October.11.2021

Playground duty really is quality time: how joyful learning happens outside the classroom

By Olivia Karaolis

The Quality Time Action Plan is described by the department of education as an approach intended to reduce and simplify administrative processes for teachers and provide them with more time for “high value tasks”.  It is here that I have a quibble with this document and its definition of playground duty or supervision at lunch and recess as a “non-teaching activity”. I see this definition as problematic and at odds with the important role teachers play on school playgrounds and the learning that takes place in this setting.

Teaching does not just happen in the classroom 

The playground is one of the most important places of learning, it is here that children and young people develop socially, physically and practice a degree of autonomy outside of the classroom. A learning that is as important as that which takes place indoors. The role of the teacher is far more than a provider of knowledge. Relationships are the heart of our work. The playground offers us a space to interact with our students, to observe them in a different light, learn about their interests, strengths and vulnerabilities- an understanding that is essential for building our professional knowledge and informing practice. 

Teachers on the playground have a role that goes beyond keeping children physically safe and opening yoghurt. It is here they can offer support to students as they negotiate new or challenging social and physical situations. The playground offers young people a place for autonomy and socialisation. It is here they practice important skills that contribute to their social competence, such as sharing, managing conflict, making friends and learning new skills. Teachers participate in this learning by ensuring students have appropriate equipment to play, such as balls, hoops and skipping ropes. They can make suggestions about how to communicate more effectively, self-regulate, take risks or de-escalate conflicts. 

In American schools, playground duty is provided by non-teaching staff, often a parent is paid to fulfil this role. In my experience this resulted in confusion as school rules were implemented inconsistently and according to the assumptions of the adult standing on the yard. I recall one officious parent banning children from trading pokemon cards for no apparent reason other than she did not like the game. Students had no idea when they could run, what they could play or often why they were in trouble. What happened on the playground often stayed on the playground and teachers remained unaware of the social dynamics and the impact they had on the children in the classroom.

Playing is learning 

The wording in the action plan denies the important role of teachers in supporting this learning. The playground is a valuable resource for students and teachers as it is the primary place for playing. Play, in its many variations in primary and secondary years, offers much more than a place for children to “let off steam”. Vital social and emotional learning happens when children play and interact on the playground, they develop their awareness of themselves, of others and their capacity for acting with responsibility and kindness. Teachers can model this for children, to facilitate play in the early years, and in the primary and secondary years, encourage social inclusion and give emotional support when needed; this can be as simple as putting on a band-aid to address complex matters such as bullying. The playground is the heart of the school community and a place for students and teachers to play and come together for the wellbeing of all. 

Our duty when schools reopen 

Studies show that student wellbeing should be the highest priority for schools when they re-open. For many students, learning from home has been a period marked by significant anxiety and social isolation. Reports show what our students missed most about school was playing with their friends and their teachers. Removing teachers from the playground takes away their opportunity to reconnect with their students, to be present with them as they return to school, to share their concerns and more importantly experience the joy of being together again. Surely this should be considered as “a high valued task”.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

Main image: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6427507

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4 thoughts on “Playground duty really is quality time: how joyful learning happens outside the classroom

  1. Heather Hobbs says:

    Decades ago when I started teaching I used to knit while doing yard duty (yes, I know, totally out of the question these days). This gave an open invitation for those students who were alone and feeling isolated to come and walk and talk. The conversation started with them asking what I was making and went from there. When the conversation came to a natural end they wandered off obviously feeling much happier because of a simple friendly human interaction.

  2. Olivia says:

    Thank you! Those moments and interactions are the sum of so much more-the children also got an opportunity to see you ‘play’ as you knitted!

  3. Michele McCrea says:

    I trained as a schoolteacher many decades ago and while I have never worked directly as a schoolteacher, in my long years of association with education and schools through academia and related roles I have often wondered why the extensive, quality research that as gone into education and learning is repeatedly ignored by policy makers. There seems to be a kind of blind spot or perhaps a complete disjunction between what we, as a society, know about education and what we actually do. I find it both frustrating and peculiar.

  4. Graham Moloney says:

    I agree that not all learning occurs in the classroom. I agree that engaging students outside the classroom is productive.
    To equate mandated playground duty with the legal responsibilities of student safety ( covering the entire area, keeping on moving etc) is, I regret to say, unbearably optimistic.
    In my opinion, there remains no more gratuitous waste of a professional teacher’s time than having them supervise students in a playground. I am happy to consider other nominations for wasted time, but we will not address excessive teacher workload without NOT DOING SOMETHING.

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