Why our kids have forgotten how to play
Exclusive: Experts say there is a generation of students who have lost the ability to play with risk-adverse schools banning balls and mobile phone addictions stunting activity and socialising.
Leading parent educator Maggie Dent said the days of students playing basketball or handball or hanging out on the footy oval are gone.
"They don't even know how to play dodge ball without someone showing them," she said.
"We are raising brains on seats, sources of data that make schools look good - we are losing touch with raising whole children," said the author and educator, who is so concerned about the lack of play in high schools she is writing a paper about it to send to education departments.
Play has consistently been shown to be a key factor in development, which is why Professor Chris Lonsdale, Australian Catholic University, has been trialling iPlay, a school-based research program that assesses schools' play policies and educates teachers how better to recognise play.
The program is partly funded by the NSW Department of Education and has shown phenomenal results with preliminary findings showing just one year can reverse three-six years of aerobic fitness decline.
"It is quite common in the schools to have policies around active play, there are some schools that ask children not to bring in sporting equipment or a ball because ball games can cause injuries. We don't want to undermine their physical and emotional development by protecting them too much from reasonable levels of risk that come with being active outside," said Professor Lonsdale, who is hoping to roll the program out nationally.
"Over the last 30 years there has been a large decrease in children's aerobic fitness because they don't have the opportunity for active play and when they do get the opportunity they don't have the skills."
Former principal and teacher Mark Baker, who still works in NSW schools, was one of the first to ban mobile phones in his Manly classrooms and told The Daily Telegraph phones and anti-play policies are detrimental to development.
"Sometimes I see kids playing handball or a bit of touch footy but there are a worrying proportion of kids who are not. Children are finding it hard to socialise directly."
Mr Baker said anti-play policies protecting children from running and getting skinned knees or a bumped head often stemmed from over-protective parents.
"We become the nanny state - you got to let kids play."
The playground at Newington College in Stanmore has become a much more active place since the school introduced a ban on mobile phones and smart watches and Deputy Head Andy Quinane has noticed a dramatic difference in the way students socialise.
"It is far more vibrant - the handball courts are packed, the cricket nets are full and boys are asking staff for basketballs or handballs," said Mr Quinane.
"The nature of conversation has changed with boys now having eye contact and positive engagement with each other."
At Gordon East Public School, on Sydney's north shore, the children have been putting down their phones and playing handball, after six months of being trained in iPlay.
"There has been a shift in their thinking and we have noticed that children waiting for the bus have started to play a game of handball instead of talking or getting out their phones. We have also noticed an increase in focus in the classroom," Principal Ruth White said.
Victoria and Western Australia have gone the furthest of the states in terms of an outright phone ban while in NSW mobile phones are banned from primary schools but high schools have the option.
Maggie Dent said it was easy to dismiss high schoolers as not needing active play but it was one of the most important times.
"We know outdoor education isn't a priority and that some schools are dropping it to fit STEM in.
"We need to get our kids moving."
Federal Minister for Education Dan Tehan said he would like to see the phone ban universally adopted by all states and territories so that students can "play and be children."
"Playing develops skills that will be in demand in the modern workplace like creativity, teamwork and problem solving. Mobile phones on school grounds kill playtime because kids spend their lunch break with their heads down and on their phones."
Parenting expert and author Dr Justin Coulson, said there were some practical ways parents could encourage play.
"The very best thing we can do to develop strong, resilient, happy, healthy children is to give them the opportunity to have unsupervised play, preferably outside."
His top five tips for parents:
1. Get proportion of screen time versus green time right - for parents and children;
2. Intention is everything - plan for it, work it out, put it in the calendar. Join nippers or scouts or netball, plan to do City to Surf as a family. Be genuine and intentional about it;
3 - Tap into your children's strength and interests;
4 - Invite others - use it as an opportunity to build relationships, sign them up to a team their friends are in or take another family camping;
5. Step back, stop hovering, give them space. Allow them to have opportunities to play unsupervised.
TIME TO PLAY REPORT KEY FINDINGS
New research shows 97 per cent of parents would like to spend more time engaged in play with their children while four in 10 are falling short of the minimum three hours a day.
Dr Brendon Hyndman, Senior Lecturer, Charles Sturt University, has worked with Ikea on the research and said teachers are not trained to recognise valuable play.
He said many parents mistakingly believe children get enough play at school and recommends parents and schools get more involved in play.
"There are three ways this can be achieved. The first is for schools to provide at least one hour of free play time (separate from eating) each day. The second is for families to set aside at least one hour in the afternoons or evenings with devices switched off, dedicated to quality 'play time'. And the third is to consider how we can make more processes, activities and tasks around these times more playful".
• More than 80% of parents of children 9-12 years said their children prefer computer games and TV over toys, compared to 76% of parents with children 5-8 years and 64% of parents with children 0-4 years.
• Parents spend just 12.6 hours a week engaged in play with their children, dropping to 9.6 hours for parents of 9 to 12-year-olds.
• Dads (28%) are more likely than mums (20%) to say that having more flexibility at work, allowing them to leave early or start later would enable their children to spend more time in offline play, while mums are more likely to say it is if their partner helped out around the house more (25% compared to 19%).
• Home (58%) and outdoors (57%) are the top two places Australian children actively engage in offline play. This was closely followed by parks/play centres (48%), school (47%) and friend's houses/play dates (42%).
• Almost three quarters (73%) of parents believe there are barriers to their children playing.
• Four in five (82%) parents believe that there are opportunities to increase the amount of time their children spend in offline play.
• Working parents: Parents working full time (78%) are more likely than those working part time (63%) or not at all (61%) to say that their child does not spend enough time in offline play.