Australians believe children should play more - just not during school hours

| 07 Nov 2019

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NATASSIA CHRYSANTHOS for the Sydney Morning Herald

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Parents overwhelmingly believe play helps children build important skills and primary schools should focus more on learning through play, but they are divided over when this should happen.

A UNSW Gonski Institute for Education survey released on Thursday shows half of parents don't want kids having more break time at school, even as they agree children spend less time playing now than in the past and are under pressure to grow up too quickly.

The finding has left the institute's research director and an international education expert Professor Pasi Sahlberg puzzled.

"I still don't quite understand why only half of parents think there should be more time for recess and free play during the school day in Australia," he said. "One [explanation] is many parents ... still think that when children go to school, they go to school to learn and work.

"Parents may think play is something not linked to purposeful or a goal-oriented learning [but] we all can learn things - collaboration, creativity, problem solving, communication, empathy - which are very hard to write down as objectives."

Early Childhood Australia chief executive Sam Page suggested parents were reluctant to support extra break times because they feared their kids missing out on "teacher time", but said the schoolyard was not the only place for play.

"At home children [also need to have] free time and not be so over-scheduled," she said.

Despite the split in opinion over when play should occur, 93 per cent of parents agreed it helps build skills to deal with a "changing world" and 72 per cent believed its lifelong benefits are mostly ignored today.

Most people blamed smartphones and social media: 92 per cent of those surveyed thought smartphones reduced children's time for physical activity and active outdoor play, and 77 per cent agreed social media was a distraction that negatively impacted their family relationships.

But Ms Page said technology didn't need to be the "enemy of play".

"What we should be concerned about is children being sedentary and passive recipients of entertainment on digital technology. There are other ways to use technology that promotes physical activity and creativity and engaging with others," she said.

Professor Sahlberg also urged a move away from binary views on social media and smartphones.

He said blanket device bans such as in Victoria and Western Australia, supported by federal Education Minister Dan Tehan, are "problematic". In NSW smart phones are banned in state primary schools but high schools can choose their own policy.

"[Bans] take away this very good opportunity for schools and parents to collectively try and understand better what is at stake when it comes to young people's use of smartphones and technology ... They send a message to young people that technology is bad and harmful, and that's not the case," Professor Sahlberg said.

The community survey questioned 1612 people nationally.