Time for schools to give short outdoor play multi-breaks a go

In many Nordic countries, the school day is regularly punctuated with short breaks in the school playground. Why not try it here?

Shelves stocked with wellington boots and outdoor shoes ready for use in a Danish primary school. Photograph: Séamie Ó Néill

Shelves stocked with wellington boots and outdoor shoes ready for use in a Danish primary school. Photograph: Séamie Ó Néill


Our health and wellbeing have fast become top priorities as we do everything we can to stay safe from Covid-19. School leaders, teachers and management have done an incredible job in recent weeks to enable children to returnto their educational settings. Let no one underestimate the immense work involved in this task.

As we face into the winter months, our attention is drawn to outdoor play, not only for the its educational benefits but also for the potential reduction of virus risk. In many Nordic countries, the school day is regularly punctuated with short breaks in the school playground. Students spend 50 minutes to one hour participating in formal lessons in the classroom, followed by 15 minutes of free play outdoors. This is repeated throughout the school day, with a longer break of 30 minutes at lunchtime. Children can participate in up to four short breaks per day, along with one long break.

Research shows that outdoor play experiences provide multiple physical and mental benefits for children. These include reduced obesity levels, increased physical activity, improved concentration, and enhanced social skills.

Despite heightened awareness, obesity is a growing concern in Ireland. The incidence of being overweight in young children continues to rise. Children are intrinsically motivated to move when given multiple opportunities for play outdoors. Many children spend more time looking at screens than talking to their parents.

This has led to what has been termed “nature deficit disorder”, which may lead to an increase in shortened attention spans and an increase in childhood depression.

Opportunities for outdoor play has many benefits for learning, including an increased ability to focus and concentrate when children return to the formal classroom. While outdoors, children can engage in a wide variety of experiences that are not available indoors.

Along with physical and cognitive benefits, outdoor play provides rich opportunities for the development of social skills such as communication and collaboration as children negotiate peer interactions and settle minor (and sometimes major!) conflicts. Free play, led by the children themselves, allows them to discover ways to relieve strong emotions and tension.

Holistic development

According to educationalist Friedrich Froebel, a child has an inborn desire for activity which manifests itself in play. Froebel’s interpretation of free play encompasses all the child’s imaginative thoughts and physical movements, using their senses to create and explore their environment.

Outdoor settings provide opportunities for adventurous and challenging play. In contrast to indoor play, the outdoor environment presents open-ended prospects for problem-solving and risk-taking. Open-ended play also offers opportunities for the development of imagination and creativity.

The combination of physical, social and emotional skills is critical to the holistic development of the child. A play break can refresh the mind and ready the child for formal learning in the classroom.

Since the beginning of the lockdown a lot has been learnt about minimising the risk of catching the Covid-19 virus. Being outdoors decreases the chance of getting the virus 19-fold. Applying this theory to the school setting suggests that giving children multiple opportunities to leave the classroom during the day may help decrease the risk of the virus. An empty classroom provides a chance for the classroom to be regularly ventilated.

Risk-aversive perceptions and practices, along with sensitivities about the weather, appear to be important reasons for the lack of opportunities for outdoor play. Cultural differences are important considerations when planning for outdoor play during the school day.

On a visit to a school in Denmark a couple of years ago, I was intrigued to see the whole school decant to the outdoor play area on a freezing day with temperatures of minus 3 degrees Celsius, following 50 minutes of formal classroom learning. It was an unquestioned part of their school culture to do so. All children had access to appropriate clothing, warm coats, hats and gloves. Children transitioned from the classroom to the outdoors in what seemed like a minute or two, picking up their wellingtons on the way.

According to the school principal, it took about three weeks for the youngest pupils to become efficient in this routine. Back in the classroom, the children moved around indoors in thick woolen socks. It would appear that there is resistance in Ireland to spending time outdoors during the school day. It is fair to assume that this resistance is culturally embedded in general perceptions of ‘bad’ weather.

In contrast, the Danish principal believed that it was important for children to have opportunities to run and play in the rain, building their resilience in the process. Children generally enjoy being outside in all types of weather and seasons.

According to the Danish teachers, the physical, cognitive and social benefits of giving children frequent opportunities to play outdoors were worth the effort. It might be the time for Irish schools to give short outdoor play multi-breaks a go as part of the response to making schools as safe as possible in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is important to note that play is not just a means to an end, it also has intrinsic value for children. The fact that children also enjoy it makes the argument even more compelling!

Séamie Ó Néill is a former primary school principal and head of education at Maynooth University Froebel Department of Primary and Early Childhood Education.