As enrolments climb and urban spaces become more crowded, some Australian schools have been left with less play space per student than a prison cell.
As experts in health and physical education, we are deeply concerned by reports students are running out of play space.
Why is this a problem? And what options do parents and teachers have to keep young people happy and healthy?
Space at a premium
Australian student numbers are predicated to increase by 17% over the decade to 2026, creating a need for hundreds of new, mostly metropolitan schools and new classrooms in areas previously set aside for play.
How much space do kids need?
Australian guidelines on free play space – school areas other than buildings, footpaths and car parks – suggest a minimum of ten square metres per student.
However, Australian researchers have recommended school spaces should ideally be increased to 25 square metres per student, combined with access to portable play equipment such as balls, bats and blocks.
Even more space can have extra benefits. Two studies in Europe showed when more than 15 square metres per student was available, primary school children were much more physically active than those with less than eight square metres.
8 ways to keep kids active in small spaces
Children need space to discover, take calculated movement risks and extend themselves physically. Here are eight ideas to keep young people active in confined spaces.
These can be adapted to the home, classrooms, gymnasiums and outdoor areas, whatever the weather.
1. Move to a theme
Give kids a body movement theme, such as “stand as tall or as wide was possible”.
Students then move in a variety of ways to match the theme – widening or narrowing their body, twisting, turning, bending, stretching, balancing, rolling and transferring body weight.
2. Use activity ‘zones’
Use task cards to create zones and stations in small spaces where small groups of students can do different activities such as push-ups or skipping. Cards can illustrate ways to undertake the activities at different levels – from easy to medium and difficult.
Sport Australia’s Playing for Life cards allow teachers and parents to match activities to children’s ages.
3. Move to music
Dance offers a wide variety of activities and sequences of movements that can be done in a small space.
4. Set up obstacle courses
5. Use nearby parks and facilities
6. Play co-operative games
Develop co-operative movement challenges. These ask groups to work together in a small space, developing not just gross motor skills, but team work and problem-solving. An example is throwing a scarf in the air that both partners need to catch, gradually increasing the distance apart.
7. Adapt the space
Use colours, lines and patterns within spaces as guides for students to follow, aim towards and jump on during movement activities.
It’s also a useful way to break up the space into zones for different activities, and even target games such as bowling and beanbag bocce.
8. Look beyond PE
Beyond physical education school subjects there are other opportunities to be active. This even includes traditional subjects like maths and English, which can be adapted to use movement-based activities.
Author Bios: Brendon Hyndman is Associate Dean (Research) & Associate Professor of Education (Personal Development, Health & Physical Education) at Charles Sturt University, Jessica Amy Sears is Lecturer, also at Charles Sturt University and Vaughan Cruickshank is Program Director – Health and Physical Education, Maths/Science, Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania