wellbeing

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

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

Learning is not a race but politicians think it is. Now wellbeing is in peril.

Pasi Salhberg is right, we need to prioritise wellbeing during the endless lockdowns many of us are enduring. But this message is only partially right, because wellbeing isn’t just what’s important ‘right now’, it should always be the most important thing in learning. Unfortunately, our schooling systems have never understood this. In fact, mass schooling systems have their roots in nation-building imperatives that had, and continue to have, little to do with individual flourishing.

You only have to listen to politicians crooning about NAPLAN results improving during lockdown to know what’s important to our leaders. There is a relentless focus on student achievement rather than wellbeing. Luckily though, not all educators think this way, probably not even many of them. Yet, we all seem to be caught in the groupthink of policy by the numbers in education, while anchored to industrial-era thinking about the role of education while lip service is paid to the young human beings effaced by the numbers.

Wellbeing has always been a lesser priority for policy-makers, rather than the core focus. They seem to love to talk like it’s important, but when it comes down to it, academic success, measured by numbers, is always first. Even the latest Framework for Improving Student Outcomes (FISO), from the Department of Education and Training Education Victoria, bundles “whole school approach to health, wellbeing, inclusion and engagement” down the bottom of their list of eight pre-conditions for school improvement. It is quite literally at the end of the list, and oddly, what looks like wellbeing seems to be more about building the capacity of children to cope with the system rather than policy attempts at transforming it. 

What’s really odd is that for things that should be a race, like vaccination rates, politicians are inclined to think they’re not, and for things that shouldn’t be a race, like learning, they are only ever conceived as precisely that. No one is allowed to fall off the pace, lest, heaven forbid, the NAPLAN numbers turn sour, or the ‘Olympics’ of PISA ratings have us slipping down the medal tally. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, in the last 40 years especially, we’ve turned our schooling system into an individualist zero-sum game of mass-produced insecurity. 

Politicians seem to be more interested in getting our kids vaccinated just to get them back in class, to get them back to their ATARs, and the schools back to their competition for academic achievement and climbing league tables. Yet, COVID-19 is a disaster that doesn’t seem to want to go away. Teachers have been reporting ‘shattering’ work pressure, and things aren’t letting up with so many still under lockdown. Mental health issues amongst our young has doubled during the pandemic. And, as has been pointed out, “children and young people can be particularly vulnerable to the emotional impact  of disasters and they look to the adults around them for reassurance and protection”. This isn’t going to be easy, when there are many adults who are barely coping themselves and seeking help in record numbers. 

Educators are well aware of the wellbeing issues that are on the rise. But they are caught between parent anxiety, the need for someone to keep the kids occupied while parents struggle with working from home, and the structures of schooling and assessment that are unrelenting in its focus. There are a number of ‘elephants in the room’, but parents’ longer term anxiety about their children’s futures can be eased by a fundamental restructuring of education away from the hyper-competition it has become. As some are already suggesting, it’s time to abandon the ATAR factory and start thinking about alternatives. We should have been doing this all along, but the ATAR ‘perfect score’ has long dominated the media imagination. If we can head off these obsessions, just maybe, wellbeing could then be front and centre ahead of other curriculum priorities rather than an afterthought. If we get wellbeing right, we just might find ourselves on the path to the optimal environment for learning rather than the hypercompetitive one that we have.

Dr George Variyan is a lecturer in Master of Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His background includes teaching, learning and leading in schools in Australia and overseas. George’s engagement in research is based on a critically orientated sociology, which explores human agency in the relationship between education and society. Key interests include educational sociology, gender, social justice, and ethics.