Empty swings at playtime.

Withholding Playtime – A Sanction That Works?

Empty swings in a playground.


Withholding playtime as a sanction for misbehaviour is a common sanction. However, it dis-proportionally affects children with SEND. Playtime offers a chance to regulate, socialise, have fun and refocus. Taking it away is counter-productive and experts have called on schools to stop this practice.

As I walked through the hall on the way to the staffroom for a cup of tea I noticed four boys sat silently on benches.

Whilst their friends played outside they had to stay in the hall – missing playtime as a punishment for talking too much, not finishing their work on time, and moving around the classroom without permission.

My heart sank because these were the children who most needed the chance to move and a break from the social, sensory, and academic demands of the classroom.

This punishment was likely to make the rest of the day more of a challenge for them and their teachers. It was going to do more harm than good.

A common practice

Taking break times or lunchtimes away from pupils as a consequence is commonplace.

In an twitter survey I conducted 64% of 252 teachers replied that this is a sanction in their school’s behaviour policy. Similarly, a Nuffield Study (2019) found that 64% of schools surveyed used withholding break or lunch time as a sanction for misbehaviour in class or not finishing work.

This practice seems so commonplace that it is rarely questioned. However, just because something is common doesn’t make it effective or right.

The impact of losing playtime

Studies show that break times have physical, cognitive, social and emotional benefits for children. So what is the impact of being kept in at playtime?

Less chance to self-regulate

Break times give a chance for children to run, shout, talk with a friend and have a break from the classroom and the teacher. All of this  help with self-regulation.

Think about when you have had a difficult work meeting or an argument with a loved one. Did you do any of the following?

  • Go for a walk or express your frustration physically
  • Shout and swear
  • Leave the room, office or house
  • Talk to a friend or loved one
  • Take a break to calm down – have a cup of tea or something stronger!

How would you find it if, following a difficult situation, you had to stay in the same room, with the same person, and do more work? Would it help you calm down?

Unlikely. So why do we expect it to help children? Or are we just using this strategy as a punishment – a deterrent to others, rather than something to help the child?

We should also note that many children with SEND struggle to regulate due to sensory needs, and levels of anxiety and stress that they experience in the school environment.

No break from sensory demands

Playtime provides an opportunity for children get the sensory input they need to help them regulate. They may spin or climb to get vestibular input, eat a crunchy snack or hug a friend to get proprioceptive input or dip their hands in rainwater to get tactile input.

The playground contains less sensory demands than a classroom. Even a barren inner city concrete jungle is less overwhelming. There is more space, less visual stimulation and noise and smells are diffused.

This sensory break is important as difficulties with sensory processing can lead to a child being stressed and dysregulated. And stressed child will find it hard to follow the rules and learn.

Poorer focus and attention

Break times have been shown to increase children’s attention, memory and focus. They help children process what they are learning, and foster creativity.  Taking away a child’s break time means they will find it harder to focus on the next lesson, making it more likely they will get into trouble again and not learn.  

Missed Social Benefits

Break times provide children with a chance to develop and maintain friendships and develop social skills. During play children learn to deal with conflict, share resources and solve problems together.

This social time is very important. Most days when  I ask my 6-year-old son what his favourite part of school was that day, invariably he says ‘playing with John at playtime’. This is backed up by the Nuffield survey which showed that break times were the most enjoyable and memorable times that children have in school.

Often it is the children who most frequently miss play times, are the ones who need it most – they need to find parts of school enjoyable, and they need the social benefits that playtime can bring.

Time for a Change of Policy

Psychologists in the UK have released a position paper about the importance of play, stating that:

“Withdrawing break time opportunities for play in school should never be used as a punishment (e.g. for misbehaviour or completing unfinished work), nor the threat of withdrawal be used to control children’s behaviour.”
The British Psychological Society, Division of Education and Child Psychology

Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics have called on schools to not withhold break times. They state that ‘recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development..and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons’.

The Nuffield report observes that working adults and teachers have a legal right to breaks, but that pupils do not. They encourage policy makers to consider making this a right for children too.


Denying a child break time is usually counter-productive. In my experience, keeping a child in is likely to result in the rest of the day also going downhill for them. There is no opportunity to reset or for them to start again.

Missed play times can:

  • Make self-regulation even more difficult so the child is likely to get into more trouble
  • Make learning even more difficult
  • Affect social relationships  and self esteem
  • Impact on their desire to be at school
  • Disproportionately impacts children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)

Is missing play times or lunchtime detentions part of your school’s behaviour policy? Can you advocate with the Senior Leadership Team and governors for this to change?

This post is part of a series on school policies. You may be interested in:

Why Attendance Awards Are A Bad Idea

School Toilet Policies – Why Some Students Can’t Just Go At Breaktimes

How Rigid Uniform Policies Discriminate Against SEND Students