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.
She looked out the car window and sighed, world-weary as only an eight-year-old can be. “We TALK, Mom.”
What’s next? I can imagine the sign:
EXPERIENCE THE “RIGHT” KIND OF FUN.
Other parents seen unperturbed by the absence of freedom in “free play.” The New York Times Sports section recently ran an opinion piece by Mark Hyman  trumpeting a concept the Youth Sports Institute has come up with: Sandlot Day. On this one official day, kids decide what to wear (!), they choose sides and set the lineups. Kids even get to decide what game to play!
“The idea is that adults should cede control of games to the players…Parents are welcome to show up. But on this day, the children make the rules and run the show.”
Wow, one day a year kids get to chose what – and how – to play!
And on a recent segment of National Public Radio’s Tell Me More , host and mom of two Michel Martin advocated for playground “coaches,” making the argument that playground intervention is simply the latest technology to protect children from childhood hazards, similar to seatbelts in cars and helmets for biking.
I say hooey.
All these rules and regulations cannot be good for kids. To me, there’s a clear culprit -- the latest population data. Census figures reveal that 1.9 children are born to every two adults in this country. Simply put, we have too many adults in the United States these days. Too many rational, reasonable, well-intentioned grown-ups trying to make sure kids never go to the emergency room and never get picked last for dodgeball. Way too many lawsuits. A few too many overempowered parents who have made teachers and principals fear their wrath.
What happened to the good old days when kids outnumbered adults and some modicum of chaos, adventure, risk-taking and thrills made childhood childhood?
As I write this, my three kids are playing in our narrow backyard. An hour ago they dragged an old exercise trampoline out of the garage onto the lawn. Then they jerry-rigged the garden hose underneath the trampoline so the water would spray directly upward onto their feet. For the past 45 minutes they have been jumping maniacally on the wet trampoline, screaming in glee.
This new invention has no name. The only rule is to have fun. My kids didn’t need a recess coach to invent it. They don’t need an adult to supervise or set the rules. I bet a good lawyer or overzealous parent could think of three or four treacherous reasons to make the kids stop – the slippery water-soaked mesh, the metal frame, the pile of dog poop fewer than six feet away.
My kids don’t get the freedom to invent games or scream in glee at school, at recess, on the soccer field, or at camp. Mulling it over, I realized that my children have only once place in their world where they can play unsupervised, without adults bossing them around, interfering or making them take part in safe, fair, lawsuit-proof, adult-sanctioned games.
Thank goodness my kids have at least one small patch of earth where chaos and fun – not adults -- rule. Ironically, it’s their own backyard.