As schools in Australia get a new year underway, there is a lot being written and posted about helping children to settle in and have the best start to the academic year and how to make classrooms more accommodating. One part of the school day that often receives less attention is the playground.
The school playground is a place that often divides children into 1 of 2 camps. For many, this is what they go to school for and this is where they thrive! It is the place they can shine on the soccer pitch, prioritise their social activities and / or give their brains a much needed break from the academic demands of the day. But for lots of others, this is the worst time of the day. There are a myriad of reasons for this including
a lack of structure and predictability
a social awareness expected which they don't have
a hierarchy that they can't fathom
sensory stimuli that cause them to be dysregulated rather than rested when they return to the classroom.
Whatever the reason that playtime isn't working for your child and however old they are, it is important to offer them some practical ways to navigate this time better rather than to feel lost on a daily basis. Here are some of my top tips for children who are struggling:
HAVE A PLANNED ACTIVITY
Many children find it easier if they know what they will be doing during a time when nothing has been specifically planned for them. This activity may be visiting the school library, a game they have brought from home that they enjoy and will look forward to playing, a ball from home that is theirs and which they can invite someone to play a game with them. It can also be helpful to enrol them in clubs for some of the break / lunch times during the week if there are any that capture their interest. This allows your child to take back some control about how to spend their time rather than feeling alone or unsure how to fill this time. This in turn can help to limit the anxiety they may be feeling.
LIMIT SENSORY TRIGGERS
For many children, their fight or flight mechanism is very sensitive in the playground. They are on alert with all of their senses for things that they perceive may cause them harm. For most children, they can contain this, but for children who struggle from a sensory perspective ( even in a minor way) the playground can be very confronting. If this is something that affects your child and you can predict what some of the triggers may be eg: noise / sounds of people eating / big crowds, it can be helpful to plan a strategy to combat those ahead of time. This may involve sending your child to school with noise cancelling headphones, arranging with the school for them to sit somewhere less busy during eating times or providing your child ( if allowed) an activity that they can do which will help distract them from their surroundings. These may include fidget toys, putty, a kindle or audio book.
OPEN COMMUNICATION WITH THE SCHOOL
When children and teenagers are struggling in the classroom, we are often very quick to arrange meetings with teachers and school leadership to help the young person do better and achieve their goals. However, often when it comes to the school playground, it doesn't occur to anyone that this time outside of the classroom is also crucial to a child's development and well being. If you think about it, they often spend 1/4 of their school day there! These times are often when the closest friendships are formed and talents are spotted in areas such as music and sport. It is a shame that some people go through their school years with less of these opportunities, simply because they don't have the skills and strategies to navigate the landscape of break time!
Being proactive as parents and teachers to try and help children avoid getting into physical altercations with other children or pursue other forms of destructive behaviour when they can't cope with their environment is a great place to start. Teachers should feel free to bring up how the child does outside the class room during parent / teacher interviews and parents should remember that if their child isn't saying much about that time of day, it may be a sign that all is not well.
Irrespective of the reasons a child struggles in the playground, in my experience, parents and schools working together is the key to change. This moves the focus to trying to make this time a part of the day where all children need to be comfortable and shine and this in turn allows the playground to be viewed as a safe and positive place by all students.