Dowser is welcoming new writers/contributors; please send us a note at info@dowser.org with a writing sample.

The Power of the Playground

   /   Apr 7th, 2011New York Times Fixes Column

Ask a young child, “How was school today?” and you’re likely to hear about recess. My son is 7 years old, and like many children his age, recess is the emotional core of his school day. Whether he comes home light- or heavy-hearted depends on what happened during play time. This is common. Researchers say that one of the best predictors of whether kids feel happy in school is whether they feel comfortable and competent during recess.

This is not exactly a groundbreaking insight. Philosophers and child development experts have been trumpeting the importance of play for centuries. Piaget said that children discover the world through play. Friedrich Froebel, who opened the first kindergarten in 1837, called play “deeply significant.” And Plato believed that children had to grow up in an atmosphere of play to become virtuous citizens.

In the face of this accumulated wisdom, the question is why so many educators across the nation have, in recent years, decided that it is acceptable to reduce or eliminate recess. As a Baltimore principal told me, “Whenever we get away from the traditional subjects — and recess can be looked at as a traditional subject — we have to wonder why we’ve stopped doing what has worked in the past.”

Principals who cut or eliminate recess in their schools tend to do so for two major reasons: they feel they need to maximize every minute of instruction time to improve student test scores and, in many cases, recess has become a behavioral headache.

In Tuesday’s column, I explained how an organization called Playworks is helping to address this problem by placing full-time coaches in schools to teach children how to manage their play. Many readers liked the idea. Some wrote movingly about their own recess experiences. Jkisner from Waynesburg, Pa. (11.), commented: “I’ll never forget when my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Francis Smith, played softball and soccer with us at recess 47 years ago.” Another reader, Josh Hill, from New London, Conn. (32.), wrote: “Fifty years later, I still carry the emotional scars of Lord of the Flies recess bullying.”

These comments reveal just how defining playground experiences can be. Which is why it makes sense to think seriously about recess, not treat it as something that will just run by itself.

I attended a Playworks training program a few years ago and I was surprised by the rigor with which the organization prepares its play coaches. These were not volunteers being sent into schools to improvise things. Trainers spent hours helping coaches with practical challenges like how to manage transitions smoothly; how to get children’s attention without yelling at them; how to break the ice when children resist trying new things; and what to do if African American, Latino and Asian kids aren’t playing with one another.

At face value, play may look like nothing special — just kids kicking a ball back and forth. But I saw that the training helped coaches gain a deeper insight into their work. During one exercise the trainees gathered in a circle and each was asked to recall a playground experience that had left a lasting impression. About half recalled a moment of triumph: winning a race or getting a game-winning hit. The other half brought up a painful memory: being picked last, dropping an important pass, or being excluded from a game. Just summoning the memories caused a number of them to well up with emotion and shed tears. It was a reminder that the playground experiences they would be helping to orchestrate for children were potentially those moments — so they needed to muster all the awareness they could.

Among readers who took issue with Playworks’ approach, the main concern was that children needed more time, not less, to be free of adults. Ned from Knoxville, Tenn., (9.), didn’t like the idea of a recess coach who acted as an “arbiter who makes all decisions as to who wins and loses.” But, as I mentioned, the coaches work to elicit play skills, not to dictate playground behavior or act as referees. They try to follow the approach described by Jerri, from Seattle (16.): “[P]rovide just enough leadership to keep everyone moving in the right direction — and then let [the kids] run their own show and learn from their own mistakes.”

In fact, it’s not possible for coaches to succeed any other way. Some schools have a few hundred kids in the yard at recess; a coach can’t pay attention to all of them. They move in and out of games, offering assistance where necessary, but for the most part the kids have to learn how to serve as their own arbiters. They get help from junior coaches, the older children that Playworks enlists to help manage recess. This is a key part of the program. More than 75 percent of teachers report (pdf) that the junior coaches gain important leadership skills.

What’s curious is that while adults have no problem with counselors guiding children’s play at a summer camp, many feel that kids should be left to their own devices at recess. Why? I suspect that it has to do with the fact that we all have negative school memories of adults who were too controlling — and we can empathize with kids who just need a break. This might explain the comment of Tina from Portland, Ore. (4.): “I can’t help wondering if kids would do a better job of learning how to play if we just left them alone. And I mean ALONE: No adult interference unless there’s bloodshed.”

I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s hard to defend this approach at a time when so many principals report that playgrounds are chaotic and dangerous, and the U.S. Department of Education has identified bullying as a serious national problem — and charged schools to come up with solutions. Moreover, bloodshed is not a good litmus test for adult involvement. Some of the cruelest bullying in elementary schoolyards occurs invisibly between girls, who don’t hit, but whisper things like, “Let’s not be friends with Tina.” Given the troubled state of playgrounds, a no-interference policy on the part of adults would be as misguided as today’s mandatory suspension policies.

In Massachusetts, where the state legislature signed anti-bullying legislation last year, Playworks has been identified as a key prevention program. Close to 90 percent of the teachers in Boston schools where the program operates report a decrease in bullying. Teachers in one public school are now trying to extend Playworks to the school buses.

Kids bully and misbehave more when they aren’t busy with better things. A San Jose principal observed that she knew Playworks was working because she no longer had to guard the bathrooms at recess. Kids used to vandalize the toilets; now they preferred to play. In many schools, coaches have turned bullies into junior coaches — giving them avenues to be positive, instead of negative, leaders.

The reason that schools are engaging Playworks, and other programs like Peace FirstPeaceful Playgrounds and Asphalt Green, to teach play, leadership and cooperative skills is that the channels that society has historically relied upon for transmitting these skills have broken down. As Veh, from Detroit (13.), writes: In years past, “larger families meant plenty of older siblings…[T]he older kids would lead the way, initiating games and activities.” Children also used to have much more time to play outside unsupervised where they learned the ropes from older kids. Another reader (35.) notes that many children today are “used to having every moment of their day scripted.”

Lest we romanticize the past, it’s important to note that the old recess was no paradise. Girls were excluded from many playground games. Awkward and unpopular kids were chosen last. The Hobbesian structure of games like dodge ball was far from ideal. (Having a rubber ball fired into your face by a kid twice your size is not fun.) For physically awkward children, recess was pure torture; only gym class was worse.

Even a benign game like kickball can benefit from an upgrade. If the idea is to kick the ball and run, why do kids spend most of their time standing still? Playworks’ version of kickball — Ultimate Kickball — has no foul balls; kids can keep running the bases, scoring multiple runs, until they’re tagged out; and even if they pop up, they still have to be tagged out.

For years, schools have operated on the assumption that any teacher or volunteer lunch lady is qualified to oversee recess. But just as schools outsource the management of their cafeterias, some need to consider outsourcing recess —  or at least bringing in specialists to help them. (By 2015, Playworks plans to be working in 715 schools in 23 cities and training staff and parents in an additional 1,000 schools each year.)

Play requires the acquisition of a complex set of skills. It’s not just about exercising or letting off steam. It’s about making agreements with others as equals, stepping into an imagined structure, and accepting that structure even when things don’t go your way. This may be why Plato considered play the ideal preparation for citizenship.

As it turns out, recess is the only weekday play opportunity that isn’t stratified by income — like living in a safe neighborhood, having decent park and recreation programs, or being able to afford private after-school activities. Recess can be made available to all children, rich or poor, provided the adults see fit to give it to them. (After a 38-year hiatus, it may even become available soon to the fresh-air-deprived students of the Chicago Public Schools.)

Recess is easily forgotten. But as Jill Vialet, the founder of Playworks explains, the way we treat it tells us something about what we value as a society. “If you think of education as a process by which we shape kids into the people we want them to be, and if you think that we have removed play from the school process, what does that say about the kinds of people we want them to be?”

(Note: On Tuesday, I promised to report on another organization working to make play accessible to more children. I plan to do that a future column.)

This column was originally published in The New York Times. Fixes appears on Tuesdays and Fridays in the Times’ Opinionator section.

Photo Credit/Caption: Tracie Faust/ Fifth grade students at AXL Academy in Aurora, Colo., which employs coaches from Playworks to oversee recess periods.

Photo Credit/Caption: Tracie Faust/ Antonio Carnes, known to students as “Coach Tone,” led AXL students in a warm-up exercise.

Leave a Reply