Let's give our state schools some prizes for putting play at the heart of learning

Francis Gilbert's picture
Last night, I attended my school's prize-giving; the longer I stay at the school the more significant the event becomes for me. I was moved that pupils I had taught as 11-year-olds in Year 7 were now grown adults, returning to collect prizes that they had earned in the last year of their school life in Year 13. While their results were all very good -- as you would expect -- I was struck talking to them in the drinks reception before the ceremony that it was the inner confidence and passion that their teachers had given them that was crucial thing they seemed to appreciate; their eyes were lit by the fires of enthusiasm that their teachers had kindled. I have seen the same thing in many schools I have visited recently in my role as a journalist, researcher and guest speaker.

It made me think that there is something truly magical about state schools: they are places where many pupils learn to be motivated to "live their lives" in the spirit of "serious play". Because state school teachers are well-trained, they encourage pupils to see learning as a game and as a playful activity; this breeds an inherent sense of joy in the nature of learning.

My school is a Specialist Sports' College and has advocated the importance of competitive sports and sports generally for all its pupils. Sadly, because sports' funding is being axed, we are going to suffer a great deal next year and are currently faced with the horrific possibility of some amazing teachers being made redundant. The wonderful "playfulness" that the sports' college status has brought us may well be severely curtailed next year. I think it's time that the powers-that-be recognised the absolute importance of play and its key role in motivating our learners: we need prizes to be given to the thousands of great state schools that do this day-in-day-out. We need to celebrate this vital issue much more than we do because without it, our pupils wouldn't see the point in learning anything at all.
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Andrew Old's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 11:51

If you wanted to sum up what is wrong with so many state schools and why parents will fight to keep their kids out out of them, then the idea that letting kids play in order to motivate them is better than expecting them to learn for its own sake is a pretty good way to do it.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 14:15

I really don't think Francis was suggesting that pupils should just be left to play without serious teaching as well. Anyone who knows about his school, and its results, will realise that academic achievement is as important as enjoyment and fun. One of the worst aspects of any debate or discussion about schools these days - and Gove/the Tories are falling straight into the same trap as their predecessors - is that everything is reduced to targets, tests, exam results, and new sets of boxes to tick. These forms of accountability do matter but a real education demands much more than simply drilling kids to pass exams.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 13:18

I am not suggesting that we "let children play", I am saying that "play" needs to be put at the heart of the curriculum. I've noticed as a teacher that learning-directed games definitely motivate children to learn more than assuming that they are "empty vessels" needing to be filled with knowledge. For example, children learn Shakespeare far better when they're acting it out, doing role-plays, than just being told what Shakespeare means. They discover for themselves. This isn't "letting children play", this is good pedagogy. Last year, I gained some of my best results for A Level precisely because I made my lessons more "play-centred"; I used many more quizzes, sequencing, cloze and prediction exercises, role-plays, debates and focussed presentations. The students learnt more than if I'd simply read out of a text book or delivered a lecture.

Andrew Old's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 13:49

I agree that children are more motivated to play games than work hard. Except, of course, for the ones who want to learn. Most of what you describe for A-level isn't play at all, so I don't really object. If all you mean is interactivity and variety, so be it.

But teaching lessons according to what children will enjoy is never going to be as effective as teaching them according to what they need to learn and if state schools are going to assume that children have to be motivated by fun to learn then, as I said, you are simply creating a good reason for parents to avoid state schools.

Cath Prisk's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 15:26

There is a growing amount of research both here and overseas (especially the US & Sweden) that shows that children learn better in class if they have had a decent playtime. Time to develop friendships, make up their own games up, to run around and let off steam. Schools that have scrapstore playpods - so loads of loose parts to play with for every child, and a whole school play policy that respects their playtime and takes a risk-benefit approach - have reported huge improvements in creativity, concentration, and behaviour. At the same time bullying incidents have dropped and reported accidents have fallen. Even lunchtime supervisors are reporting enjoying their time more! The self confidence engendered in children who have fun, busy playtimes is wonderful. There is an amazing video of this on you tube & scrapstore playpod's site. (http://www.childrensscrapstore.co.uk/Projects.htm)

And yet Peter Blatchford's long term research at the Institute of Education on the value of playtime shows a sharp decline in the time and space devoted to children's free time. Afternoon break is extinct almost everywhere. Lunchtimes are often down to half an hour. Common sense - and adult working time directives - should tell us this isn't enough to encourage effective learning when in class. Sir Ken Robinson has a lot to say on this too...

As a teacher and later a Deputy head in a children's centre I kind of knew instinctively that play was intrinsically part of the learning process - both in class as play-based-learning and good playtimes - but it's when I learned about play theory and professional playwork practice that I came to really understand what both Piaget and Vygotsky were on about...

Great post, and I hope you and all those that agree with you will come over to www.playengland.org.uk and sign up to our Manifesto for Children's Play and email if you'd like to join our growing Play in Schools Network. You can also download a recently published briefing on the value of playtime from the Children's Play Information Service (http://www.ncb.org.uk/cpis/resources/factsheets.aspx).

Cath Prisk
Assistant Director
Play England

Andrew Old's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 16:06

It's easy to win an argument by painting anyone who disagrees as taking the most extreme posisble position. I am not arguing for nothing but lectures, drilling and exam preparation. I am not suggesting that Francis has given up on tthe idea of kids learning completely.

However, we have "play" being prioritised over work, and teaching methods being judged by their effect on motivation rather than by the extent to which they give the opportunity to learn.

At the very least I hope that it is understood why some people wouldn't want this for thier children and why they might object to being forced into schools where such ideas are the norm.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 17:11

I have spent most of the past ten years as chair of governors at two schools - one primary and one secondary - as well as being a parent in three state schools. In that time I have never seen "play" being prioritised over work or teaching methods being judged by their effect on motivation rather than the extent to which they give the opportunity to learn - a cursory look at the current Ofsted evaluation schedule would make that perfectly clear. The focus is on teaching and learning. Schools which fail to prove they do both effectively are likely to be judged unsatisfactory which, according to the most recent Chief Inspector's Report, most aren't.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 19:26

I suppose what I was reaching towards in this post was the notion that learning and play are inextricably intertwined. It's not a question of play being prioritised over work, it's more than play and work walk hand-in-hand in the best lessons; there's a sense of joy about learning and the learning is all the stronger for it. Learning really happens when children see it as an incredible game; they try harder because they love what they're doing. You only have to hear the great scientists and artists talking to realise that they see work and play as inextricably linked. Indeed, Wittgenstein, the philosopher, ultimately saw the entire fabric of our language and society as a form of play. His conception of language as being a complex tapestry of games shows how play is at very heart of being human. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language-game

Lessons in the state sector are always structured around learning objectives; there's always direction to what we're doing. As a teacher, once I know what my learning bjectives are, I will look for ways in which the imparting of those objectives can be brought to life by "play" or relevant "games". Role plays, competitions, quizzes, board games, verbal games like "word tennis" and hangman, cloze and sequencing exercises are all forms of "play" in my view; seeing them as purely mechanical exercises can deaden their effect.

I couldn't agree more with Cath about the importance of developing proper "play-times" in schools can't be over-emphasized. As she points out, key theorists have shown how important it is in fostering socialisation and creativity.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 19:35

Yes, I am definitely signing up for your Manifesto for Children's Play. The relevant URL is here:

I really feel this manifesto ties in very strongly with what the Local Schools Network stands for: supporting local neighbourhoods and schools to bring the joy of play and learning into children's lives. It reminds me of that great Cat Stevens' song "Where Do The Children Play?"

These are the important sentences on the website to give you a flavour

"We are asking the government, MPs, councillors - as well as individuals and organisations - to make three simple pledges for all children and young people to have the freedom and space to play enjoyed by previous generations:
1. To make all residential neighbourhoods child-friendly places where children can play outside
2. To give all children the time and opportunity to play throughout childhood
3. To give all children somewhere to play - in freedom and safety - after school and in the holidays
Show your support
You can take action now by endorsing the Manifesto for children's play."


Raeki's picture
Sat, 18/12/2010 - 19:43

Agree with Francis and understand this to be true about my four children's learning and also about my highest achieving moments both at school and now in work. 'Love what you do and you'll never work another day in your life' holds true for pupils and students of every age. Engendering a true love of learning is more important than any subject-specific fact list. I am pleased to be a school-commissioner in the state sector, and delighted that my children are being educated in their local school.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 19/12/2010 - 06:50


You appear to be agreeing with me that Francis is wrong about this.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 19/12/2010 - 07:08


It's a lovely idea that play and learning are "inextricably intertwined". In much the same way I'd like to believe that, say, ironing and watching the television, or pottery and making love, are inextricably intertwined.

However, there's no getting away from the fact that these are pairs of completely different activities with completely different aims. There can be no pretence that to do one is to do the other and while there might be imaginative ways to combine seemingly unconnected activities, it is unlikely that both can be done to their full extent if they are always to be done together. To suggest that learning can always be fun would be absurd. To suggest that cloze passages are a form of play is ridiculous. And, as I said, if you want to adopt notions such as this I can't help but believe you strengthen the case for school choice. Why should parents who don't believe there children should be playing in lessons have it forced on them?

Finally, how on earth does anybody show whether playtime fosters socialisation and creativity? Or are we simply assuming that as children often socialise or use their imagination in play, then all playtime, even just kicking a football about for 20 minutes, is making a substantive contribution to developing these?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 19/12/2010 - 10:09

Thanks for your impassioned response, Andrew. I think we're having an important debate here. I suppose ultimately our definitions of "play" may be different. I have found that pupils like "cloze" activities (fill-in-the-blanks essentially!) because of its playfulness nature: it's a form of a guessing game, where pupils have to put a suitable word in the blank. It can be an educationally useless game without it being directed, but if you're looking at say, Shakespeare's deployment of adjectives in a passage, blanking them out and asking pupils to fill in the gaps can be very educational, particularly when they compare their ideas with Shakespeare's. I present such activities as games because it motivates pupils; maybe it isn't a game but that's how I sell it. There's a great deal of evidence that this is how the human brain learns things by "constructing" meanings rather than being like "tabula rasas" and having meanings imposed upon them; it's a constructionist view of learning. Perhaps Vygotsky is the most notable exponent of it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vygotsky. Activities which foster active participation such as guessing games like sequencing and cloze are much more effective than being teacher-led lectures; that is not to say that lectures at certain points are not worth while. I guess it's all about variety.

There are wider issues about how we assess the effectiveness of "playtimes": I am going to think about this one because it's a good point. My personal experience is that playtimes are very important for children if they are taken seriously by a school. I generally sort out behavioural problems in the playtimes; the most effective way of dealing with poorly behaved children is talking to them during breaks, getting to know them, building relationships.

Retrospectively, I can understand Fiona's hesitancy about my post because I am not sure that she's that keen that state schools should be presented as places where it's a continual playtime! This wasn't my intention actually; I just wanted to show that state schools are effective because they do think very seriously about making learning intrinsically enjoyable. She may feel differently.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 19/12/2010 - 18:01


I'm glad we seem to be closer to agreement. If you want to understand why I am deeply sceptical about the elevation of "play" as an academic aim, I would recommend looking into the story of William Tyndale school which became a national scandal because formal teaching appeared to have been replaced with play.

More generally, I think it is impossible to debate teaching methods as if anything short of a formal lecture can be presented as "play". I don't think anyone, not even Michael Gove, would seek to suggest that teaching should leave students completely passive and uninvolved.

With regard to break times more generally, I find breaks between lessons very useful, however, when I have worked at schools with long lunches (i.e. a full hour) it did tend to be noticeable that most bad behaviour around the school site ocurred in the second half of the hour, after they had eaten, played or socialised a bit, and then had long enough to get bored. I am quite sympathetic to schools who limit lunches to somewhere in the 30-45 minute range.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 19/12/2010 - 18:53

Yes, I think you're right that I am probably stretching the definition of "play" a bit, perhaps a better way of putting it is "playfulness" should be an integral part of curriculum planning. It's back to an old point I've made about trying to make a subject enjoyable...

On the playtime issue, I found this paper interesting in its defence of extended playtimes, basically saying it's a very important thing:

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 06:25

Just imagining the nightmare of having to teach a curriculum which somebody has designed with playfulness in mind.

With regard to that factsheet, it seems to be blurring the boundaries between research and opinion.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 08:35

I think most teachers ultimately take a delight in learning, which is what I mean by "playfulness"; timetablers I know have taken great pride suffusing the curriculum with real variety and choice.

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