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Design your playground to manage behaviour

Design your playground to manage behaviour

Main Subject: CPD

Subject: Outdoor learning

Author: -

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Do your school’s breaktimes resemble the Wild West? Rein in the chaos with a whole-school behaviour plan and some creative playground design, says Sam Flatman...

When we consider behaviour management, 99 per cent of the time we’re talking about what’s going on in the classroom. But as a specialist in school playgrounds, I’m often asked about behaviour management techniques for playtime and lunch breaks. Making breaktimes run smoothly is no easy task, but with the right strategies it can be done.

Without proper measures in place, it’s unlikely that attempts at behaviour management on the playground will be effective. Every member of staff needs to be on the same page in order to tackle a problem, and for that to happen, a planning session between teachers and lunchtime supervisors is vital. By the way, I might add now that, in my experience, if lunchtime supervisors are asked to give up their own unpaid time for discussing and planning outdoor behaviour management, you won’t get very far.

Natural behaviour

The first step to take is action research. The purpose of this is to reflect on behavioural issues and consider how the current system can be improved. This can be done through an initial questionnaire, and by slightly adjusting the questions you can even get some of the children involved. Don’t underestimate what astute young learners can bring to the table. Alternatively, this research could be conducted in a group sharing session. The questions could take a basic format, along the lines of the following:

• ‘What is working well in the playground, and why?’ (Environment, seating, play, recreation.)
• ‘What’s not working well? (Brainstorm a list of problem behaviours), and
• ‘What are the current consequences to problematic behaviour on the playground? How effective are they?’

From here, it’s important to look at the frequency and severity of the problem behaviours by identifying mild to serious behaviours and rare to frequent behaviours. This process will result in a kind of ‘behaviour scale,’ showing which are deemed to be the most and least disruptive. Anyone who has worked in a school will know that the list will almost certainly include swearing, disputes and teasing, unsafe play or fighting, overaggressive play and litter.

State of play

The next step is to consider consequences for these behaviours and rule enforcement strategies. For an idea of where to start, Ed Whittaker has an excellent plan of action in his articles on classroom management (find them here: tinyurl.com/TPWhittaker). While many schools plod along with staff trying their best to effectively manage unruly students outdoors in whatever way possible, it makes much more sense to work on a uniform approach. Establish a clear set of ground rules and rewards for students by discussing different approaches and deciding on which ones fit the bill. This can be developed through these questions such as, ‘Faced with behaviour ‘X’, what is the best or most appropriate action to take first, second, third and so on?’ and ‘What backup can we organise if we meet flagrant defiance or hostility? (e.g. staff support, timeout areas in the playground, follow-through procedures and consequences)’.

With these strategies in place, following through on the process will be much more straightforward for playtime and lunchtime supervisors. However, it’s worth noting that a playground that lacks stimulation is more likely to engender behaviour difficulties. While staff can begin following a strategy for dealing with behaviour immediately, in the long-term schools need to look at ways to improve the outdoor environment as a way to boost positive behaviour and interactions.

Let’s think about it: on the one hand you’ve got a concrete playground, there are little to no markings and a sports field which the children aren’t allowed to play on in the wet and muddy winter months. On the other hand, imagine an outdoor space with coloured lines designating play areas, lots of trees and plants, and nature gardens providing a habitat for local wildlife. Which environment would you prefer?

When children find themselves in a stoic, concrete outdoor environment this negatively affects their behaviour. A study on mental capital and wellbeing showed that poorly designed environments can even reinforce depression. Children need to be stimulated, and the outside world offers a fantastic space for this when utilised correctly. This isn’t to say that a school playground will be one of these two extremes, but that every school should consider what areas are working well, and why, and which could benefit from improvement, and how.

Beautifying the grounds can create a more positive space, promoting improved behaviour. This isn’t simply about aesthetics: if children feel that the space they are in is cared for and respected, they will act in a way that is caring and respectful. And it doesn’t need to be a big and expensive project either, it can just mean something as simple as giving run-down areas a lick of paint. You can even make it part of a class project or an outdoor science lessons. Good ways to do this include growing plants, caring for nature areas and running litter picking groups.

Watch this space

Every learner is different, so it’s essential to have a variety of options to suit them outdoors. As well as zoning areas for ball games and other sports, quiet spots and nature areas can be a good idea for children who prefer calmer activities. Improved play equipment in certain places can also be engaging for students and encourage them to be active during breaktimes. Providing seating at the edge of play areas is a good way to encourage children to take a breather, while circular seating accommodates groups who want to chat.

Some schools may also see a positive impact on behaviour by introducing games, or even play leaders. While it’s important to have free and unstructured playtime, having optional teacher or student-led games can increase engagement on the playground and subsequently improve behaviour. Play leader schemes also offer a great way for older and more mature students to develop leadership skills and strengthen relationships with their peers. However, many teachers have commented that supervision is critical to ensuring the success of these schemes.

On a similar note, a government report noted that buddy schemes, as well as peer-mentoring and peer-listening schemes, have a positive effect in schools. Peer schemes engender a sense of responsibility and belonging and are often used in conjunction with other anti-bullying measures.

Every school is unique, and will require different adjustments to make their whole-school management plan for playtime behaviour work. To successfully implement strategies it’s essential to have planning and discussion between teachers, breaktime supervisors and pupils. Schools must remember that the outdoor environment plays an extremely important role in student behaviour, and look to make positive changes here for the wellbeing of both children and teachers.

Danger zone

Identifying problem areas should be easy. They will often be anywhere that’s out of bounds, anywhere unsafe and non-ball play areas. Sometimes changes are as simple as planting a flowerbed or creating coloured zones, while in other instances transforming the purpose of a space may require a little more thought and work. Here’s a quick summary of playground environment aspects that have helped other schools improve their outdoor space to manage behaviour:

• Beautifying the grounds
• Improving play equipment
• Zoning
• Seating
• Teaching games
• Joining in games
• Teaching older pupils to be play leaders
• Staggering playtimes by year group

About the author

Sam Flatman is an educational consultant for Pentagon Sport (pentagonsport.co.uk). Pentagon has worked with over 5,000 settings to create innovative playgrounds and learning environments for young students.

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