Yardtime at GETNS: A change for the better

By John Farrell, Principal at Galway Educate Together National School. 

It niggled at me for over twenty years of teaching. The little voice whispering in the back of my mind, “The yard….the yard…what about the yard?” The voice would say, “Why do we work so hard every day to have happy, positive, supportive classrooms but when the bell rings it’s ‘Off you go now kids, and remember, play nicely!’?” 

Maybe it’s because most children play nicely most of the time that adults think the yard is just another one of life’s classrooms. “It toughened us up. It didn’t do us any harm. We can’t wrap them in cotton wool. Sure they’ll get over it, eventually.”

But will they?

What about that boy walking the kerb alone, looking at his feet? Or the girl on the bench glancing wishfully at the others skipping and chanting and laughing? Or the goalie in the soccer game – his team are winning – why does he look so sad? See the girl that’s “it” in the tag game? She’s so red in the face. She hasn’t caught anyone and everyone knows she won’t, including her. There’s ages left before the bell rings and her ordeal finishes, for today.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you the yard is where the big behaviour problems are. It’s the part of the school day when children get into trouble for doing things they would never dream of doing in class. Teachers will tell you the huge amount of time they spend sorting out the problems after yard. We had a name for it in our school – “Post Yard Trauma.” Children were upset for getting in trouble, being excluded, fighting with their friends and so on. What was meant to be a fun time for all was, for a significant number of children, anything but.

It was a troubling constant of school life and despite periodic attempts to change we were becoming resigned to living with it. Yard is yard we thought, we can only do our best.

Then the flyer came in the post!

In October 2013, Galway Education Centre offered training in something called Playworks. Playworks was founded in 1996 in the U.S.A. by Jill Vialet and now runs programmes in over 20 US states. Their aim is to create a place for every kid on the playground to feel included, be active, and build valuable social and emotional skills. 

The blurb described many of the yard issues and then four words leapt out at me “We can change this.” I immediately applied and thankfully our school was selected to have two Playworks trainers spend a week in the school introducing the programme to the staff and pupils. 

What a week that was! 

The trainers, David and Tara, arrived with not much more than some chalk, a stack of cones, a few balls and a seemingly endless store of fun, active, inclusive games. They had some nifty strategies for keeping children involved as well as bundles of the wonderful warm enthusiasm that Americans are so well known for. Within a couple of days you could see the difference. Teachers were reporting that Post Yard Trauma had practically disappeared. Children were coming back into class more ready to learn. Those children normally on the fringes were playing and laughing with their classmates. The atmosphere was changing before our eyes and not just in the yard but in the classrooms and throughout the school community.

The underlying principles of fun, positivity and inclusion create the atmosphere. With Playworks the yard goes from a chaotic free-for-all environment to one that is semi-structured. Simple “core games” run in the same place in the same way every day. The games are quick so there’s no hanging around waiting. Rules are basic and infringements are met with redirection rather than punishment and exclusion. Conflict is sorted by the simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. “Put-downs” or negative interactions are replaced with “High Fives” and positive ones. Junior Coaches (student volunteers) run the games, not as referees but rather as facilitators that keep the games focussed on the underlying principles. Adults in the yard go from passive supervisors to active role models, joining in the games, building rapport with the children and supporting the Junior Coaches. Many of the strategies can be used in classrooms throughout the school day, thereby supporting and growing the culture.

There were plenty of tough days, however. When David and Tara left we struggled to keep the momentum going. They had shown us the promised land but it was only a glimpse. Implementing the structure and organisation, the planning and development, the training and support required for Playworks to last was a big challenge for us. With the immense effort of a member of staff (Thank you Michelle!) and the goodwill of all the rest of the team we kept it going through that school year. In the summer of 2014 another Playworks trainer came from the US to give a summer in-service course for teachers and several of our staff attended. During the 2014/15 school year we dedicated a number of our staff meetings to figuring how to make it work for us. We defined roles, made staff teams and played the games together. Day by day the aspiration was becoming the reality.

By June 2015 we were confident enough to invite over 30 principals and teachers from all over Ireland to come and have a look at our yard. The feedback from those attending was incredible and several went away fired up to begin changing their own school yards. In November 2015 we ran an introduction course over three nights called “Yardtime @ GETNS” and 25 teachers attended. As most of these schools are in the Galway area we are now building a local network to give support to each other. In February 2016 we were invited to give an introduction to schools in Carlow and were amazed to see another 30 teachers from all over the Southeast out on a Saturday, geared up and enthused about transforming their yards. This term we plan to run a “Thank You Junior Coaches!” day where we invite all the schools who’ve made a start to bring the Junior Coaches together for a day of fun, friendship and figuring out how to make our yards even better. Our plan is to continue developing our own school programme while sharing our experience and offering our support to other interested schools. 

The possibilities for a Playworks yard are endless. More than anything it is a journey towards developing better human relationships through fun and play. To begin the only requirement is a willingness to look at your school and ask “What about the yard?”

Go to http://getns.weebly.com/yard-time.html to see a short video on some of the elements of Yardtime @GETNS.