Learning, Mindfulness and Play: How to Use Free Time in the Classroom

Whether we use it to read a book, bake a batch of cookies or go for a walk, we can all agree that free time is essential in our personal lives. Similarly, busy teachers and students need free time during the school day. But what does free time look like in the context of learning? These teacher tips will show you why free time is so important, plus how to fit it into your day.

Why Free Time Matters

Time is valuable, and it’s important to adhere to core learning objectives. Yet having long to-do lists can cause stress for students, who feel pressured to do well in class. Despite that, an increased emphasis in state and national standardized testing has led to cuts in critical free time periods, such as recess, writes reporter Kate Reilly. And that’s in the face of numerous medical studies demonstrating that children need to play, engage in physical activity and take breaks from academic work in order to succeed in school.

This isn’t new research. For instance, a 2013 American Academy of Pediatrics report by Dr. Robert Murray and Successful Healthy Children founder Catherine Ramstetter, Ph.D., notes that recess “offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it.”

Those benefits aren’t limited to recess, of course. Free time in the classroom offers social, emotional and intellectual benefits for students and is an important way to cope with and decrease stress associated with rigorous academics, says wellness coach Elizabeth Scott.

Free time is equally beneficial to teachers. Setting aside time for yourself makes you prioritize and delegate other work, says productivity writer Glenn Santos. Knowing that your free time is coming up makes you more productive, so it’s not eaten up by classroom-related tasks. Scheduling free time also gives teachers a chance to unwind. Taking time daily or weekly to relax helps you avoid burnout.

Creating free time in class can promote the importance of free time outside school among students and parents. One elementary school in Vermont nixed homework completely after seeing student anxiety levels rise over the past decade. “They’re just kids,” explains Mark Trifilio. “They’re pretty young and they just put in a full day’s shift at work and so we just don’t believe in adding more to their day. We also feel that we are squashing their other passions and interest in learning.” Instead of being assigned homework, students are asked to read books, get outside, spend time with family and help with cooking dinner or cleaning up.

This mental and physical rest gives students time to focus on what’s important to them, whether that’s reading a book or going to piano lessons. While your school might not be able to adopt the no-homework policy, this same principle should apply to your students’ free time. When students have down time at school, they should be encouraged to focus on what’s important to them.

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How to Create Space to Meaningful Free Time

Despite being called free time, this designated part of class isn’t free-for-all. Having a goal in mind is important for keeping down time focused and beneficial, say education writer Janelle Cox.

How students feel and what needs to get done are the most important things to consider when framing free time. Students who need to finish a test, for example, should use this time to do so. But if students are tired and there’s only ten minutes to spare, finishing a test might not be the best idea. Managing classroom free time effectively will make all the difference for your students.

Free time can also be used for more simple, yet meaningful objectives. Consider the example of Arthur Morgan School, a middle grade boarding school in North Carolina. AMS gives its students ample free time, including breaks between morning classes and after afternoon chores. “Free time allows our middle schoolers to take a break from their academic schedule and breathe. They can use the moment to reflect about their last class or simply connect with another student,” writes AMS recruitment and admissions coordinator Nicholas Maldonado.

Students may use this time to reflect on lessons learned, apply those concepts in real life or express themselves artistically. Free time gives students a moment to simply feel refreshed before the next class.

Free time can also be structured as a period to unplug from technology, suggests Stacy Torino at WeAreTeachers.com. Unplugging has many social-emotional benefits and can improve students’ interpersonal skills. Being tech-free means students can chat instead of being glued to their phones or tablets. It allows space for meaningful conversations, eye contact, creative collaboration and shared mindfulness.

When You Only Have 10 Minutes

If you’ve only got a few minutes to spare, a quick, fun activity can get kids motivated and feeling refreshed. One such game is called ‘reviewsical chairs’, says teacher Kelly Treleaven. A take on the old standard musical chairs, this game uses lesson review questions instead of music for students to win the last chair. Another idea is to to have everyone write down as many US states as possible.

A limerick contest can be a fun way to engage students, too. “Give them three minutes to write independently, another three to pick a favorite from their table, and then two minutes to vote as a class.”

Playing Pictionary is a great vocabulary review for words learned in class that day or week, Susan Verner at Busy Teacher writes. She suggests having current vocabulary ready on index cards, taking them out when you’ve got a few minutes to spare. By asking students to draw them, they demonstrate their understanding in a creative way.

Another idea Verner suggests is having students write a communal story. Start with one sentence on the board, then have students continue the story by taking turns writing additional sentences. This helps stimulate creativity while encouraging collective vocabulary and grammar review.

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When You Have 15 Minutes or More

When you have longer periods of time to spare, a bit of planning can ensure that you’re making the most of the time. You might also find ways to take advantage of existing periods and time blocks during the day.

Homeroom, for example, is a great opportunity for teachers to celebrate students and make school more welcoming. Instead of using the time to grade papers, education writer Suzanne Capek Tingley, recognize student accomplishments, honor birthdays and make note of school events and activities. This approach gets students excited about and grounded in the school community.

If you have a free hour a week (or you’d like to add a free hour to the day), consider genius hour. Genius hour is dedicated weekly free time that allows students to explore a project or topic all on their own, Cult of Pedagogy founder Jennifer Gonzalez explains. “Sometimes they study a foreign language, teach themselves how to code, even start their own businesses. A Genius Hour project usually happens over a period of weeks or even months, in small increments.”

At Roosevelt High School in Seattle, students are given 20 minutes of free time every day. This time can be used to finish up homework, get extra help from a teacher or just to relax. Once a week, this special class period turns into a mindfulness session, with teachers showing students how to become aware of their thoughts and feelings at a particular moment.

Roosevelt High School teacher Karen Grace believes that mindfulness activities help students manage their anxiety, enjoy the school experience and think about things other than academics.

“We find ourselves always functioning on this low-level panic, and I think we are seeing that more and more,” she says. “Life continues to speed up, and kids don’t have the life experience and tools to figure out what to do with that.”

Images by: Di Lewis, Matthew Henry, Burst

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