Do We Need A Recess Revolution?

by Leslie Morgan Steiner

 

A few years ago, my son moved from a crowded DC public school to a 600-student K-12 private school considered to be one of the “best” in DC. I love almost everything about the school, and apparently many other uber-anal DC parents do too because the school is harder to get into than Harvard College. We were thrilled and our son made the transition easily.

 

I was surprised by what he missed most about public school: recess.

 

His public school playground covered a large, uneven, patched-up blacktop with a clattery basketball hoop, a kickball diamond and a few scratched metal jungle gyms. Twice day a rotation of two teachers watched over a melee of 175 kids ages 4 to 12 playing for 30 minutes; the entire school took recess at once. The teachers, harried from busy days running 30+ kid classrooms, usually spent recess in the shade, arms folded, talking to each other, breathing. In other words, the kids roamed free.

 

The problem-solving, leadership, and coordination skills the kids developed were nothing short of amazing in wonderfully kid-appropriate ways. Every kid mastered the monkey bars by first grade despite skinny arms and fear of heights. The bugs that fell from the mulberry trees provided instant science lessons in dissection. If you fell or hurt yourself, another child took you to the school nurse, since neither teacher could be spared for consolation duty. Even in kindergarten, my son was an avid basketball player, so he learned to wheedle his way onto the court with boys and girls twice his size and age. There was a corner garden where quieter students played in the dirt. During four years of public school recess, I do not recall one single reportable incident involving bullying, fighting, or tears beyond an inadvertently scraped knee.

 

By contrast, private school recess is filled with drama and trauma and frequent negotiations facilitated by supervising teachers (6:1 ratio!). The playground is covered in soft recycled-tire-eco-friendly chips. The freshly-painted regulation-height swings, sandbox and monkey bars all have teachers stationed nearby to make sure play remains cooperative. It is rare for more than one class to have recess at a time; there is little unregulated mixing of grades. There is no dirt. I bite my tongue each September over the rules that regulate the one period of the day students experience any measure of freedom.

 

But besides the over-regulated recess, the school is nurturing and marvelously nonjudgmental. Now all three of my kids happily go there. Which means they’ve all suffered through private school recess. My youngest is now finishing second grade. Today she announced the latest recess rules:

 

* No balls.
* No running.
* No chasing the boys.

 

I’m pretty sure the no-chasing-boys rule applies only to her. But no balls? No RUNNING?

 

“What are you allowed to do?” I asked from behind the steering wheel.

kodama
08.28.10

Believe it or not, this article was really eye-opening. I'm only 14 years old, and I had no idea how different "recess" can be. I don't have much to compare to, but.. having recess in 5th grade was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. Our teacher was quite relaxed because we were an "advanced" class- aka he didn't have to worry about us getting less than 97th percentile on some standardized test. We reached a point where our recess would continue past the other classes', sometimes an hour or more. The outside playspace was also quite large. We could roam around a sandy/grassy field, a blacktop, a fairly old wooden play structure, a newer metal structure, and a half hills, woods, and trees in between. I remember making elaborate fairy houses out of moss, rocks, twigs, leaves, berries... and coming back the next day delighted to see them still there. We made up and played in an elaborate "elements" (light, fire, earth, wind...) imaginary world with pet wolves and unicorns. I remember making and tasting sun tea by filling an old styrofoam cup we found with water from a water fountain and leaving herbs from the garden and putting it in the sun for a few days. My friends and I snuck into the woods, bounced on logs, made hide outs in thick bushes, ate wild mint from a grove, picked wild grapes, gathered armfuls of honeysuckle...and hid behind the generators on a hidden wall of a school building and rolling down a half hill of dandelions and clovers and grass. We even played games of capture the flag with the rest of our close class, and had a great time because of all of the space we had. We had recess everyday that year.

I had recess through 8th grade (although it wasn't ever again like it was in 5th grade). I am very grateful for the opportunities I had all throughout elementary, and even middle school recess.

Not every kid's recess is yet like the one you described in the article. :)

beansgm
04.26.10

Living in a small town in Central Massachusetts where a recent recess "indicent" escalatated into a full fledged panic attack by the principal, a parent revolt, followed quickly by TV news coverage of meetings with the superintendent of schools - I can't help wonder how it was that we all survived growing up without the constant navigation by adults? Controlling our kids and every move they make to protect them from falls, ensuring "fair" play and solving their problems for them does not empower them to be strong, independent, problem-solving adults. Kids will get hurt, bicker over recess games and yes, even sit on the sidelines instead of engaging. How will they ever learn to be self-aware if they are not taught coping and problem solving skills? Let kids be KIDS... adults over complicate everyday situations to the point where kids look to to an adult before they make a decision. And lets face it folks, no one said life would be fair... and while I hated that my mother said that to me constantly as a kid, the reality is that its true. The sooner kids understand that - the better.

leslie morgan s...
04.14.10

Leslie Morgan Steiner

Really interesting comments. Agree with all the points...like the summation that "recess is a mixed bag" which i think is a pretty good summation of dealing with people anywhere any age any setting!

mom2graceb
04.14.10

I'm with Leslie; but I come from a part of the country (small coastal town south of Boston, Mass.) and era, late 70s and 80s, where recess was that part of day for freedom and havoc. I hated winter when we played outside (yes, in the dead of winter) with snow on the ground on an asphalt parking lot outside the back of the school. Fall and spring were glorious; we had acres of fields on which to run, play games, and play on the equipment. And I'm talkin' about the old fashioned, scare you to death, cut off a finger stuff!! One of my front teeth was kicked out in 1st or 2nd grade by a close friend while we goofed around on the monkey bars. The pain and blood didn't upset me so much as not finding that tooth for the tooth fairy that night!! The old 15 foot high metal slide was exhilarating, but you had to remember not to hold on, otherwise you might cut into your hand. And remember the see-saws - those things were a litigation waiting to happen.
And yes, dodgeball is a dreadful game, just like Red Rover, and some other "childhood classics". In doing the organized games, I think that depends on the teacher. I had a sadistic teacher, who actually spanked you on your birthday, with an extra one for good luck and in dodgeball encouraged kids to "nail" the ones who were left.
But the playground is that one area childhood that I thought was still preserved for "kids". Haven't we taken almost everything else away from them?
My kids come home from school and play in the front yard or back yard with their bikes, toys, water...whatever moves them ;-) It saddens me to see no other kids on the block outside and yet we have a bunch of kids up and down the street. Does anyone else experience this?

monkeywoman
04.13.10

Bless you! One of the biggest, most galling things I've experienced as a parent is this rush to take away every learning experience kids need! No dirt! No blood! Let's all work on appropriate choices! UGGGHHHHHH! I'm a big fan of the adults sitting back and talking about adult things -maybe even having a beer unless they're teachers on duty -while the kids romp, fall, run and WORK IT OUT THEMSELVES! The rule for us is -if someone is hurting you or bothering you, ask them to stop. If they refuse to stop, walk away. If they follow you and keep it up -THEN go to an adult to tell, but do everything you can to work it out yourself first! I learned so many valuable lessons playing in the yard and on the playground. This may be taken the wrong way by some, but one of the things I like most about my son's school choices is the fact that, while they're decent schools, much of the school population comes from homes where things are decidedly "old school." A lot of the parents aren't THAT involved in the school, which isn't great, but at the same time they're not micro-managing everything to make sure little Timmy never skins a knee or is made to feel bad at recess...In my opinion, most kids today desperately need a little toughening up!

monkeywoman
04.13.10

Bless you! One of the biggest, most galling things I've experienced as a parent is this rush to take away every learning experience kids need! No dirt! No blood! Let's all work on appropriate choices! UGGGHHHHHH! I'm a big fan of the adults sitting back and talking about adult things -maybe even having a beer unless they're teachers on duty -while the kids romp, fall, run and WORK IT OUT THEMSELVES! The rule for us is -if someone is hurting you or bothering you, ask them to stop. If they refuse to stop, walk away. If they follow you and keep it up -THEN go to an adult to tell, but do everything you can to work it out yourself first! I learned so many valuable lessons playing in the yard and on the playground. This may be taken the wrong way by some, but one of the things I like most about my son's school choices is the fact that, while they're decent schools, much of the school population comes from homes where things are decidedly "old school." A lot of the parents aren't THAT involved in the school, which isn't great, but at the same time they're not micro-managing everything to make sure little Timmy never skins a knee or is made to feel bad at recess...In my opinion, most kids today desperately need a little toughening up!

wksocmom
04.13.10

I'm all for fun and love to just let my kids and their buddies loose in the the backyard, but I think you were very lucky in those years without incident. So far my son has been in kindergarten for 6 months and he's had a sock in the eye and a bloody nose. And this is the kid who loves school, and kindergarten, and recess. He and his buddies are very active, but are learning how to control themselves...I'm glad they have balls and fun, but must be confined to a small playground because there are not enough adults. That is the main area I disagree with you...more adults, not to coach and lead for sure, but to supervise to prevent escalation. Essentially to allow the kids to talk and work it out, rather than instilling immediate trips to the principle since they are literally afraid to turn their backs on the rest of the group.

My other son sadly hates recess, and he's an athlete. For a rule obsessed kid, even a little cheating in tag, or having cliques in soccer is enough to keep him from wanting to play. He's also been blocked from leaving the bathroom a couple times by a classmate. I harbor no hard feelings for the kid who did it, but if we can't take the time to educate them now, talk to the kids about what they did wrong and why, I fear they will become bullies.

We have a few yard duties but they are usually parents, with teachers taking turns, and seem to swing between complete overreaction (wanted to suspend my kinder for hitting back when a kid gave him bloody nose), to actually being afraid to confront the child.

My husband volunteers after school and runs a little soccer game, he's an experienced professional coach and sees some awful behaviour among kids barely 8 years old. He gives them just enough rules to ensure they have fun but the small injuries and tussles don't escalate into all out fights.

Sorry for my long comment :)

Nicole

www.notjustaworkingmom.com
www.svmoms.com

Margaret
04.13.10

I think you need a reality check on the good old days of recess. I remember it as a Lord of the Flies unsupervised bully fest. I'm glad that they organize the kids into games at my son's charter school. Participation isn't mandatory, but it's supervised enough that nobody gets their face smashed in or their ego trampled. Do you really think that's character building?

westchestermom
04.12.10

I grew up in NYC public schools - 70s/80s and I never had recess. As a parent to a child going through kindergarten recess for the first time in a public school, I can see why your private school has some restrictions. We have at least five kids with broken arms, toes and legs due to falling from the monkey bars in the last six months. We have aides outside and the ratio is probably closer to 30:1, but there is still bullying despite a strong policy against it. I do agree with you about the time for creative play; some weeks they are dogs, action figures, etc. They have a chance to select their own friends to spend time with and hopefully - they are being nice to each other. I just think recess is a mixed bag.