Will you be my PAL-date?

Mrs Emma Lowry, Assistant Dean of Students

The double intake of Year 7 and 8s this year has had an extremely positive impact on the School community; the Year 12 Prefects and Buddies have made particular comment on the younger girls’ levels of exuberance and often playful approach to school-life, and have actually questioned ‘where does it come from and why aren’t we like that?’

As our girls mature in age and development, their personal interactions in the school grounds change, classroom behaviour and expectations become more serious, and ‘play’ becomes more complex and purposeful. Although the ‘childish play’ of primary school becomes outgrown, some students, regardless of age, are still left with a wilful sense of nostalgia for pure playful experiences.

‘Play’ is seen as an activity which engages children, so playing is seen as childish and can often be dismissed in the eyes of young adolescents. When we reflect on our own childhood and teenage years, ‘going out to play’ was the norm, however, children now spend fifty per cent less time outside than they did just twenty years ago (Brown, 2009). The social time which we experienced in our youth would often lead to physical activity and self-organised and unstructured play, but for today’s youth, free-time and opportunity to play can, at times, be replaced with electronic devices and screen-based entertainment, with some youngsters having up to six or seven hours of screen-time per day (Brown, 2009) and ten hours per week on sites such as Google, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube (Slocombe, 2015).

‘Screen-based entertainment is as far removed from the “real play” children need for healthy development as junk snacks are from real food’ says Sue Palmer, author of 21st Century Girls – how the modern world is damaging our daughters and what we can do about it (2014). Already, research shows that nine out of ten young Australians’ main use of the Internet is for entertainment and communication (Slocombe, 2015). Palmer talks of how the division between play and entertainment has become blurred for adults and children alike, resulting in society seeing ‘play’ as passive leisure pursuits. For adults, watching sport, listening to music or enjoying the theatre has become so much easier now that second-hand play can be done with a device and the touch of a button. For adolescents and children, it is our responsibility as educators and parents to ensure that healthy habits are developed and encouraged to safeguard screen-based entertainment and passive forms of play from becoming the default leisure-time activity.

It should be acknowledged that there are different kinds of play that are pivotal to one’s personal development. Brown and Vaughan (2009, p. 35) define play as ‘an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again’. Subtypes include social play of friendship and belonging, rough-and-tumble play and celebratory and ritual play. Sometimes running is play, and sometimes it is not.

Whilst many students of Girls Grammar are heavily involved with structured activities which are organised and scheduled outside of school hours, the knock-on effect is that there is less time after school for unstructured, free play. This concept of ‘play’ should be pondered upon: what would our Year 7 and 8 girls miss out on if free play became a thing of the past, best enjoyed at primary school?

From an academic perspective, play and downtime is just as important as classroom-based learning experiences, and research suggests that regular lunchtime physical activity and nature time can influence behavior, concentration and academic performance (Parker-Pope, 2009). Psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play in the USA, Dr Stuart Brown (2009), pronounces that just an hour of vigorous play such as running, chasing, tag or dodgeball, can provide intense skill learning, including how to deal with being left out or excluded from such activities, how to solve problems, the value of judicious decision making and the development of social skills by interacting with others as equals (Lahey, 2014). Physical activity benefits mental health, well-being and social interaction (Knowles, Niven & Fawkner, 2011), it is known to lessen the symptoms of ADHD and childhood obesity and active children and teenagers perform better academically in the long term (Brown, 2009; NCB 2010; Ward, 2012). In correlation to this, a lack of playtime at school can have a negative impact on classroom performance and social development (NCB, 2010).

For our girls who are transitioning from primary to secondary school, physical activity is the main form of play outside the classroom, however quantitative studies conducted in the UK (Knowles, Niven & Fawkner, 2012) indicate that this is the period where adolescent girls’ level of physical activity starts to decline. Rates of physical activity for young adolescent girls are consistently lower than boys, which may reflect maturational differences, but other barriers which have been studied indicate that uniform, negative reactions from peers and feelings of inadequate competency also have some impact on physical activity in young girls aged twelve to thirteen years (Watson, Eliott & Mehta, 2015).

The Department of Health and Ageing recommends that young Australians accumulate at least sixty minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day (Watson et al., 2015). At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Year 7 and 8 students engage in practical HPE lessons twice a week, and all students are offered eighteen competitive sports to participate in over the year, as well as a range of other activities such as Student Yoga, Grammar Dance, Rock Climbing, Gym and Felgates Drama which individually contribute toward the daily levels of physical activity recommended for adolescents.

Sign-on figures for sport at the School indicate that a vast number of girls want to continue or try new sporting activities, contrary to Australian statistics which indicate that physical activity is low through early adolescence and that girls are consistently less active than boys (Watson et Al., 2015). This year we had almost 900 sign-ons via Grammarnet of Year 7 and 8 students registering their interest in trialing for a sport but, with not all girls able to make a team, other opportunities for physical activity — both within the school day and after school — need to be identified.

School lunchtimes have been recognised as an ideal time for maximising levels of physical activity (Stanley, 2012; Watson et al., 2015), albeit not sport, but an opportunity to discourage girls from using their personal devices as forms of entertainment, and to be physically active. In an initiative implemented in 2014 when the School officially introduced Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), Year 12 Prefects have been inviting the Year 7 and Year 8 cohorts to PAL Dates — Play at Lunch Dates, once a week. Activities are designed to be fun, playful and interactive in a non-threatening way and are open to all girls regardless of ability or competence. Acknowledging the barriers which prevent girls from participating in such physical activities, the Year 12 Prefects organise activities which can be played in full school uniform, either on the Green Floor, the Pool Lawn or in the Sports Centre, with any number of students and the senior girls take the leadership role of mentor and foster a culture of encouragement for all girls in their House to participate and to be actively involved.

Dodgeball appears to be the most popular lunchtime activity, as it brings out the competitive nature in some of the girls, but the spirit of the PAL Dates is to just play, to have fun, to make new friends in different Houses and to enjoy the downtime away from classroom learning. Other non-competitive activities which have been arranged include Stuck in the Mud, Red Rover, Capture the Flag, skipping and scavenger hunts. Future play-based activities which are planned include Just Dance, board games and friendly games of sport, and the Year 12 girls warmly welcome input and feedback from the junior girls.

Girls playing dodgeball

Lunchtime to me is fifty minutes you can forget about that English oral due next Tuesday and that heavy load of homework you just packed into your bag. Especially as a Year 7, I feel it is important that not only myself but others my age receive that break from the new experience of high school. The Thursday lunchtime activities I think are a great way to run off all that stress … literally. I know many girls that would strongly agree that this idea of physical play is worth sweating for. (Annabelle Khoo, 7W)

Girls running on grass

Playing games at lunch really takes the stress off your mind and gives you more time to play with your friends. (Catherine Lee, 7W)

Watching the girls enjoy the PAL Dates, it’s easy to acknowledge the superficial benefits — their ecstatic faces, their joyful squeals and their words of encouragement to all those around them. To dig deeper however, there is much greater benefit. There is agreement amongst scientists that free play — which includes vigorous physical activity — is much more than just a way to burn energy, to let off steam or to disengage from screen time. Hening (2008) refers to research that indicates play is a central part of neurological growth and development and is important for children and young adolescents to build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.

With limited time in the school day and busy after-school schedules, our Year 7 and 8 students attempt to cram as many of those hours as possible with activities that are productive and educational. While co-curricular activities are an essential part of a Grammar girls’ day, it is important for all us to remember the value of creating a space for free-play in the three-dimensional world, and to allow our girls to be the eleven to thirteen-year-old girls that they are. It is absolutely essential for healthy neurological development, mental health and well-being, physical fitness, social development and academic performance.


Brown, S. & Vaughan, C. (2009). What is play and why do we do it? In Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the Imagination and invigorates the soul. Australia: Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.

Brown, S. (2009, September 2). Let the children play (some more).The New York Times. [The Opinion Pages]. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/02/let-the-children-play-some-more/?_r=0

Henig, R. M. (2008, February 17). Taking play seriously. The Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/magazine/17play.html?pagewanted=all

Knowles, A., Niven, A., & Fawkner, S. (2011). A qualitative examination of factors related to the decrease in physical activity behaviour in adolescent girls during the transition from primary to secondary school. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 8(8), 1084-1091. Retrieved from Ebsco Host. http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/eds/detail/detail?sid=8872951c-263d-4659-ae16-1fd8bf022c8e%40sessionmgr4004&vid=0&hid=4205&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#db=s3h&AN=70465932

Lahey, J. (2014, June 20). Why free play is the best summer school. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/06/for-better-school-results-clear-the-schedule-and-let-kids-play/373144/

National Children’s Bureau (2010). No 15. The benefits of school playtime. Children’s Play Information Service NCB, London, England. Retrieved from http://www.ncb.org.uk/media/124800/factsheet15_benefits_playtime_cpis_011210.pdf

Palmer, S. (2014). 21st Century Girls — How the modern world is damaging our daughters and what we can do about it.(2nd ed.). Great Britain: Orion Books Ltd.

Parker-Pope, T. (2009, February 23). The 3 R’s? A fourth is crucial, too: recess. The New York Times. [Health]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/24/health/24well.html

Slocombe, J. (2015). Engaging parents in the cyber world. Paper presented at 2015 Protecting Children and Youth Online Conference, Mercure Hotel, Sydney.

Stanley, R.M., Boshoff, K., & Dollman, J. (2012). Voices in the playground: A qualitative exploration of the barriers and facilitators of lunchtime play. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 15(1), 44-51. Retrieved from SAGE.

Ward, H. (2012, November 2). All work and no play. TES Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storyCode=6298806

Watson, A., Eliott, J., & Mehta, K. (2015). Perceived barriers and facilitators to participation in physical activity during the school lunch break for girls aged 12–13 years. European Physical Education Review, 21(2), 257-271. Retrieved from SAGE.

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