School Differences: Classroom Time vs. Non-classroom Time

O xcountry meet

Since the beginning of the new school year last September, Matt and I have discussed many times how much the children seem to be learning — as I said before, they have quite a few more subjects in their schedules, and they are expected to work hard and really do their best.  But we’ve also noted how much happier the kids are about school here.  They are, all four of them, simply more invested and engaged and they ENJOY school more than ever before. 

Why, I wondered, are my kids so much happier about school here when they seem to have more work than ever before? 

The answer, I strongly believe, lies in the way the school day is structured: there is significantly more activity and movement built into their days and weeks here than in their average school week in America.

The current school day for Gabe and Owen lasts 7 hours — from 8:50AM to 3:50PM each day.  The school day in our American school lasted 6h 40m — from 8:40AM to 3:20PM.  (This year, though, the county where we lived extended the school day by 15 minutes and the days there now last 6h 55m, so really the school days are about the same length.)

Each day here, the children have two 10-minute homeroom periods — one at the beginning and and end of each day.  They also have a 10-minute “registration” period just after lunch to take attendance and make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be.  Each morning after homeroom, there is a 20-minute school-wide assembly.  There is a 20-minute break after second period when the kids just go outside and play.  The lunch/recess period lasts 65 minutes.  In addition, the students change classes multiple times throughout the day, so they walk between classes across the school.  That all adds up to at least 135 minutes (2h 15m) of non-instructional hours in each seven hour school day, most of which are physically active times when the kids are walking, running, or playing. 

Through the course of the 35-hour school week, that adds up to 11.25 hours NOT spent sitting in a seat in class.  Only 4.75 hours are spent sitting in class each day, and of those hours, some of them are in PE and Games and Art and Music.

Here’s 7- year old Owen’s timetable (British Year 3, equivalent to American 2nd grade) so you can see how the day is structured (this schedule doesn’t include the 10-minutes of homeroom at the beginning and end of each day):

Owen timetable

The kids here have 60 minutes of PE every week AND 180 minutes of Games (sports practice, which I explained in my last post about schools here) every week.  They have 90 minutes of Swimming every other week. They have 60 minutes of Art and 60 minutes of Music every week.  They also have 60 minutes of Design Technology (DT) each week, which is essentially Home Ec and rotates between sewing, cooking, and shop class.  That adds up to another 7h 45m per week of physical activity, bringing the total number of hours of physically-related activities up to 19 hours out of 35 available in the school week.  (And yes, I count Art and Music and DT as physical activities — those are classes based on movement and development of gross and fine motor skills.)

In our school in the States, lunch lasted 30 minutes and recess was 20 minutes.  The kids only moved between classes a few times a day: to go to and from lunch/recess and to go to specials like PE, Art, and Music.  On average, the kids had 100 minutes of PE, 100 minutes of Music, and 60 minutes of Art each week.  There were occasional assemblies, but not daily, school-wide gatherings.  Sometimes the kids had more physical-related lessons in a classroom, but those weren’t guaranteed in any given day.  That adds up to only 310 minutes, or 5 1/3 hours of reliable non-seated, physically-related activity total in the school week.  That’s A LOT less time spent moving and a lot MORE time spent sitting.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison (for the sake of simplicity, I generalized a bit and made the 7hr British school day and the 6hr 55min American school day both add up to 35 hours per week):

Brit v Amer School chart

See the red?  That’s time generally spent sitting in a classroom.  

No wonder my kids are happier in school here — they never have to sit in a seat in a class for more than 90 minutes in a row at any point at all during the school week.  I’d also be willing to bet that because of the amount of physical activity built into each day, the kids are better able to sit still and focus when they do need to because they’re not spending their days bottling up all of the energy that is just part of being a kid. 

I often read articles — like this one — that explain why it’s so important for kids to move and be physically active.  Or articles like this that describe how difficult it is for children to sit still for long periods of time, especially for little boys.  Having now experienced a school where daily physical activity is guaranteed and built into the week, I can say with absolute certainty that it makes a huge difference in my children’s attitudes toward going to school, their level of happiness during the school day, and their ability to learn.

I do believe my children are learning more in school here than they were in their school in America.  It is NOT, however, because they’re going to a private school or because teachers here are better or because the curriculum is of a higher quality.  It is NOT because they are spending more hours in school or more school hours on instructional time. 

In fact, the opposite is true: they are learning more because the school day includes more of the physical activity that is absolutely crucial for children.  They are learning more because they are able to focus better during instructional time.  They are learning more because they’re not bored or fidgety.  They are learning more because the school day here is structured in such as way as to incorporate the play and movement that is most beneficial for children.

In short, my kids have fewer classroom hours here, but they are learning more.  And they are HAPPIER.  And that makes me happier.

Also, here are my other posts on school differences.


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8 thoughts on “School Differences: Classroom Time vs. Non-classroom Time

    1. Little Nesting Doll Post author

      The thing is, NONE OF THIS would be hard to implement in other schools. It is NOT funding related, it is simply a matter of how the school day is organized! For parents who think their kids’ schools could do better, maybe these are some ideas to implement.

  1. Mish

    How are we NOT doing this???? Why do decision makers have their heads in the sand about everything? GRRRR

    1. Little Nesting Doll Post author

      Until I saw an alternative, I don’t know that I could have come up with HOW to better organize the school day. “More activity” is too general. My hope is that a concrete example like this could be used to inspire other schools to make changes. Maybe show this to someone at your kids’ school as a first step!

  2. Kirsten

    We moved to a new school district this fall, and I have seen first hand the difference activity plays in Christian’s happiness. He literally dreaded E.V.E.R.Y. single day at his old school. He sat in a classroom all day long, not even having recess until the last block of the day. He Dreaded IT! Now he has not once asked to stay home, not once cried about going, not once ever complained about school which used to be an everyday occurrence. I truly think its due to two reasons: one major one being the fact that he is not tied to a desk as much! He has two class rooms, every other day he is either in Spanish or English and he goes to them, they do not come to him. He doesn’t sit at a desk he shares tables and instead of his name permanently on a desk, he has a locker that is his, which for obvious reasons is amazing for a 1st grader. He gets up and goes to his locker through out the day. The school has outside walkways and a courtyard the kids walk through multiple times a day to get to and from various parts of the school. He is outside for various amounts of time multiple times a day which is a game changer! Stepping away from your work to take a deep breath and move your body resets your focus.
    The second reason being he is fed more. (Which I know from other posts your school feeds them well) They actually serve a full breakfast to all of the kids. He no longer has snack time but instead has breakfast for the first half hour of his day. He eats breakfast at home, then at school (he’s a good eater!), then lunch at 11:30. He used to come home STARVING now he might/might not have a small snack to hold him over until dinner.
    These two things have made him a much happier student and ultimately the rest of us are reaping the benefits as well!

    1. Little Nesting Doll Post author

      I love this — you’re completely confirming my theory. The activity level throughout the day is SO important to kids’ ability to enjoy school and get the most out of it. And I’m so glad Christian is happier! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on Schools and Education | Little Nesting Doll

  4. J R

    We arei finding your blog so incredibly helpful. We currently live in MoCo, just outside of DC in a “great ” Bethesda school district and we are fearing what we’ve seen has become of public education (i.e. recess only in Kindergarten and then NONE thereafter). Also, like you we are considering a work supported move to London in about a year. We have 3 kids and have been trying to get a handle on education in London. Might you be able to share the name of your kid’s school? We’d love to see if we could afford it as an iption for our 3 kids!


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