Hard at play: Teaching children a lost art

Some schoolchildren no longer know how to play. Empathy stimulation is key

When Regina Doheny became principal of a boys primary school in Co Carlow, she noticed something unsettling about the yard.

It wasn’t that the tarmac needed repairing, the grass cutting or even that the white lines needed a lick of paint.

What she noticed was that the students were struggling with one key element at break time – play.

In the all-boys national school, the younger students “didn’t have the skills to play”, says Doheny, principal of Scoil Phádraig Naofa, Tullow, Co Carlow.


“I decided to do some digging around,”she says. In her search for a solution she came across Playworks.

The programme, which originated in the US, seeks to create an inclusive environment for play in schools.

The idea is that kids lead their own games and resolve their own conflicts, while also increasing their physical activity.

The programme also targets the mental wellbeing of the children with the promise of benefits that – in theory, at least – spread far beyond the boundaries of the playground.

Research appears to back up the claims. A study published by Stanford University found that Playworks "had a positive impact on the students' physical activity during recess" and also noted that "teachers reported better behaviour at recess and readiness for class".

Doheny captures the impact of the programme on her school with just a single world: “Transformative.”

It's a view echoed by Paul Knox, who introduced the programme to Castaheany Educate Together national school in Dublin over three years ago.


“The children are more active in the yard and more willing to problem solve independently,” says Knox.

For example, the children use “rock-paper-scissors” to solve any disagreements.

Knox says he saw how this brought inclusivity to the yard as “the kid with the stronger personality could no longer push their way around”.

The introduction of Playworks has rubbed off on other areas of school life, he says. “There is an increased atmosphere of positivity throughout the school. The children come back from yard ready to work and as a result there has been an increase in teaching and learning,” Knox adds.

This is part of a much broader trend among schools of tapping into proven social innovations to benefit children and wider society.

In this case, the programme was introduced to Ireland by Ashoka Ireland*. Change-X, a not-for-profit start-up whose website gives users the chance to set up community-based projects from a menu of innovations from across the world, put Playworks on its platform*.

Paul O’Hara, founder of Change-X, was surprised by the demand for Playworks. “It was the most popular programme on Change-X last year,” he says. “It solved a lot of problems that I didn’t anticipate and that’s why there is such demand for it.”

O’Hara feels a combination of factors – from insurance-led restrictions to self-esteem issues – means “kids have unlearned how to play”.

The popularity of the programme spread quickly by word-of-mouth, but what really kicked it off was someone put it into an email on the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN).

Following this, a number of principals signed up to Change-X and registered for training.

Social issues

Playworks is just one of many initiatives available to schools. The solution-driven enterprise offers a platform, for those who are interested, to address social issues through education.

“We just wanted to put [ideas] in one place so it was easy for people to find them and start them if they thought they were relevant for their own communities,” says O’Hara.

The ease of setting up Playworks appealed to Doheny. Following a day’s training for the staff, they had it “up and running in no length of time”.

It is organised by one of the school's special needs assistants, Olivia Nolan, on a daily basis.

When attempting to create awareness for these social initiatives in schools, O’Hara favoured a bottom-up approach. “In the early days we tried to engage with the Department of Education but we quickly realised it was far more effective to go straight to the teachers. We decided to go to where the energy was. We felt this was a more organic way to affect change,” he says.

Change-X hopes to create increased social value by raising social awareness in individual communities and O’Hara believes schools have a key role to play here. “Giving children a general awareness of the social issues around them should be part of any child’s education.”

O’Hara feels it is unfair to expect children to respond to a problem unless they have empathy for it. He views empathy as critical skill and one that should be taught from a young age.

“The absence of empathy is the root cause of so many problems. I thought that if you could crack that nut you could crack an awful lot of other things,” he says.

It’s one reason why another social innovation, Roots of Empathy, is sweeping through Irish classrooms.

Pilot programme

This started off as a pilot project a few years to promote empathy and understanding among schoolchildren, but has now spread to dozens of schools

Schools are not expected to address every social issue that arises but the “ones that are in any way tied to the development of the child are the obvious ones for schools to take the lead on,” says O’Hara.

He acknowledges the pressure and the demands an already bulging curriculum places on schools.

Ultimately, he says, it’s up to the educators to decide what they think is important.

“Nothing is pushed down the throats of anybody,” says O’Hara.

There has been a broader shift towards recognising the importance of social innovations across the wider education system.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton recently launched a programme developed by Young Social Innovators, which aims to be in half of all secondary schools by 2020.

Changemaker schools, an initiative run by Ashoka, a not-for-profit network of social entrepreneurs, is also helping to recognise and promote schools which are using new ways of fostering so-called 21st-century skills – empathy, creativity, teamwork and leadership – among students.

As far as Change-X is concerned, there is a huge, untapped demand for these supports. “When we started out we were getting zero to one applications a week. We have had 900 applications in the last six weeks, which is pretty amazing,” he says.

Panel: Social innovation in the classroom: Some of the projects taking root in schools across the State

Coder Dojo

A free volunteer-based coding club for children aged from seven to 17. There are now more than 100 dojos up and running in communities around Ireland.

The Way We Were

A living history initiative that involves older people exhibiting artefacts from earlier times and explaining to primary school pupils how they are used.

Peace First

This is a school-based curriculum that teaches children to work with others to resolve conflicts, solve community problems, communicate ideas effectively, and form positive social relationships. The programme was developed in 1992 in conjunction with Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Peace First” is available online and is free.

Generation Citizen

This works to ensure that every student receives an effective action civics education, providing them with the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in democracy as active citizens


This secondary school programme aims to educate students to understand autism better. Roots of Empathy

An evidence-based classroom programme that has reduced levels of aggression and bullying among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy.

Visitchangex.org to register your interest for any of these programmes or to start a new idea in your community

*This article was edited at 4.48pm on February 28th, 2016