Give Us A Break

What’s the point of having a breaktime?

Is it to let off some steam? socialise? get some fresh air? bully and intimidate?

Most children look forward to a breaktime but I’ve taught plenty of children who found them uncomfortable experiences with not much to do. Teachers also hate being ‘on duty’.

Breaktimes break time. In fact they eat time and hijack teaching and learning gobbling up more minutes than its allocated slot. By the time children have lined up and break time ‘incidents’ have been dealt with, the next lesson has already been curtailed and short-changed.

Lunchtimes can be a nightmare because you can guarantee that ‘something will have happened’. No, break times are more trouble than they are worth. Little wonder that the vast majority of secondary schools have ditched afternoon breaks.

Well, that’s one way of looking at things….but there is some truth in there.

Breaks can be a breaking point for some schools and shortening the time spent outside has been the way to go.

I won’t forget when a primary school I was working at scrapped the afternoon breaktime – most staff rejoiced because it meant they didn’t have to do another duty and there would be more time for teaching. The children weren’t consulted and felt like they were being punished. Within a year, afternoon breaks were back on the menu when a new Head took over horrified that children weren’t getting the chance for some afternoon fresh air.

Breaking Point

Without regular breaktimes through the day, life at school can get hairy. It can also make children (and staff) lethargic and tetchy. It seems to me we don’t know what to do for the best and this can be dependent on the whims of senior management.

The point of breaktime should be to recharge and refresh and provide opportunities for children to exercise and play. Breaktimes are just about the only unstructured time children have in school which is crucial for supporting concentration and giving them opportunities to develop vital social skills.

For some children, breaks are the best part of the day because they can run free and be themselves in ways they can’t in class. Many schools organise activities during break times which can be popular but these can still be too structured and so actually prevent children from learning social skills in ways that unstructured interactions and play naturally develops.

A break from what’s happening in class gives children a chance to socialise and be with their friends, make new friends, fall out and learn how to resolve arguments. They are the chance to doing something different and try an extracurricular activity. All these experiences can help children communicate more effectively as part of groups and to problem-solve and build-up positivity and resilience.

How do we know this?  Two surveys conducted by Professor Peter Blatchford and Dr Ed Baines found that break times are a key feature of school life and can impact positively and negatively on social and learning outcomes. Funded by the Nuffield foundation, they have been involved in a follow-up survey which will provide an analysis of trends in break and lunch times over 26 years.

You can find out more about their work and the groundbreaking research project BaSisS (Breaktime and Social Life in Schools) and take part in the national survey yourself by clicking here.

Scheduling a mid-morning break, a lunchtime break and an afternoon break isn’t what some schools do – some take frequent pit stops.

In Finland, children normally get to take a 15 minute break for every 45 minutes of teaching. This break from the class normally means heading straight outside. Long teaching and learning sessions aren’t actually good for anyone because we all need to distract our brains, give our brains rest time – it gives us fresh perspectives and new focus. This is what Anthony Pellegrini found in his book Recess: Its Role in Education and Development. His research showed that pupils were always more attentive after a break than before.

And adults need to back-off too. Children need supervising for sure but they also need the freedom to play rather than walk in the shadows of those on duty – they need to develop social skills with their friends. Sometimes adults supervising can join in the games and ‘play’ but by doing so they alter the social dynamics.

As you head back to school, think about what role breaktimes play and how they influence what happens in class.

School policy should be based on the best theory and empirical evidence available and everything is telling us that we need more breaks not less.

As Pellegrini and Bohn (2005) note

It is common for schools and politicians to extol Asian educational practices; they should also consider Asian recess practices in the context of an extended school day and school year. For example, extending the American school day and school year, with more frequent recess periods, might positively affect children’s cognitive performance and social competence, while simultaneously providing parents with badly needed child care for more extended periods.

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