Pupil progress is a cornerstone of the modern education system and something against which all schools are judged, both by Ofsted and in academic league tables. When it comes to improving progress, the emphasis is usually on what happens in the classroom, with heads wanting to improve the ways that teachers teach and pupils learn. One piece of the jigsaw often overlooked, however, is what happens outside of the classroom, in the school playground, and how this can play a vital contribution to pupil progress overall. Here we’ll look at the educational value of outdoor play.
The link between outdoor activity and pupil progress
Playground activity is often physical activity and participation in this, especially when it involves aerobic exercise like running, jumping or climbing, can be beneficial for both physical health and academic progress. Indeed, a study by Public Health England (PHE) found evidence that aerobically fit pupils achieve higher academic results.
With many children no longer getting regular exercise at home, a result of cautious parenting and the lure of modern hi-tech gadgetry, it is in the school playground where pupils get the greatest opportunities to be active.
Ideally, pupils need an hour of exercise every day and there are various ways schools can encourage participation, such as through the installation of playground markings for sports like football, netball, tennis and basketball or for stepping games like hopscotch. Playing on climbing equipment is also an enjoyable exercise and excellent for developing physical strength and overall fitness. Enabling children to get involved in these activities during break times, lunchtimes and PE can help increase the fitness that is associated with increased academic achievement.
Problem-solving – a transferable skill
The PHE study also pointed out how the development of problem-solving skills also contributes to pupil progress. A well-equipped playground has the potential to be one of the best resources a school has for giving pupils problems to solve and for providing the freedom to explore solutions and develop those essential skills.
One example of how this can be done is with a traversing wall. While children naturally enjoy the challenge of climbing and getting from one end to the other without falling off, success only comes after they have solved the problems they face. What’s the best way to hold on? How do I get across a wide gap? What’s the best route from start to finish? Similar problem-solving skills are required when using a wide range of different playground apparatus, whether it's figuring out how to stop a sandcastle collapsing, how to complete a Trim Trail obstacle course, how to complete a Tangled rope challenge or even how to sail a pirate ship during role play. Of course, once these skills are developed, they can be transferred to the classroom to aid children in their learning.
Better classroom behaviour
If five minutes of every one hour lesson is wasted through poor behaviour or lack of attention, then between reception and year 6 or between year 7 and year 13, pupils will miss out on the equivalent of 22 weeks of learning – over half an academic year. As any teacher who has undertaken intervention work with borderline children will know, those 22 weeks are invaluable when it comes to getting children to the level needed to achieve or exceed their targets. Improving classroom behaviour is, therefore, one way to help pupils make progress.
Indeed, the link between physical activity and improved, whole-school behaviour is a key point raised in the PHE study. Its findings show that taking part improves both relationships between pupils and their social behaviour. This, in turn, reduces classroom disruption and increases the amount of time that students have to learn and progress.
Again, the opportunities to participate in physical activity lie mainly in the playground where children can participate at intervals throughout the day: before school commences, at break and at lunch. The challenge is in motivating pupils to take part, but with the right climbing, sports or roleplay equipment available for them, they are much more likely to become active.
All schools want their pupils to make excellent progress, indeed their futures may depend upon it. Progress is also one of the key metrics through which judgements are made, both for the school as a whole and for the individuals who work within it. What the PHE study reveals is that there is a direct link between outdoor play and academic progress which comes from increased physical activity, problem-solving and improved behaviour. For pupils to benefit, however, schools need to make sure that playgrounds offer the opportunities to participate and the equipment that will motivate them to do so.
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