21 March 2023
There’s a lot more to child’s play than fun and games. Helena Robinson, Head of Westbourne, the pre-prep department at Edgbaston High School, Birmingham’s oldest independent day-school for girls aged 2 ½ – 18, explains.
Children are born with a natural impulse to play and as they reach school age, it remains an essential part of their physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development. Today, however, opportunities for child-initiated play are diminishing. Countless studies show that the amount of time dedicated to play in children’s lives has reduced dramatically in just a few generations, with physical and mental health often suffering as a result. Adding further fuel to the fire, the latest figures from the NHS show that the children’s mental health crisis has grown exponentially post-Covid.
At EHS we are acutely aware of these changes and of our responsibility to ensure that play is integrated into school hours. Our curriculum covers the Early Years Foundation Stage guidelines and ensures that as well as structured learning, girls can learn through play both inside and out. In the playground, they spend time playing independently and freely with friends and in the classroom we encourage child directed activities like role play and using continuous provision tuff trays and creative tables that we theme or fill with interesting objects to fire imaginations and stimulate exploratory play.
Whilst at first these activities may seem trivial they provide the building blocks for key skills and attributes that we all need to thrive in life and work as adults. The vast majority of younger children learn kinaesthetically, meaning that they learn more effectively when they are actively and physically engaged, as well as intellectually. And that is exactly what happens when children play: they are having fun whilst embodying or role-playing a particular situation or activity. As well as boosting well-being play allows them to process, learn and hone specific skills, build resilience, empathy, self-confidence, social skills and independence. They also begin to understand how to problem-solve, work with others and regulate or navigate difficult emotions.
At Westbourne, we believe that getting outdoors is just as important. The link between spending time outdoors and improvements in physical health as well as psychological and emotional well-being in children is well documented. Connecting with nature reduces cortisol, the stress hormone that screen time and homework stress can intensify, whilst exposure to sunlight can help with the production of the feel-good hormone, serotonin. Natural daylight and sun also influence levels of melatonin which plays a critical role in a child’s wake-sleep cycle – and we’re all familiar with the sleep-inducing magic of a day outdoors.
Getting outside into the elements adds another dimension to our learning with new ways to develop the girls’ numeracy, language, creative, musical, sporting and scientific skills. We’re lucky to have beautiful and varied outdoor spaces to explore as well as a school allotment and our neighbours the Botanical Gardens. So whatever the weather, we can get outside to help build self-confidence, explore, test boundaries and soak up the natural world around us.
In the playground, children engage in imaginative games with friends, play with building and waffle bricks, get to grips with the climbing frames, socialise in the chatter houses or ride on the cars, scooters and bikes available. The Outdoor Classroom also provides access to a woodland walk, natural area, play house and mud kitchen. Here the children can build dens, climb trees, fly kites, experience team building, make scarecrows, carry out experiments; the list is endless and ever changing. The staff provide carefully thought-out starting points to spark the children’s imaginations and we relish seeing the different interpretations and individual responses we have in return. We want to develop that ‘have a go’ attitude so valuable in future life.
Our aim at Westbourne and in Prep is to nurture happy, well-adjusted children with a love and curiosity for learning that will stay with them for life. Tapping into a child’s biological instinct to play helps lay that foundation. And with the onslaught of technology and over-scheduling of ‘free-time’ leaving many children with less downtime, the need to prioritise and protect their right to play feels more urgent now than ever before.