Maybe Semi-Organized Recess Isn’t So Bad

Hi Readers — It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind (and a man’s, too), and this article from The Boston Globe has me re-thinking my knee-jerk reaction against any attempt to organize and regulate recess.

The article points out that in many schools, kids have almost forgotten HOW to play. Sending in a coach to get kids jumping rope or playing kickball is a sorry thing to need — you wish kids just did this spontaneously. But when they don’t,  sending in someone to teach the basics of fun is sounding good to me. 

Naturally, I don’t love the idea of an adult constantly prodding and organizing and restricting the kids. I want the kids to learn the basics then run the show. It’s their free time. I also want the non-athletic kids (like I was) to still have a chance to sit around and talk, if that’s their inclination. But to sit around because you have no idea how to organize a run-around game and neither do your friends? That is just sad. So here’s to teaching the other three Rs, when necessary: Running, Romping and Recess. — Lenore (who thanks MITBeta for sending along the link)

42 Responses

  1. That doesn’t sound semi-organized, it sounds totally organized. They have a choice of activities, but they can’t choose to do something else? If the activities are jump rope, hula hoop, hopscotch, and red rover and what YOU want to do is look at the anthill and figure out how they move if you do this or that, you’re out of luck?

  2. My sister was actually one of the “coaches” in Boston who went into the schools to teach games at recess a few years ago. The program she worked with was a lot less intense though. Each “coach” had several schools they worked with so they weren’t there every day. Also, it was more just teaching kids how to play games, not forcing them to. It is sad but it does seem like a lot of kids these days need that.

  3. Kate, do you think the article is misreporting (as will happen once in a while) or that there’s different types of these programs, some more structured than others?

  4. I find I do this with my kids.There are games we’ve played like Mother May I or Red Light, Green Light. Now that they are getting on in years🙂 (five and six) We play dodge ball and baseball etc. I don’t think there is anything wrong with teaching kids to play games, as long as there is plenty of time and room for them to change the rules, come up with their own versions or original games and yes even just be mesmerized by an ant hill.

  5. What our school district did was have the adults teach a team of kids that volunteered for the job. Then those kids led groups on the playground and wore “team leader” types of t-shirts so they could be spotted easily. They also went out to other schools and taught other teams of kids. So still organized but more kid-centred and nobody had to play if they didn’t want to.

  6. Don’t think I agree that this is a good thing. No, there’s nothing wrong with teaching kids to play games, and absolutely kids need to be more active. Structured physical activity is called PE.

    The problem is obviously that recess isn’t the only thing being scaled back and now they’re trying to consolidate. I can’t blame them for trying to make do, but recess has an entirely different purpose. Sometimes that’s just hanging out.

    I guess I’m not entirely opposed to a few organized games to encourage kids to play. There’s no doubt many children are losing the inclination. I think it’s a problem though if recess becomes the new gym class. Recess is about free play, not just exercise.

  7. Clare, I agree, that sounds wonderful!

    Meagan, it’s interesting to note…

    I was having this conversation with a gym teacher online. And she makes this big deal about how there’s No Place For Unstructured Free Recess In Schools because of safety reasons and they Just Don’t Need It, They Need Well-Run Phys Ed.

    Well, her own professional organization (the name of which escapes me now, but I commented about it all on her blog momisteaching so you can google for “momisteaching uly recess” and it’s sure to come up) recommends that children have both recess and gym every day. I’m sure she responded to that, but by then I was done reading her.

  8. By professional organization I don’t mean she’s necessarily affiliated with it, I mean as in “Your pediatrician says this, but you know the AAP says something totally different and the AAP is more likely to be correct because they’re the group that deals with pediatrics”.

  9. So they’re like the AAP of gym teachers.

  10. That’s what we used to learn in PE class. What on earth do they do in PE class?

    Or, is it just that they don’t have PE class anymore?

  11. Piaget liked to watch while children would manipulate existing games and create their own rules to create entirely new games. It’s really a fascinating thing to see. God knows it’s instructional for the teachers (et al) to see.

    I have no problem with adults starting kids off with some basic instruction, as long as they don’t abuse that power. P.E. != recess. I’m a little surprised they can’t get some of the younger teachers to engage in this kind of activity, though, instead of hiring outside help. Bonuses, anyone?

  12. There’s a lot to find disturbing about this – add my voice to the chorus of “PE is and should remain separate from recess” – but what I find most alarming here is the reason that schools are using to support these programs: kids need to be taught typical recess games/activities because THEY DON’T KNOW ANY. How in the hell has that happened??

    When I was a kid, I remember learning games like Red Rover, freeze tag, and hopscotch from other (usually older) kids both at the neighborhood playgrounds and at school recess. I also learned a bunch of games from my parents, my friends parents, a friendly neighbor and so on. Sure, we learned how to play games like kickball or soccer in PE class under the tutelage our gym teachers, but once we learned the game, we were allowed to put together our own games during recess without teacher interference (if we so chose – my school looked at those 30 min. as free time students could do with as they pleased, whether it was a pick up game or reading a book).

    Sometimes there were even specific games that served as life markers of a kind – kindergarten kids looked forward to starting 4-square when they made it to 1st grade, and being allowed to play tetherball meant that you’d left grade school behind and entered junior high. You learned the rules of the game so that someday when you were older, you’d be the one teaching a new batch of young players.

    The key here is that these games were learned through interaction, both with kids and with adults, that often resulted from spontaneous action and unspoken playground/recess “traditions” rather than regimented instruction. Which begs the question – why don’t these kids know how to play many of the games we adults played at their ages? I think we’re starting to see the consequences of helicopter parenting here, reflected in kids who’ve led such regimented lives in which so much of their interactions with others has been controlled that they never had the opportunity to learn these games in the way that we did when we were children. How are kids supposed to interact and learn from each other if they’re being kept in their own yards “because it’s safer” or even discouraged from playing a game like tag or tetherball (I got my one and only black eye playing tetherball, but it was worth it) because “they may get hurt?”

    I think this is also a consequence of the emerging attitude that play for it’s own sake is frivolous – everything kids do has to have some sort of purpose, whether it’s “brain teaser” games to enhance a child’s IQ or basketball camp to train potential “superstars.” Inserting that kind of attitude into the concept of “play” defeats the original point – it turns play into something like homework, something that’s no fun because you know it NEEDS to be done. And then there are all the scheduled activities like ballet or music lessons or sports-specific coaching and so on – between all those scheduled activities and homework, there’s little time left for any play at all. At which point, I can’t really blame a kid for seeing video games as an escape from all that.

    So yes, if a little adult supervision is needed to get these kids going in recess, why not? So long as they bow out as the kids get more confident in organizing their own games and PE remains separate from recess. But how about also giving kids more freedom, time and opportunities outside of recess to have fun & learn those childhood games on their own?

  13. @MFA Grad Student: kids used to learn to play hopscotch and the rules of marbles by playing on the street. Where I live kids still play on the street, but reading freerangekids.com I realize that there are vast aereas in the world where this is considered dangerous because of strangerdanger, so kids stay at home.
    Then, of course, there is the tv and gameboy and the computer…
    I was a bookworm and a thickglasses-wearing, chunky and clumsy non-athlete as a kid, but I still played outside between reading books (non-athletic I might’ve been, but reading books made me the undisputed Queen of Exciting Games in my neighborhood – our week of playing ‘Robin Hood’ became legendary) If they had had internet in my childhood, or even day-long tv for kids (in my youth there were only two days when the national television network catered for kids, on the free wednesday afternoon and the saterday afternoon. Both from 15.30 to 17.00 hrs. And that was *it*), if there was anything on offer like it is today, I would never have set a foot outside…

  14. I just can’t get worked up about this one. If kids are thrown out into the wild world of the school playground on their own, that’s fine. If they are organized into various fun, running-around games, that’s fine (they can have unstructured time in their own back yards when they get home). If both happen, that’s fine.

    Now, if *neither* happens–if first and second graders are sitting behind desks for six hours interrupted only by lunch–that’s a problem. They won’t learn much by the end of that day. But other than that, why sweat this?

  15. Maybe one reason why kids aren’t learning these games from other kids is that recess is age segregated (at least in my kids school) – i.e. first graders don’t go out at the same time as 3rd graders etc. So they never have a chance to learn from the older kids?

  16. I have to weigh in here. My son goes to a school that uses Playworks. I am an advocate for free play for children and wish there were more but Playworks has been an amazing program for our school.

    It isn’t as structured as you are concerned it might be. Children aren’t required to participate in any game. It has been so wonderful to see the children start using those four square courts and actually be up and moving around during recess rather than sitting on the benches or fighting. But there are plenty of children digging for dinosaur bones and worms or playing their own imaginary games.

    Our Playworks coach is really involved with the kids and like a friend to them, not a teacher. She also recruits junior coaches who teach other kids some basic games.

    I live within view of the playground so I see what goes on there everyday. It has the feel of a neighborhood park during recess, not a PE class. There are kickball games and four square games and the Playworks coach is involved but not standing over them. She brings the balls out and keeps the equipment organized and well maintained.

    I don’t think the Globe did justice to this program. I wouldn’t be so quick to judge based on the article. The more important issue out there is that recess is cut shorter and shorter and PE classes are eliminated. It is sad that children need to be taught how to play but Playworks is doing great work with our children.

  17. My six children are homeschooled, and every time we get together with other homeschooling families for activities, the kids get a game of freeze-tag, or catch, or even just roll-down-the-hill going. We can’t stop these kids from playing, they do it on their own. We never sat down and taught them these games. They make them up and/or learn them from each other.

    And they say we homeschoolers are the ones who are socially inept. Doesn’t sound like it.

  18. I think Marion’s got it. Kids learned this stuff by playing together, the older kids with the younger, on summer afternoons in the neighborhood. Also, the point about segregated recesses is a good one. I think when I was in elementary school, 1-3 went out together, and 4 and 5 (my school only went up to 5) went out together. At least that way, the 1st graders were able to see the 3rd graders’ games.

    Thankfully, kids still play outside in my neighborhood. It was just this year when a new family with several outgoing kids moved in, that a pack suddenly formed.

    So the semi-organized recess can be a good thing for those kids who just don’t have that opportunity, for whatever reason. They can be encouraged to participate, and get some guidance in learning things to do and playing together appropriately. But it should be SEMI, as long as its recess. MAKE them play in gym, let them do or not do what they want in recess. Recess is supposed to be a BREAK. How would the teachers feel if the administration made them run laps or do Sudoku or whatever the administration thought was best for them, doing their BREAK time? How would the administration feel if told where to go and what to do on their lunch hour?

    Besides, making it totally organized, structured, and adult run just makes it ANOTHER version of soccer leagues — just another case where the only play kids get is structured and run by adults. That’s fine in its place, but duplicating that yet again at recess doesn’t accomplish anything as far as helping kids learn to interact on their own!

  19. @ Marion – Oh, me, too – I was a total bookworm as well when I was a kid; my 5th grade teacher used to bust me regularly for sneaking a read during class (I tried to hid the book in my lap under my desk thinking that it looked like I was following along with the textbook stuff or my notes) and it drove her nuts because on the one hand, she LOVED getting kids to read, but on the other, I still had to pay attention in class!

    I think you have a really good point about how technology’s affecting how kids play as well. My parents refused to buy a video game system and taped the morning/afternoon cartoons we liked so we could watch them after it was too dark to be outside rather than let them eat up the afternoon. TV, computers and Gameboys are like everything else – fine in moderation – but I can see how it can be easy for parents to let the electronics keep their kids busy (they’re less likely to injure themselves playing a gameboy, although I know a surprising number of adults who’ve gotten sports-related injuries from playing too much Wii) or how they’d appeal to more solitary-/sedentary-inclined kids. Still, I also wonder if kids couldn’t use video games or TV shows the same way you used your books – to inspire great bouts of outdoor games as well. That week of Robin Hood sounds like it was a blast! My friends and I in grade school were rather geeky, so we had week-long episodes that went from recess to recess using things like the Dark Crystal, Castlevania, X-Men or Treasure Island for inspiration as well – for awhile He-Man was a favorite, and we had a designated Castle Grayskull (the playground “log cabin”) and Snake Mountain (the giant jungle gym).

    Still, it is sad that the reality is, as you pointed out, that there are lots of kids who live in places that really are too dangerous for them to play outside. In those cases, they have no choice. The problem is that there seems to be an increasing number of kids who live in safe neighborhoods who nevertheless are being kept close to home and losing out on experiences like epic Robin Hood adventures. I still can’t wrap my mind around the concept that kids need to be taught simple games like Red Rover at school because they don’t know how to organize themselves during recess.

  20. @ Sonya: I think you hit the nail on the head. When everyone on the playground is a 1st grader, and there are no 4th graders to teach you Red Rover, you need SOMEone to show you. Hence the coach idea.

    It’s still awfully sad….

  21. single grade recess isn’t the problem: we learned those games playing in the front yard at home, and then played them at school. the problem is exactly what Lenore started this whole blog about: people being so afraid of whatever that kids don’t have the chance to go outside and learn these games from each other like we did back in the oh-so-distant 70’s and 80’s.

    when we had this conversation at our school, I made the reply that if our children don’t know how to have unstructured play, that is competely OUR fault as parents, not their failings as children. Let’s put the blame where it belongs.

  22. Why do they have to play the games we recognize? Just because they aren’t playing Red Rover, we conclude that don’t know how to play at all? Do these kids complain recess is boring, or are they playing things that aren’t recognizable “games”?

    When I ask my daughter what she did at recess, she often says things like “I played dogs” whatever that is. Sure, I have taught her jump rope rhymes, etc., and we have a great time doing that at home, but I don’t think that it is necessary that the same activities that were popular when I was a kid have to be popular now too.

  23. I don’t know, if I recall, teachers taught us those playground games during recess when I was at school in the 70’s too. I didn’t learn them “on the street.” On the street we rode bikes and played street hockey and rollerskated; we didn’t play Red Rover and Sharks and Minnows, etc. – that stuff we learned and played at school. They were just our regular teachers who taught us, however, and organized and referred the games. We didn’t have to have a special “coach” come in. You could join the games or play on the playground as you chose. I don’t see a problem with adults teaching these games. Maybe teachers just aren’t doing this anymore, or maybe someone found a new way to make money supplying needs that don’t really exist by becoming “recess coaches” when the teachers and/or older kids can get these games started just fine.

    Of course, some spontaneous playground games are hard to do these days. Try playing lava tag on a MODERN playground, where the equipment isn’t interconnected but broadly stretched out with streams of mulch inbetween, and you can’t exactly leap from one piece to another. You could teach a kid lava tag, but where’s he going to play it?

  24. To add…but those games we usually played after lunch. We had a recess time on the playground, and also a play time in the fields after lunch, and also P.E.

  25. I was struck by the last paragraph of the article. it was subtle, but did you notice, even though these kids had been exposed to this new play style for a year, and even though the props (balls, hula hoops etc) were available to them, they were mentally/emotionally unprepared to play games together without the teacher there to facilitate it. I would hope this playground teacher would be trying to “work herself out of a job” by inspiring the kids to lead themselves.
    what good will they be as adults who cannot work without being micromanaged?

  26. silvermine Said: That’s what we used to learn in PE class. What on earth do they do in PE class?

    PE is no longer for games, PE is for sports. Soccer, organized gymnastics, basketball, etc. Plus calisthenics, of course.

  27. Well, soccer and basketball is good too.. Um, though I can’t imagine a first grader really enjoying the heck out of basketball, unless it’s an extra-small ball, short hoop, liberal dribbling rules…😀

    But isn’t there room for those sorts of games and freeze tag? A lot of those childhood games are what they are because it’s more accessible for a tiny person. Not as many rules as basketball.. not quite so much coordination, you know?

    Calisthenics?! Isn’t that what someone invented because adults didn’t go out and play enough?😛

    But okay… I think I get it. It sounds like so many places have reduced or eliminated PE, and what PE they have is probably half health class, and half teaching them “real” academic games like basketball and grown-up style exercise.

    Still, depressing. It sounds like they can’t let kids just be kids. There’s this weird movement towards no fun. Like, if you’re having fun instead of doing something Academic, you’re going to fall behind. At least in preschool, my son played freeze tag, even if I had to ignore that they tried to give him homework.😛

    Oh well, to each their own. That’s not for me.

  28. When I was a kid, I didn’t automatically know how to play four-square and there was always an adult hanging around to monitor the kickball games. And I can assure you my mother was no helicopter. I spent most of my free time reading or swimming, so when I got to a school where they played four-square, I was confused and ultimately found the game stupid. Handball and Tether ball were self explanatory. And I just don’t understand the idea of kids not knowing how to jump rope, that just seems ridiculous. We even just ran around chasing each other sometimes…

    Maybe the playgrounds lack good equipment: are there monkey bars, rings and a cherry drop (that was one of my favorites…I loved flipping around on that bar)? Are there basketball courts? A baseball diamond? What are the kid’s options?

    Man, this seems like a sad state of affairs.

  29. I recently searched the web for some basic forms for my preschool – attendance worksheets, activity logs – and found a few websites that offer big databases of worksheets and forms for parents. Mixed in with the classic chore charts and homework logs were “play bucks” – rewards kids can earn for playing. Seriously? We need a reward system now to get our kids to play?

    My kids play all day long. What am I doing right? Oh yeah – no TV.

  30. (I wrote earlier about my son attending a school that uses Playworks)…

    I believe Playworks only does their program in Title I schools. Remember there is high poverty and a lot of ethnic and racial diversity in our urban schools. It isn’t fair to blame parents in these situations. Many parents are working multiple jobs just to afford the very basics. They don’t have the luxury of helicoptering or sitting around thinking about their children’s play skills.

    It is a societal problem for sure but you can’t blame all parents.

    The kids are not repressed as they play kickball and run like crazy while being supervised by an adult who loves her job, cares about the kids and takes good care of the equipment that comes in and out before school and during recess.

  31. What annoys me about the whole ‘we hire an adult coach to teach children how to play’ is that it is futile, counterproductive, insane even. After all, what is play? Play is how children figure out how the world works. Both the physical world and the social world. Playing with other children teaches children how to socialize with others, how to make friends, how to negotiate to get what you want without losing your friends, when to press forward and when to yield, how to show anger and disappointment in such a way that is acceptable. You know. That is what play is about. Becoming properly socialized. Doesn’t work the same with adults. You need other kids for that. With adults there are different lessons to be learned. Important lessons, to be sure, but play is for those importantl lessons only play can teach you.
    If an adult teaches children something, the social dynamics are vastly different. For a start, the adult teaches, the kids have to listen and obey, even when the adult tries to be the kid’s ‘friend’, it simply doesn’t work, nor should it.

    A group of kindergarten teachers in Seattle interfered with children who played with legos in their group. The kids were doing great, and had turned it – on their own – into a group activity, with complicated rules and all, but the teachers thought it their play too ‘class-based and capitalist’ and decided to step in and take over the kids play to ‘to launch a critical evaluation of Legotown and the inequities of private ownership and hierarchical authority on which it was founded’.

    Daniel Hemmens wrote about it here:

    http://www.ferretbrain.com/articles/article-474

    (The link to the original article by the two teachers can be clicked in Hemmens article)

    Check this one out, Lenore, and you’ll find that adults messing around with kids play is seldom a good idea. Well, make that never.

  32. At my daughter’s school they have a recess program on Wednesdays suring which they teach some games to promote fitness. It’s voluntary and aimed at couch potatoes and socially inept children who need prodding in order to participate.

  33. Solinox, that was my first thought too. As homeschoolers, my kids are always up to something. It’s funny to see the neighborhood kids congregrate in my backyard because of the creative games my kids have “made up”. Things like obstacle courses and TV tag and olympics on the swings are a totally new concept to them. I do believe that part of the reason my kids know these things are because they have never been segragated into age groups. They are constantly with all ages from younger to much older. I have to agree with the posters that have pointed this out as a problem.

    If kids really don’t know these games, then I see no problem with making the first two or three weeks of recess learning times. But then adults need to back off and let kids play. On another post someone complained about the teachers socializing during recess…I say let ’em. Teachers need the break as much as the kids do and lunch breaks and stuff are often spent preparing for class so let them talk to each other for 20 minutes and let the kids be kids. It’s a win-win situation in my book.

  34. MFA: I think the two trends you identified are aspects of larger phenomena. The first one strikes me as part of a general tendency to reject and retreat from all things public, to the point where “public” has now become a dirty word for taxation. Remember some years back when baseball player John Rocker made some really stupid racist and homophobic remarks about the New York subway? After hearing those and seeing some of his subsequent behavior, I realized what his problem was: he resents having to share the world with people he hasn’t personally invited into it. A lesser form of this attitude seems to have infected much of American society: being successful means being able to avoid others. As a result, a lot of informal cultural transmission gets cut off. While I don’t like the military draft, one positive thing that can certainly be said for it is that it had a democratizing effect by forcing people to mix.

    The second phenomenon is the loss of the realization that “economy” is not a synonym for “society,” nor is “work” a synonym for “life.” Everything now has to be completely directed toward not just measurable goals, but monetizable ones. Parents want everything their kids do to contribute to their Future (narrowly spelled out as G.P.A. and S.A.T.). It’s fully consistent with the Puritan Ethic, but for someone reason it took a long time to be realized.

  35. Mixed in with the classic chore charts and homework logs were “play bucks” – rewards kids can earn for playing. Seriously? We need a reward system now to get our kids to play?

    Given that we know (and have for decades) that children rewarded for something are LESS likely to do it if the reward isn’t there, perhaps the “play bucks” are to subtly discourage the kids from playing and get them to do Real Work instead.

  36. At a cub scout den meeting yesterday, I taught my cubs Red Rover. Not a single one of them had heard of it. That is rather sad, but at least I am trying to rectify the situation!

  37. I’m a teacher in a suburban school, but during my student teaching years, I observed in some troubled urban-area schools. Many of the children there, even in elementary school, already hold allegiances to certain street gangs or hold deep racial prejudices. Dangerous fights, suspension, and expulsions can be common on such playgrounds. Most of the schools in my area (Los Angeles) that use assigned, organized play use it to keep their schools free of violence that most middle class Americans might have a hard time believing happens on an elementary schoolyard. And you know what? It works. There’s a time and place for supervised activity, and unfortunately it’s necessary–and not overkill– on some playgrounds.

  38. The website Games Kids Play is excellent. http://www.gameskidsplay.net/
    Also check out any of the Girl Scout of Boy Scout or Cub Scouts games sites.

  39. I haven’t read the comments, please excuse me if I’m restating something someone else already made clear:

    It is sad, but kids do NOT know how to play anymore (with exceptions, obviously). I am a Girl Scout troop leader, and I get shocked every time we go outside. The girls literally have no idea what to do. Thankfully, there are usually 2 or 3 who actually DO play outside, and they teach games to the others. I have stood back just to observe the insanity, and it is truly mind-boggling.

  40. I grew up in Chicago in the 70’s & 80’s. Our grammar school had a system. The 6th-8th graders could volunteer to be play leaders. Each play leader was assigned a room of lower grade kids. I think it was a way to give the teachers a break, yet make sure the kids didn’t run off when we went outside. (gasp! outside!) I had 1st grade girls when I was in 6th grade. Another kid had the boys from that class. We played Red Rover, Farmer in the Dell, Duck, Duck, Goose, Rattlesnake, and whatever they wanted to do or I could think of. Last year I ran into someone who told me I was her play leader.😀.
    We had 1 hour for lunch because most kids went home to their moms. My mom worked, so I ate in the school auditorium for 15 minutes and then went outside UNSUPERVISED for 45 minutes. We only stayed inside if it was subzero outside.

  41. I don’t want to rehash what was already said about kids not knowing how to spontaneously play games, but it is true. if we don’t offer some choices, what are they going to do? They walk around and talk about each other, starting rumors and getting in fights. 90% of our behavior referrals come from recess. If parents don’t let their kids learn how to “free-range” play at home (since all their activities are organized), what is the school supposed to do?

    BTW, I do totally agree with you!!! I just know that every day after recess we have to waste class time sorting through who said what, and at least once a week someone asks to see the principal because the monitors wouldn’t deal with the problem. If they were all *doing* something, they wouldn’t have time to get in trouble.

  42. […] Readers! Well today a topic we’d discussed a little earlier (and earlier still)  has made the front page of The New York Times. “Forget Goofing Around: […]

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