Free Time!


These words strike fear into my heart!

In fact when a colleague told me recently that they had booked the computer room and left instructions in an extra for “free time” I actually screwed my face up and said, “OOhhhhh, you didn’t?” in a pained voice.

I first came across this concept when I was supply teaching in the UK at a school I now affectionately refer to as the ‘school from hell’. It was a tough, inner city school already on special measures. I walked in to my first class, Year 10 English, and was greeted with, “We always get free time on Fridays, Miss”. Sceptical but open to new ideas I enquired what that meant. Apparently it was ethically, educationally and socially acceptable to sit around for an hour and do nothing! (I thought we called that lunchtime?!?) Even more incredulous to me was that the students apparently just got “free time” without having to do anything to earn it. I let them get away with it … once!

The second week, I introduced the concept of earning privileges. On Monday I posted the goals for the week (tasks to complete, including attendance) and any student who had completed them by Thursday would get to participate in “Games Day Friday”. Games day was actually a trivia quiz competition and was surprisingly successful.

More recently, I had a difficult Year 7 English/Humanities class … to be fair, they had had an incredibly disrupted start to High School with a large number of staff changes in their first six months. So we needed a reward system as part our behaviour management plan and “Games Day Friday” appeared again. This time I brought in games (Scrabble, Pictionary, Charades, Boggle, etc.) and students had a choice.

I have no issue with students having choices in activities. I am quite happy to have a classroom where students do different things in the lesson. In fact, I welcome it. One of my professional passions is to help students develop their independence. But even when taking “Free Play” with preps, it was not a free-for-all.

The trouble with “free time” in the class room is it serves no purpose. It doesn’t help students to make choices. It doesn’t help them to improve any skills they aren’t already good at. It doesn’t help the teacher because bored students (especially teenagers) tend to make bad behaviour choices. It isn’t fair to anyone!

“Free time” is a cop-out. It is a frustrated teacher looking for a quick lesson plan. It is students taking an easy, lazy option … and more often, taking advantage of a situation.

To be fair to my colleague the specific situation I spoke of at the start of this post arose because the class was decimated due to a sports day and the teacher didn’t want to ‘punish’ the remaining students by giving them extra work. However, even this situation can be planned for. My suitcase of selected, appropriate games (determined by me, for the classes I teach) usually lives next to my desk. I also have weblinks to selected, appropriate activity sites on my virtual classroom page. Students still have choices and are not doing ‘extra work’. The teacher doesn’t need any particular knowledge or expertise to take the class. But … the session is not just an extension of lunchtime conservations.

I don’t call it “Free Time” but I am happy to call it “Free Choice”. There are still clear educational outcomes associated with any session resulting in “Free Choice”.


What is your “free time” plan?


Posted on June 29, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great post and I completely agree. When I taught Prep, I used to get frustrated with teachers who called developmental play ‘free time’ and let students run loose without any framework or purpose behind it. Giving students choice and different activities is a vital part of school (and a great way to assess skills/competencies that aren’t easily assessable in other ways) but ‘free time’ is usually geared towards giving the teacher a break rather than for pedagogically sound reasons that benefit the students. We get little enough time during the school day with our students, I don’t know how anyone can afford to give an hour away on, as you described it so well, effectively extra lunchtime!

  2. My students asked if they could have free time the other day. After explaining to them that there is no time for ‘free’ time, I explained that they have free time every day. They are ‘free’ to come and go in the classroom. However, they need to be responsible for the consequences that may arise, such as staying in at lunch, spending time with the coordinator or attending homework club.

  3. Thank you both for your comments … what it all boils down to is the definition we give to “free time”.

    In your own classroom, to a large extent, you are free to do what you want. However, we need to support each other, as teachers, and our students when we are not the teacher they have for the lesson/day. “Free time” is an airy fairy instruction to everyone … it means different things to different people and no-one is really clear about the ‘rules of engagement’. It is difficult enough to take a class that is not your regular group (even when you know the students: it is still a disruption to their normal routine).

    Don’t be ambiguous. Be specific. Be fair. Be supportive.

    Karma has a way of coming back to haunt you!

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