Indoor or Wet Breaks – A Dangerous Idea?

13 June 2012 · 9 comments

in Community Involvement, Health & Wellbeing, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Whole School

This week Scotland’s Colleges are right in the middle of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas carrying the education equivalent of the Olympic Torch for discussion and debate about changes needed within our education system.

Often it’s not the big ideas that cause controversy but small decisions or actions that are seen to Really Matter to a group of people, be they children, parents, staff or the wider establishment. And wet breaks are one of those – to have or to have not???

As a head teacher, the only time I’ve ever had a complaint made to my line manager was about letting children play out in the rain. A parent, in anger and frustration, questioned the school policy about wet breaks. Her child was in Primary 1.

I happened to have been absent from school on the day this event took place. However the depute head teacher was a sensible person and the weather could not have been too serious. My line manager got in touch with me and queried what the school policy was. I stated that I had undertaken a risk assessment. Owing to the overcrowding of the school and the ongoing understaffing within the school, I felt that the level of cover required for indoor breaks was difficult to achieve so it was safer to let the children out to play as much as possible. I duly sent in the risk assessment and heard nothing more.

In many ways, it was simply a chance matter that I had risk assessed the break times because of my concern over the impact on children in terms of supervision and the knock-on disruption to the formal classroom staffing levels.

In Scotland, teachers are not paid for their breaks and cannot be asked to undertake supervision of children during these times. Furthermore, at that time, the school was allocated just two playtime supervisors yet there were more than 240 children in the school. Often older children will go into the younger classes to act as monitors and help with games, and activities indoors. Interestingly, when I look back at the risk assessment, no mention is made of the benefits of being outside, the physical activity, the socialisation, the contact with nature, etc. at all.

A few weeks later at a parents’ evening, the parent who had made the complaint came over to see me. She was extremely nice and apologised for her response. She explained that she knew her child must have been playing out in some very heavy rain because her child arrived back home after school with a curly fringe (yes – the part of the hair covering the forehead).

We chatted in a friendly way for several minutes about this and other matters, during which she told me she was a primary school teacher who taught at a nearby school. The moral of this story is that it’s not schools versus parents on such a matter. It’s about personal opinions, experiences and mindsets from all involved.

It also raises the issue about the entitlement of children to play outside. During all of the above, no adult, including myself (I’m now ashamed to say) considered asking the child affected for her opinion. How schools make the decision about an indoor or outdoor break is normally at the discretion of the head teacher or another person in a promoted post. Usually the decision is made on the grounds of safety rather than looking at the matter from a health perspective or a rights perspective.

As nursery classes are increasingly demonstrating, many children are quite happy being outside in a whole variety of weathers. We are now seeing schools where the primary children are being kept indoors whilst nursery children are outside playing. This was the situation when the photo below was taken. The playground in which we were playing was deemed too icy for the older children.

Similarly, at secondary schools, often there is no such thing as an indoor break. The students have a choice most days whether they stay indoors or outside, irrespective of the weather. It seems to be a phenomenon that is a primary school matter. I’m not sure why this should be so.

It does suggest to me, that in light of Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning and the increasing concerns being raised about levels of obesity and the general health and wellbeing of children, that Scottish primary schools need to look at their decision making around indoor intervals and re-examine the matters around indoor breaks with both the children and their parents and carers.

A few topics to kickstart the conversations could include:

  • Does the school uniform policy include outdoor gear such as waterproofs and wellies? Should this be part of the expectation around appropriate clothing for schools?
  • Should the onus be on schools to provide appropriate wet weather clothing or is this another example of the “nanny state?”
  • What choice do children have about going outside? Should this choice be available regardless of the weather?In some schools, there is one classroom that is available for children who wish to stay inside during inclement weather otherwise the children are expected to be outside.
  • When is the weather too wet, or too hot or too cold or too windy or too icy? The moment one looks around the world, perceptions differ widely, as indicated in this recent post by Greg over at Males in Early Childhood Education. What can schools do to help children learn to manage all types of weather experienced their local area?

It is easy for schools to assume that parents will make a fuss. Doubtless a small, vociferous minority may choose to do so. But an interesting survey undertaken in 2010 by the Scottish Parent Teacher Council in conjunction with Grounds for Learning suggests that parents support more outdoor learning and play in all weathers. Although the sample size was small at 52, the results indicate that parents are overwhelmingly in favour of children being able to play outside in rain or snow if they have the appropriate clothing and feel that wet muddy clothing is a price worth paying for enabling outdoor learning and play to happen.

I appreciate that these conversations may not be easy in some schools. A lot of thought and discussion is needed around the benefits of outdoor play.

What do you think? Are you happy with your school or your child’s school’s approach to playing outside?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kierna C June 13, 2012 at 20:14

Great post Juliet & loads of great discussion points for schools. Will share this with my primary colleagues. The biggest issue at the moment for us is that there is no coherent policy among the supervisory staff re:risk assessment & the lone ‘sensible’ person gets shouted down by the nay sayers.


Juliet Robertson June 13, 2012 at 20:20

I suspect this situation is common place.

Did you see the HSE blog post about risk and outdoor play that came out last week – more good food for thought.


playlearninglife June 13, 2012 at 21:13

Great post Juliet.

By far the most disappointing part of the new English revised EYFS is the includsion of the phrase ‘unsafe weather’. At a seminar led by one of the authors of Development Matters the week before the EYFS was published, we were assured that the voices of the EY sector had been heard and the phrase would be changed to ‘inappropriate’ or ‘severe’ or somesuch. For some practitioners, ‘unsafe’ would mean snowy (cf your pic of thte child on the ground in the snow) and others won’t let children out in bright sunshine (never mind about the Vit D). Why ask experts for their learned, seriously considered and robustly argued opinions if you plan to ignore them in the final edit?

I agree, Prmary schools really do need to address this issue of wet playtimes, but it feels to me like the relentless campaigning work of many of us in England is being hampered by risk averse civil servants who shy away from controversial or bold statements no matter how hard we try to convince them otherwise and no matter how strong the evidence is that change is needed.

I’m afraid I tend to come back to my oft repeated mantra, “one less whiteboard, 30 more wet weather outfits / one more giant sandpit / five more hardwearing, high quality picnic tables / a decent dipping platform and bird hide by your pond / insert your own outdoor learning essential here*”

* delete as applicable


Juliet Robertson June 13, 2012 at 21:29

Hello Julie

I agree – it is very frustrating when unhelpful wording is used in national documents. On the upside you might enjoy this blog post which won an Edubloggers Award in 2010 for being the most influential blog post…


landartista June 13, 2012 at 22:40

Great Post! This is a question parents and care givers (including teachers) struggle with at all levels and in many settings. I think at the root we need to be able to trust caregivers to make an educated decision based out of the child’s well being, not the need for a break or staffing concerns. It is the parent that deals with the sickness or injury caused by ‘dangerous weather’ play. I would be interested to see you rick assessment form.



Juliet Robertson June 14, 2012 at 06:59

Hello Michelle

I think you are so right – And for me, it’s so easy to look back and think how differently I would do quite a few things now – the benefit of hindsight and time out of the job (no I don’t see myself doing a HT role again).

So my risk assessment is now almost 8 years old and an antiquity! I was amazed I still had it tucked away. If you are really keen to see such an outdated document that’s not very well done, please email me… 🙂

Interestingly I think everyone feels badly when a child gets hurt – but again, what’s the child’s take on the matter? Often they are really sensible about getting hurt and accept the consequences of their actions too.

Best wishes


Males in Early Childhood June 14, 2012 at 13:10

A wonderful post Juliet with some excellent points including the fact that we need to always consider what the children want. They are at the forefront of this debate/argument/discussion yet very rarely get a say.

I thank you for referencing me so that it comes full circle. Opposite sides of the globe fighting for the same thing. Hmmmm, makes you think, doesn’t it?


Juliet Robertson June 14, 2012 at 22:10

Thanks Greg – I think the commonality of issues is quite surprising!


Tony B September 16, 2016 at 06:41

An interesting post that’s very much echoed in the way ‘most’ people view the natural development of children now in 2016.

I would even go as far to say… It would be encouraged by most parents and organisations , especially with the intervention of home technology (in it’s many guises) children really go outside to play as they did 10 years ago.
So yes, I will advocate play outside whenever and possible, wet or not. With the right clothing it’s a great experience for any child… thumbs up.


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