If the purpose of education is Life! then shouldn’t outdoor play be part of it?

What is the purpose of education? This is the question posed by the Purpose/Ed campaign who are gathering #500words from different bloggers every working day in May.

I wanted to contribute from Love Outdoor Play because outdoor play has a key role to play in education, not just in the early years, but throughout school. Not just as a small break between classes, but as an integral and often overlooked part of the school day for all children and young people.

Wellesley Primary School

What is the purpose of education? Surely to prepare us for life! I don’t just mean work – though that is important – but for life in all its richness. Life as a child, a young person, an adult. Life as part of a family, and as part of a community.

Yes, schooling should build key skills such as reading, writing and maths. We should know why Mendel bred peas, be able to get by in French, have a passing acquaintance with quadratic equations. But school alone cannot teach us everything  we need for work  let alone for life.

Based on my experience to date and a fairly erratic reading list*, I’d like to suggest that the real purpose of education, in a nutshell, is to help us:

  • To find out who we really are – give us opportunities to develop the character and capabilities we need at the time and throughout our life, to develop the resilience to deal with life’s knockbacks and the patience to strive;
  • To learn how to understand other people – to develop friendships, to get along with people, to deal with bullies and arguments, to collaborate and be part of communities; and
  • To discover what inspires us – building a thirst for understanding, and giving us the skills to satisfy that thirst.

These are not skills and attributes we can fully develop in a classroom. They are, however, capabilities we develop when playing outside.

When the choirmaster Gareth Malone last year was challenged to increase the literacy skills of a group of lacklustre Yr 5 & 6 boys (in his ‘extraordinary school for boys’), he didn’t sit them down to do intensive reading and phonics. He had them climbing trees and playing outdoors and really engaging with who they were physically until their ideas were brimming over.

Their reading ages jumped dramatically in just a few weeks.

Time to play – before and after school and in the breaks in between – are the ‘liminal spaces’ of schooling. They are neither home nor school, belonging to children, and yet not quite theirs to control. These are the spaces and places where I believe we achieve much of our real education.

They provide the warp to the weft of schooling.

Just listen to what the teachers say in this video from Children’s Scrapstore Playpods:

And yet Professor Peter Blatchford’s research into playtimes and breaks over the last twenty years shows that despite clear evidence of the value of playtimes as part of a child or young person’s learning (and enjoyment of school), they are shrinking fast. Even very young children rarely get the one-and-a–half hour lunch breaks that were common in the 70s and 80s, and secondary pupils have barely any free time between lessons. The situation is often even worse in the United States where it is estimated 50% of children have no recess at all.

Beacon Rise Primary

If we want children and young people to be inspired by their schooling, to really get an education, then take a look at an adventure playground. Think back to the wild play of your own childhood. Be inspired by schools that have taken the leap and put some of that wildness into their playtimes. Schools like Beacon Rise and Wellesley Primary School in South Gloucestershire and Gawthorpe Community Primary School in West Yorkshire, where they are seeing the difference it makes to children’s confidence, creativity and ‘readiness to learn’.

The purpose of education is far more than schooling, it has to meet the needs of the whole child and young person.

And if we agree with that, then schools need to champion freedom to play.

*suggested reading…

In compiling this post I have been influenced by the usual educational theorists such as Piaget and Vygotsky, and more recently by  Sir Ken Robinson, and Sue Palmer, as well as the philosophers Locke, Hume and Amiyata Sen.

But for the teachers and educationalists out there can I strongly recommend exploring the world of play theory? I’ll practically guarantee it wasn’t in your teaching qualification, but that you’ll be asking ‘why not??!!’ before you get to the end.

Reports such as Best Play and the research collected in the comprehensive literature review Play for a Change and more recently World Without Play give the evidence base. Play thinkers such as Bob Hughes, Tim Gill, Michael Follett and Wendy Russell (amongst many others) will help you view the world you thought you knew from a completely different angle. Enjoy!

16 Responses to “If the purpose of education is Life! then shouldn’t outdoor play be part of it?”
  1. play and other things says:

    Reblogged this on Play and Other Things.

  2. Cath Prisk says:

    Reblogged to http://outdoorpeople.org.uk/blog/. Seemed appropriate given upcoming political shenanigans…

  3. Sophie says:

    What year was this punished?
    Many Thanks

  4. plexity says:

    I like you three starred points Cath – covers most of it, for me. I would add a fourth if I may:

    ~• to find their ‘vocation’ the thing they want to contribute to the world, and the means to be able to make that contribution.

    We all need to make a living as well as write operas.

    (Note that I’m carefully avoiding using the word’ passion’ and the idea of ‘being on a journey with highs and lows’, and I’d like to keep it that way, thanks)

    The key word is ‘contribute’ and my ‘star’ is a bit more than just ‘get a good job’

    Many people do a rubbish job to subsidise what is disparaged as a hobby by others. The offspring of the rich often struggle to find something they really want to do, because they don’t need to work.

    Yes my ‘star’ overlaps a bit with aspects of your three, and we could debate this for ages. I’ll leave that to academics and research wonks, like the lovely people at DFS who boiled down children’s hopes and dreams into the sticky gunk that is the ECM quartet. Enjoy and Achieve? Pah! You are aware that you are sort of reinventing the ECM consultation in a way, hopefully a better way, aren’t you?

    The key thing I’m wanting to add to your list is this:

    Humans are social creatures, every human wants to make a contribution.

    That’s key in education, playwork, work with the unemployed, the elderly, etcetera. We all want to make a contribution. Sitting on your arse is a despairing and rubbish replacement for making a contribution to the world, be that writing symphonies, raising children, tidying canal banks or selling really healthy affordable snacks. Nobody settles for watching daytime telly with a hangover unless all the other alternatives for spending their time on earth have been taken from them by whatever means – bad luck, their own stupidity, accident of birth or calamity. Everybody starts out wanting to make a contribution, some have the stuffing knocked out of them along the way, but everybody wants to make a contribution.

    Good question Cath, I enjoyed making that sermon.

  5. Cath Prisk says:

    Oh wow thank you!! That’s fantastic thank you! Now we’ll have to whittle down our favourite blogs to pass the award on to… What a great idea.

  6. homemadekids says:

    I think this blog is great, so have given it a Liebster Award to share, see here http://aroundbritainnoplane.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/blogs-that-deserve-awards.html

  7. I’m with you there about the need to get education outdoors. Too many young mums seem nervous of letting the children get sunshine!

  8. Brilliant Cath – I think we have more leeway in Scotland with our ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ but its still a scandal that the treasure trove of play and play theory is largely unopened by our educational world. I reckon that most of the skills I use in my professional life now were learned in the playground. For some inspiration from 3 Scottish schools that are exploring the role of play in schools, have a look at

    We’re organising a tour of these schools on 30th Aug – details here:


  9. Doug Belshaw says:

    Wonderful, Cath, thanks for the contribution! As the parent of a very energetic five year-old boy I’m absolutely with you about the balance between the mental and the physical. They’re symbiotic, aren’t they?

  10. Great post, Cath! Love it! I remember this campaign from a while ago but to my shame had forgotten all about it – thanks for the reminder and for a lively, persuasive argument for play in schools.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] was first published on the Love Outdoor Play blog and the Purpose/Ed Campaign site on May 15th […]

  2. […] independence, curiosity, magical experience, connection, confidence, enthusiasm, optimism, preparation … and to the seemingly over-arching theme of  helping people become what they are capable […]

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