As I write, students are outside playing as part of our co-curricular program. They have made a basketball hoop by climbing into the tree to tie a hula hoop to a tree branch using a skipping rope. While this particular game is a new creation, this is just one of many examples of students using imagination and creativity to invent activities during their play time.
Unstructured play time is an essential feature of school life at Eastgate Academy. Students have two recess breaks during the day for unstructured play, and up to three additional hours of extended play-based learning before and after school. This gives students plenty of time for fresh air, exercise, games or imaginative play.
Although play time is unstructured, it is highly purposeful. Students get to make choices about how they use their time, whether and how they interact with other students, and how to use the features of their environment. This affords lots of opportunity for students to learn how to negotiate, cooperate, problem-solve, manage risk, advocate for themselves and for others. Because these skills are so important – both at school and in life generally – we are intentional about teaching them. Some of that instruction happens within the classroom and some of it takes place as teachable moments during unstructured play time.
This year, we have used the structure of safe, fair and fun as a basis for evaluating choices. While essential safety rules (such as don’t chase soccer balls into the street) are pro-actively stated and enforced by teachers, most of the guidelines are developed by students with guidance from the teachers. Through practice in more structured situations, like PE class, students develop the ability to create and refine activities that are safe, fair and fun for everyone involved. For example, over the course of several games of dodgeball, students have got in the habit of checking in to see if any rules need to be added or refined to make the game more safe, more fair or more fun. As a result, they added a rule about throwing the ball within 10 seconds of catching it in order to make it a fast-paced game. The habit of clarifying and refining rules is now visible in their unstructured play time. If there is a disagreement about the rules of the game, students are more likely to pause and clarify the rules than looking to the teacher to intervene.
Although play time is not structured by teachers, it is still supported by teachers. We are present to help students get involved, evaluate choices and resolve conflict. This helps students to develop the ability to initiate activities, promote cooperation, and actively create an enjoyable social environment for everyone.