Therese Hoyle positive lunchtime and playtime

With the right tools, children’s brains can also develop outside of the classroom. Here are 5 ways to create a happy and positive lunchtime and playtime.

1: Use play to develop a child’s seeking system and brainpower

Playing games activates a child’s brain. In particular, the mammalian, (the lower brain) contains a “seeking” system. When seeking is activated in mammals, it encourages them to explore and investigate their environment with curiosity and motivation. In humans, the seeking system can activate an appetite for life, provides energy to explore the new and an eagerness to seek out whatever the world has to offer.  According to Margot Sunderland, when the seeking system is working in a well-coordinated way with the frontal lobes/upper brain, the motivation chemical, dopamine, gets released, enabling us to sustain motivation and a sense of purpose to help us attain our goals.

The seeking system must be activated by stimulation for infants and toddlers; if not, low levels of arousal will follow your child into adulthood, resulting in low levels of energy, drive, and a sense of “is that all there is?”. The same system that enables a child to build and create dens and sandcastles is the one that enables adults to turn a dream into a successful business accomplishment.

This seeking system in our brain is like a muscle: The more you use it, the more curious and creative you become. Providing a child with an enriched learning and play environment will help them to develop in numerous ways, including increased self-confidence, increased stress adaption, improved social skills, more brain cells in the memory and learning regions.

Sunderland states that “The benefits of creative play are many. Research with both humans and other mammals demonstrates that play can lower stress chemicals, enabling us to deal better with stressful situations.”

Research also hints that play actually appears to make children smarter.

In one fascinating study, rats were given an enriched environment with climbing tubes, novel food and lots of social interaction. Two months later, the rats had an extra 50,000 brain cells in each side of the hippocampus, one of the key memory centres of the brain.

Look today at the opportunities for creative play in your playground and school.

Key ideas Provide:

  • Imaginative play area
  • Dressing up box
  • Tea set
  • Small world play equipment
  • Sandpit and water play
  • Games area
  • Mud kitchen

Older children can also develop the seeking system through playing games and imaginative play/drama, outdoor adventures and more. Look at the Forest schools website,, for some great ideas.

2: Rules and responsibilities

Playground related injuries are the leading cause of injuries in children aged 5 – 14 in the school environment. 75% of school bullying happens in the school playground. Having rules to keep children physically and emotionally safe are essential.

School rules also provide clarity and consistency to all concerned.

In many schools, you will see rules displayed inside, but not outside in the playground. We encourage schools to think through, with their students, the rules or values that need to be in place. Once these are written up, designed by a signwriter and put onto Perspex they can then be displayed in various places around the playground.

Some basic rules that we find work well are the 4R’s for school and the playground::

  • Respect for self
  • Respect for others
  • Respect for property and the environment
  • Responsibility for all your actions

I often find that when children are playing games, they are good at adapting and creating their own rules, often through common consent.

3: Rewards

The reward at playtime is always that they get to play and have fun.

Additional incentives can be used, such as:

“The Great Play Award” (see 101 Playground Games appendix for the certificate) is a special certificate that is given out in assembly to a specific child who has kept the rules/values of the school; alternatively, it can be a plaque or just a sticker. Teachers choose criteria for selection from week to week and ideally choose different children each week. To buy 101 Playground Games go to:

Playground Star Award and “Star Player,” “Star Child,” “Caught Being Good” slips (see 101 Games appendix for the slips).

Playtime reward stickers – with comments such as – I play well, I am helpful, I am kind, I am a good friend, I am polite etc.

Therese Hoyle positive lunchtime and playtime

Playtime Reward Pads  – Some schools love the Playtime Reward Pads, which are ideal for your Midday Meal Supervisors and Lunchtime Supervisors.

When children are seen playing cooperatively, being kind and keeping the rules, they get a paper slip. These incentives can then link back into the teacher’s classroom rewards or children can collect their slips each week and every class can give a certificate to the child or children who get the most slips.

Alternatively, the school can give a certificate to the class with the most slips. Many teachers also like to do drum roles. When a child receives a slip, their name is put on it and then it is put into a “drum” box. At the end of the week, the drum roll takes place in a dramatic fashion with someone beating a drum and the box is turned over a few times. Then two to six names are drawn out, and the teacher awards those children a prize.

4: Consequences

Most schools agree there needs to be some sort of restorative consequence, such as:

  • time for the student to think through how they could have acted
  • how they could choose to behave differently next time
  • time to restore relationships that may have broken down.

Consequences vary from school to school. In the first instance, with low-level incidences, a verbal warning is often all that is needed. If the child still continues to break the rule, then I often suggest the use of a sanction slip and with this comes a five to 10-minutes “time out to think”.  The child usually has to sit away from the other children in a solitary place, on a bench, in the hall or classroom, thinking through which rule they have broken, which rule they need to be keeping, and who they need to apologise to.  As long as relationships have been restored, children can join in the game or activity once they have had time out.

If you are interested in buying Playtime Sanction Pads for your Midday Supervisors, you can get them here.

Therese Hoyle positive lunchtime and playtime

You may know some children who are hugely reactive at playtime. These children do not have the stress regulating brain chemicals to calm themselves and need soothing, calming adults to help regulate the chemicals that have flooded their brains. Danger stress and anxiety trigger the release of adrenalin and cortisol, which often leads to the fight or flight response.

Positive play experiences and positive social interaction for these children lead to positive emotions and a cocktail of good chemicals, such as opioids and oxytocin, which make them feel calm, content, secure and safe.

5: Playground Activity Leaders (PALS)

PALS consist of a group of children whose job it is to play games in the playground.

When considering adopting this system in your school, please give consideration to:

  • How many PALS you need, given the size of your playground and the number of children in your school.
  • How many times a week would be suitable for them to be out on games duty.
  • How the PALS would be chosen.
  • What support will they need.

Training the Playground Activity Leaders (PALS)

Their role: To encourage and organise games and activities during playtimes and the lunch break.

Teaching the Games

Ideally, a learning support assistant, lunchtime supervisor or a teacher will take responsibility for the PALS, their training and ongoing support.

Step 1: Discuss roles and responsibilities, including rules for themselves, playground rules and period of time that they are elected to be a PAL (weekly, half termly or termly).

Step 2: Introduce a selection of games and remind children of games they already know.

Print out the “Traditional Playground Games” section from the 101 Playground Games CD Rom or download the free version here and give each child a pack of games they can keep and use as a reference. This will give the PALS 10 playground games to learn and introduce to other children.

Step 3: The children plan and organise a game to play with younger children.

Step 4: The PALS evaluate how the game went and continue to learn new games.

Step 5: The PALs choose a uniform that distinguishes them in the playground, this may be a baseball cap, bib, or badge.

Step 6: A rota is agreed upon.

Step 7: The PALs are introduced in assembly to the whole school.

Step 8: On their assigned days, the PALs go out and play games in the playground with the children.

Step 9: The PALs contribute to “Playground news” at assemblies.

Step 10: The PALS meet weekly with the assigned adults who support them.

Therese Hoyle positive lunchtime and playtime

Buy your Playground Pals Tabards here available in packs of 4

Ongoing Support

The PALS need to have a regular time to talk about their experiences, the successes and the challenges with a specified adult. This meeting ideally needs to take place weekly or every two weeks. At the end of their term as a PAL, they receive a certificate to thank them for their contribution and hard work.  This is given out in assembly.

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