Moving Beyond Work vs Play: The Benefits of the 'Sandpit'

Finding a better work-life balance for teachers through exploring a different way of working

11 April, 2023

Late last year I read an email by Digby Scott, a mentor for leaders and change makers, which identified three different modes that we could find ourselves in when it comes to work. He called these ‘Stage’, ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Sandpit’. He identified that a lot of people fall into a Stage-Sanctuary cycle where they go from full-on work mode to holiday mode, back to work, back to holiday. This is characterised by high intensity, performance-driven behaviour, maxing out of energy only to be “saved” by the sweet reprieve of the holidays.

Stage, Sactuary or Sandbox?: Stage
Let’s paint the picture of this Stage-Sanctuary cycle for us teachers. ‘Stage’, would refer to us doing our job; planning, teaching, assessing etc. which, to be a little more precise, looks like waking up early, responding to parent emails, making student action plans, prepping lessons, running clubs, going to meetings, dealing with behavioural issues and never having time to finish a cup of coffee before the lunch bell rings. 

But then Oh, the holidays. The sweet sweet holidays. As we’re crawling towards the end of term, there’s that one thing that keeps us going. Our saviour in the form of a hot bath, a bottle of wine and no crazy children (if we’re that lucky). It’s the blissful dream of a period of time when we can mentally check out, escape the daily grind and metaphorically recharge our batteries. 

This cycle of jumping from hot to cold; full steam to no steam is one I’ve seen time and time again. It’s encapsulated by the statement every teacher has uttered at some point “I’ve just got to make it to the end of term then I can relax.” 

But why do we put so much weighting on this holiday period to “get us through”? Is it because it is the only way? Or because we haven’t explored an alternative? 

people relaxing on a beach
Digby posits that there’s another way of seeing things beyond the binary states of Work vs Play. He calls it the ‘Sandpit’. 

This is where you spend your time actively experimenting, exploring, learning, testing and creating. In a sense, you are still “working” but the process is an explorative one rather than fixed. It’s creating an environment where learning is valued, not just an end result. 

Instead of our time looking like Work-Work-Work-Holiday-Work-Work-Work-Holiday, we can build in time to learn, explore and create. 

This is what I’ve got the taste of through starting this website, blog and resources shop. It feels quite different to Sanctuary in that I’m working to produce content and which does involve late nights, mental effort and willpower to resist Netflix at the end of a long day. But it also feels very different to Stage because I don’t have a predetermined set of tasks I must complete and there’s no pressure from anyone other than myself to deliver.

Working in the Sandpit is challenging and at times quite frustrating as it stretches me to solve problems I haven’t come across before. But overcoming these and getting that innate satisfaction from learning and creating something new is one of the best feelings. It’s a specific kind of busy; the kind that allows me to experience something new, and a specific kind of relaxation; where I have the space to ponder and explore different ideas and possibilities. 

I think I had gotten to a point in my teaching journey where operating in the Stage mode interspersed with some Sanctuary wasn’t working for me. I needed this Sandpit. And I’m glad I discovered it.

I agree with Digby in that it’s not sustainable for our work culture to be constantly pushing us to exhaustion in this Stage mode. The constant pressure, unrealistic expectations and demands placed on us are constantly wearing us down and the holidays just aren’t enough. You know that feeling when you step back into school after the holidays and by 8.01am on Monday Week 1, you’re already feeling swamped? That’s your proof right there. 

We need the Sandpit. We need an alternative to the All or Nothing.

Working in Sandpit mode, we allow ourselves to try something different to the daily grind. We can hone in on things we’re curious about, have frequent opportunities to try new things, to explore solutions to constant pain points, to ideate with colleagues, to have time to create. 

These are the kinds of things we should integrate into both our work and personal time because they keep us challenged, motivated and give us real feelings of pride and fulfilment. 

If you’re in a position to provide your school colleagues with Sandpit opportunities, do it.

If you’re a classroom teacher going through the motions and looking for a spark, do it.

If you’re counting down the days until your holidays start but it’s only Day 1, change things up now.

Take action!

Here are some steps you could take right now to switch to Sandpit mode, starting small:

  • Wonder how you could make one kid smile today

  • Wonder how you could make one kid feel proud tomorrow

  • Wonder how you could help one kid overcome a challenge this week

  • Stop for 10 minutes and mull over something you just observed

  • Stop for 5 minutes and scribble down an idea that sprung to mind

  • Stop for 1 minute and reflect on how your last interaction made you feel

Then perhaps:

  • Try a new activity in your Maths rotation

  • Discuss a new lesson idea with a colleague

  • Change your afternoon routine

  • Spend 20 minutes experimenting with a new teaching tool you heard about

  • Set aside a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon to just sit and explore any thoughts or feelings that come to the surface

  • Say ‘yes’ to an activity you would usually decline an invite to

And maybe you’ll want to:

  • Start an inquiry into a topic you’re curious about and share your insights with your colleagues

  • Involve your whole team in generating ideas to solve a problem you’re currently facing

  • Start a passion project on something you love doing

  • Write an article, make a video, record a podcast

  • Design, draw, build, paint, decorate, recreate, invent 

  • Leap out of bed tomorrow to do it all again

We spend so much of our lives working that we need to make work work for us too. Teaching has got to be more sustainable in the long run if we want to keep teachers in the profession. 

Inspired vs Burnt Out is truly a no-brainer. 

But it’s up to us to shift the norm. We are all agents of change. And we can all start with ourselves. Will you join me in the Sandpit?

If you’re keen to explore more topics like this, I’d highly recommend checking out Digby Scott’s website: 

As always,

Be purposeful teachers
Who are in control
Feel inspired
And know they've done enough.