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The power of unstructured play at Onehunga Primary School

Kids playing on a field

Onehunga Primary School has been changing the way it fosters playful opportunities for its tamariki, with the support of Sport Auckland’s Healthy Active Learning team and Regional Play Lead, Matthew Johnson. 

The push for more accessible play opportunities is the result of the collective effort of the school’s leadership team, teaching staff and importantly – the tamariki. Involving the tamariki and whānau for over a year in the planning phase ensured they influenced the changes and improvements to play opportunities at the school. 

A big shift in the school’s daily structure means tamariki now get to play first at morning break and lunchtime – then eat – with the final 10 minutes of breaktimes reserved for snacks and lunch. Tamariki get to make the most of their break times to play with their friends. They’re not rushing their eating and slower eaters aren’t missing out on play time. The wind-down at the end of the break, where tamariki can refuel, means they get a chance to relax and calm down.  

Kids standing on felled trees throwing a ball to each otherSpaces throughout the school have been opened-up for play, with many corners and crevices available to tamariki for unstructured play. Working within a small footprint, the school had to be creative to make this happen. There’s now a mud kitchen at the side of the school field, Hula Hoops and balls are placed around the school for tamariki to play with wherever they are, and the sandpit has been transformed. While the school was considering getting rid of the sandpit, the tamariki wanted to keep it – and it was turned it into a pirate ship! 

Adventure play is popular at the school – with a grassy, often muddy, hill where tamariki gather and make huts with their friends. Playing in bare feet is allowed, and in fact encouraged, with plenty of taps around the school for tamariki to wash their muddy feet before going back to class.

Teachers are also being more flexible with rules and tamariki are being given more opportunities to develop self-responsibility. For example, tamariki are responsible for setting up the field and play areas and putting gear away when it’s back-to-class time. Also, while there are still the same number of teachers on duty during break time, they are now assigned to specific zones such as the field, court and ‘roamers’. As a result, students can engage in activities in designated play areas without continuous, direct supervision. 

By enabling tamariki to have less structure, more freedom, and more places to play, teachers have seen a decrease in the number of behaviour issues or incidents that used to occur during break time – and a direct correlation between the behaviour of tamariki and positive learning outcomes back in the classroom.  

Working with the Sport Auckland team has helped shape the school’s view about what is possible when it comes to play, and how to ensure the changes are sustainable and can be built on in the future. The changes are driven by the tamariki — everything happens because they want it to.  

“Take the risk,” is the advice from the Deputy Principal, Paul Leulusoo to other schools considering doing more for play in their school environments.  

What’s next for Onehunga Primary School? We’ve heard rumours about a Ninja Warrior Course — watch this space! 

If you require an accessible version of any content on the site please contact us at info@sportnz.org.nz and we will be happy to assist.

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