Positive playgrounds and creating a behaviour management plan

Sam Flatman

Sam Flatman is Sales & Marketing Director for Pentagon Sport. Pentagon have worked with over 5000 settings to create innovative playgrounds and learning environments for young students. Sam has been designing playgrounds for the past 10 years and has a passion for outdoor education. He believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, which can be integrated into the school curriculum. Sam is currently based in Bristol with his two sons.

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Behaviour management is something that applies to the playground just as much as it does the classroom. By implementing the correct behaviour management techniques, playtimes and lunch breaks can run smoothly, leading to positive learning outcomes.

"Lunchtime supervisors, teachers and students alike should all know the consequences of negative behaviour."

What happens on the playground affects how children feel, think and behave in the classroom. But simply allowing children to run off the moment that the bell has rung is unlikely to produce satisfactory results. Instead, teachers and lunchtime supervisors need to work together to identify problem behaviours and enforce effective consequences.

Step one is always research. Get teachers and supervisors together and identify the most problematic and disruptive behaviours through a questionnaire. Don’t forget to involve the children too. Simply by getting them in on the process you are encouraging them to both reflect on their playtime behaviour and also feel like valued members of the school community. You might also gain insights that adults have been unaware of up until this point.

These are the kind of questions that you should be examining:

  • Which aspects of playtime are running smoothly, and why?
  • Which problematic behaviours are occurring? Are they associated with any particular places or groups?
  • Are the current consequences of misbehaviour effectively tackling these problems?

It’s important to identify the behaviours which are most disruptive and least disruptive, and take note of their frequency. Behaviours that are both very disruptive and very likely should be your top priority. Most schools will identify bullying, unsafe or aggressive play, teasing, swearing, arguments and littering as the main problems.

Oftentimes (though not every time) these problems will be exacerbated in particular ‘hot spots’. Unsafe play tends to take place in out-of-bounds areas, shoving and pushing takes place at bottlenecks, while litter occurs everywhere, but particularly outside canteens and tuck shops. Each school will usually have some problems that are unique to their environment too.

Now that the most problematic behaviours have been identified, it’s time to look at the consequences of these behaviours, as well as possible improvements. Ed Whittaker has written an excellent article on classroom management that will give you a good idea of where to start. Remember too that consistency is essential. Lunchtime supervisors, teachers and students alike should all know the consequences of negative behaviour, and those consequences should be followed through every time without exception.

The best way to achieve consistency is to have staff come together and decide on the best consequences for problematic behaviours as a group. Staff should be able to answer the question “when students behave in such a way, what is the most appropriate response on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd instance?” And just as importantly, “what support can a member of staff rely on when met with total defiance or hostility?”

Having clear cut strategies in place will not only make life less stressful for staff, but will also make playtime easier to navigate for certain students. "Tensions can occur when a seating area is located too close to a ballgame area." Putting in place a consistent framework that staff and students can refer to in terms of behaviour management is only half the battle. In part 1, we noticed that certain problem behaviours are associated with certain school environments. In part 2, we’re going to look at how we can improvement or mend these environments to encourage positive behaviours and interactions.

Children who spend their playtime in a drab, unstimulating concrete environment are more likely to engage in negative behaviours. A study on Mental Capital and Wellbeing was even able to demonstrate a link between poor playground design and depression. Staff cannot ignore the fact that certain negative behaviours are more likely to occur in certain spaces. Every school that is dealing with problematic playtime behaviours would do well to evaluate their playground and see if improvements can be made.

Try asking your lunchtime supervisors: What’s not working so well in the playground?

Anyone who has walked across a playground knows that certain problems can occur in certain spaces: aggressive/unsafe play usually takes place further away from supervision, or in out-of-bounds areas. Tensions can occur when a seating area is located too close to a ballgame area, or at a bottleneck where a lot of students converge. Some of the following improvements could be made to playgrounds:

  • Beautifying the grounds or buildings.
  • Improving the quality of play equipment.
  • Setting up clear and separate zones for different kinds of activities.
  • Providing adequate seating.
  • Teaching new games that appeal to different learners.
  • Joining in with existing games.
  • Designating older pupils as play leaders.
  • Staggering play times for different age groups.

It’s easy to underestimate the impact of beautifying the playground. But it’s not just about aesthetics, but rather about making children feel that they are part of a place that is well cared for and respected. If you can convince them to buy into this, then they will take care for the school as if it is their own home. While expensive projects are sometimes the only solution for spaces that have become dangerously dilapidated, smaller scale repair work doesn’t need to be expensive. Getting children involved in designing a mural or even planting a flowerbed can really help them to feel a sense of belonging.

Different learners have different needs, and this extends to the playground as much as it does the classroom. Some students are happiest on the football pitch, whilst others prefer quiet areas. Providing clear zoning for sports, as well as access to new equipment, is a good way to encourage energetic children to burn off some steam. Circular seating is ideal for children that simply want to socialise on their breaks.

Other schools have found success by teaching games and introducing play leaders. While free and unstructured play time is vital, the option for teacher or student led games can increase engagement and improve behaviours. Nervous students might be more comfortable at joining in games that are led by an older person, and older students are able to practise their leadership skills and keep an eye on younger siblings through these kind of schemes.

A well-supervised buddy scheme or peer mentoring scheme is a proven way of reducing both incidents of bullying in playtimes, as noted in a government report. Primary schools can implement a buddy scheme by identifying buddies through caps or armbands, while secondary schools could instead try drop-in sessions.

Many schools are finding that growing numbers of students are leading to overcrowding and related tensions. Simply staggering the start and end of lunch times by year group can alleviate some of the tensions. While a larger 15-minute difference would be ideal, even a 5-minute difference could make an impact on key areas, such as canteen queues, toilets and football fields.

How do you handle outdoor areas? Share your tactics below.

[Image: US Classroom design of 2011's winning school - St. Paul's Elementary School]

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