making it tricky, in some cases, for children and young people to do much more than queue up and eat their school meal.

Lunchtime and break times are the parts of the day children and young people get to eat, socialise with friends, relax, play and let off steam. Reducing school playtime and the decline in unstructured, free-play opportunities for children can happen for a variety of reasons, but it could be argued that it is for the adult’s benefit and not the child’s.

Children are increasingly having reduced opportunities to stretch their legs, get some fresh air and a change of environment or chat to their friends during the course of the school day. On top of this, schools are increasingly using technology and screen based learning and break times give children a valued technology break. This is especially important given that some children and young people may go straight home and use technology there as well.

So why does play matter so much?

According to the Playwork Principles, the impulse to play is innate: The Right to Play is a fundamental human right and Article 31 of the UN Convention on the rights of the child states that “every child is entitled to rest and play and to have the chance to join in a wide range of activities including cultural and artistic activities”.

Through play children get to make sense of the world around them, explore intellectually and physically, test out their limitations, make choices and consider possibilities, develop communication and social skills, work through conflict and understand compromise.

How does play benefit health and wellbeing?

Physical activity in childhood is important as it helps build strong bones, muscle strength and lung capacity. It may also increase cognitive function, improve academic achievement and accelerate neurocognitive processing. In addition, it appears that active children are also less likely to smoke, to abuse alcohol or take illegal drugs as they grow up.

Opportunities for play, throughout childhood, contribute to children’s life chances and development and active toddlers who grow up enjoying physically active play, especially in natural environments, may be laying the foundations for better health and a longer life than sedentary children.

Play is what children do when adults don’t tell them what to do and children don’t play actively because they are consciously trying to get fit, they play because they want to and they need to in order to thrive, develop and learn.

Considering the reduction in school playtime in light of information about the benefits of play one could pose the question: if playing is so important to children, what happens if they do not have the opportunity to play?

It’s been suggested that play deprivation in early childhood may cause poor resilience, development of depression, fragile relationships, poor self-regulation and difficulties in adapting to change. Other studies show that play is essential for brain development, implying that play deprivation could adversely affect brain growth.

As a sector we must consider these implications and the importance of play to allow children to explore and develop empathy, compassion, friendship, a sense of self, as well as learning how to work through life events, problems and feelings.