Recent studies show primary schools across the UK are having to look after increasing numbers of pupils with mental health disorders. As a result, they face the twin challenges of supporting these vulnerable students while coming up with ways to improve the mental wellbeing of the entire cohort. This article will examine the issues raised by the latest findings and explain how the school playground can play a critical role in improving pupil wellbeing.
Distressing Figures On Child Mental Health
Mental health has become such a big issue that members of the royal family are now promoting its awareness. The staggering numbers of children affected tell a bleak story. In the period August 2018 to July 2019 over 4.7 million CAHMs appointments were made in England and, according to The Guardian, ‘Almost 400,000 children and young people a year in England are being treated for mental health problems,’ with GPs referring 50,000 under 19s a month for treatment.
Also pessimistic is the Mental Health in Children and Young People, 2017 study, carried out for the NHS. According to the study, ‘One in eight (12.8%) 5 to 19-year-olds had a mental disorder when assessed in 2017.’ Emotional and behavioural disorders were the most common and boys and girls were more or less equally affected.
Of importance for primary schools, was the shocking number of very young children affected. 5.5% of children aged 2 to 4 had a disorder and this rose to 9.5% for 5 to 10-year-olds, meaning that the average primary classroom would have three children suffering from a mental condition.
In reality, some schools face bigger challenges than others. The study indicated that ‘White British pupils were about three times more likely (14.9%) than Black/Black British (5.6%) or Asian/Asian British (5.2%) children to have a mental health condition. Pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium and those with special needs were also more at risk.
Tackling Wellbeing In School And In The Playground
Many primaries are already addressing the issue of mental health and wellbeing by including it in their PSCHE curriculums, sending teachers on training, expanding Special Needs provision and doing practical things in the classroom to reduce anxiety and stress. Others are also seeing the importance of outdoor play and how this can have beneficial effects.
The school playground offers several opportunities to enhance wellbeing. Just by being away from the restraints of the classroom and out in the open air can lift children’s moods. Scientifically, this may be down to the fact that exposure to natural daylight increases levels of the hormone serotonin. While a lack of serotonin has been linked with depression, increased exposure to daylight has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress.
Getting pupils to be more active also has advantageous effects. The Mental Health Foundation tells us that taking part in regular physical activity can play a key role in ‘preventing the development of mental health problems and in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.’
While PE lessons are beneficial, they do not give young children the hour of moderate to intensive physical activity they need every day. Nor do today’s children have as much chance to get active playing out after school. For many, the only opportunity they get is during school breaks and lunchtimes. Encouraging participation, therefore, is important to help them engage in activities which will improve both their physical and mental health.
One proven way to achieve this is through the installation of school playground equipment that will entice pupils to get active. From simple playground markings that provide a range of playground games and sports pitches to thrilling equipment like Trim Trials obstacle courses and climbing frames, all of which can be erected over soft surfacing, there is a huge variety of fun apparatus that children find irresistible to play on and which can help enhance their wellbeing.
Some children can find the hustle and bustle of the playground stressful and going into it can make them anxious. Creating a quiet, safe outdoor space can help alleviate this. This can be done simply by using trellises that will section off part of the playground and add some greenery. Planters can be used to add colour, seating can be installed for comfort and bug houses and bird feeders put in to create a calming nature zone where pupils can feel calm and relaxed.
Active Outdoor Learning
A primary school playground can also be the best place to develop an outdoor classroom; another useful way to increase pupils’ exposure to daylight and get them more active. With more space to move about, an outdoor classroom is ideal for lessons that investigate the outdoor environment and for those which require active learning, such as drama and other types of groupwork. Today, there is a wide range of equipment available to resource outdoor learning spaces, with every subject on the primary curriculum catered for. In addition, there is a good range of seating, benches and even shelters big enough for a whole class to sit in.
With more and more primary age children being diagnosed with a mental health disorder, primary headteachers need to find more innovative and practical ways to make their schools mental health friendly. Outdoor play has proven to be very beneficial in helping to prevent disorders developing and in improving outcomes for those already affected. With the right equipment, such as that available from ESP Play, it is possible to create playgrounds and outdoor classrooms capable of having a very positive impact.