It had begun to rain lightly on the playground, causing a double rainbow to arch across the school field. A length of string hung between two basketball posts. Bits of wood and other small objects had been fastened to it, swinging precariously in the wind. There were sounds of laughter, joyous shouting and whooping.
Nearby, two people were each playing with a large coloured disc. They’d been asked to communicate with each other from opposite ends of the playground using just their discs, body movements and imagination. One was pretending to be a gladiator, using their disc as a shield, while the other person chose to transform their disc into a flying vehicle. Somehow they were managing to respond to one another through the use of mime and signs.
Elsewhere, four figures were busy running around carrying long cardboard tubes that they’d turned into musical instruments. Objects and bodies filled the playground. Games were invented out of thin air. Theatrical characters were adopted and then swapped out in an instant. A world of imagination had been unleashed, for what felt like the first time in years.
A typical spectacle of children having fun in the playground, you might think. In actual fact, the individuals involved weren’t children at all – they were teachers and TAs at my school.
The freedom of childhood
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw
This was a training day held on our first day back at school. Working with two artists from nearby Brighton, we’d all been given a variety of different objects, ranging from bits of wood, to string and cardboard boxes, and were asked to ‘explore these items together’. How could we communicate with each other using just the objects alone?
What games could we make up? What other uses could we invent for them, beyond their primary purpose?
Within just a couple of minutes of being out on the playground, the ensuing scene and sounds were all but identical to the playtimes involving children we’d all supervised many times before.
Do you remember how adventurous life was when you were a child, and the freedom you experienced? Do you remember those times when there were no adults about, when no one was telling you what to do – when you climbed trees, built camps, became an adventurer and looked out on a world of unlimited possibilities?
Stepping into the shoes of your favourite characters from books and on TV shows you felt like the master of your own destiny, always on the verge of discovering pots of gold and treasure maps. Do you remember how it felt heading home once the day was done – that feeling of greatness inside you, your experiences and thoughts and a kind of fulfilment, all fizzing away inside? You felt free. You felt complete. How come it went away?
Most of us left this magical world behind during our teens or early 20s. We likely had it drummed out of us by a combination of parents, peers and school, before acquiring a more serious outlook on life, complete with a set of self-imposed limitations and rules.
Those exciting characters we once imagined ourselves to be were soon replaced by ‘sensible’ reasons for not wanting to become them. The pots of gold and treasure maps gradually slipped out of sight and disappeared, as did our sense of freedom and limitlessness.
Spirit of adventure
The issues of staff wellbeing and excessive workload have become increasingly central to conversations around managing school staff in recent years, yet how often do we ask whether our colleagues are actually happy at work, rather than simply getting by? Can we go further than this and encourage our staff to be actively positive – even carefree?
It’s my belief that embracing the playfulness, spirit of adventure, breadth of imagination and risk-taking of our childhoods can make our adult lives – including the time we spend at work – happier and more successful.
The field of positive psychology, as promoted and advanced by the American psychologist Martin Seligman, posits that simply focusing on our problems, anxieties and other life challenges won’t make them go away.
In fact if anything, actively shining a spotlight on them causes them to become even worse. Positive psychology asks us to instead focus on our strengths and positive qualities – managing our anxiety by, for example, building up our resilience.
Mental ill-health is currently being written about in newspapers, covered on TV and discussed on the internet every day. Ofsted has said it now expects schools to ensure their staff are able to maintain a good work-life balance, while through it all, the number of children reporting mental health problems continues to rise.
How can education professionals be expected to help one another and the children in their care in this climate of gloom and doom when we already have so many anxieties and problems of our own?
It’s easy to pay lip service to staff wellbeing – to state that ‘We’re addressing this important issue by offering support,’ but the effect of such support is often quite limited. Being more imaginative and carefree, and more willing to take risks, can enhance the relationships of our working and personal lives.
Adopting a more generally adventurous and playful attitude to life can lead us towards a more stress-free existence, and help us access a deeper sense of wellbeing. At the same time, those same ‘lost’ childhood traits can be a big help when it comes to problem solving and coping with life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Which is why I’ve chosen to celebrate those traits with the adults working at my school.
A happier existence
The jubilant scene described at the start was the first day in an experiment we ran at West Rise Junior School involving adults and play. We have access to 120 acres of marshland directly opposite our main school site that we lease from the LA, which includes two large lakes.
This is where we deliver our Forest School for the children, look after various farm animals (including a herd of water buffalo), engage in beekeeping and stand-up-paddleboarding, among other activities.
Our latest use for this rich environment is to start exploring it through the arts and play, by ‘playing’ with found objects and natural materials, making sculptures and inventing outdoor games.
After the imaginative experience we organised on the school playground, all the adults taking part reported experiencing heightened states of happiness, and in some cases, even a sense of euphoria. Using our imaginations and giving ourselves permission to play had a powerful and lasting affect on our collective sense of wellbeing, We felt more of a bond between us as a staff.
As adults, our feelings of anxiety and challenges in life will come and go. This is inevitable. However, embracing the childhood traits of play, imagination, the spirit of adventure and risk-taking, can help us to cope with them, and can lead to a happier existence. In turn, this will help us when supporting our colleagues and pupils.
Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable people to thrive, and involves exploring how to create positive experiences, positive individual traits and positive institutions.
Its founder, Dr Martin Seligman, has written numerous books on the subject, notably Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and The Optimistic Child. Interested readers can find further information and resources online via The Positive Psychology Centre – see ppc.sas.upenn.edu for more details.
Mike Fairclough is headteacher at West Rise Junior School.