The recess coach

Today’s kids don’t know how to play, so schools are hiring “recess coaches” to show students how to socialize, writes David Elkind, emeritus professor of child development at Tufts University.

For children in past eras, participating in the culture of childhood was a socializing process. They learned to settle their own quarrels, to make and break their own rules, and to respect the rights of others. They learned that friends could be mean as well as kind, and that life was not always fair.

Now that most children no longer participate in this free-form experience — play dates arranged by parents are no substitute — their peer socialization has suffered. One tangible result of this lack of socialization is the increase in bullying, teasing and discrimination that we see in all too many of our schools.

Elkind blames the rise of TV and computer games for children’s inability to get along with others.

Do kids really need to a “coach” to teach them how to play with each other? Really?

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  1. Diana Senechal says:

    They need safe open spaces where they can roam and play–with an adult nearby but without adult interference.

    It isn’t only a question of socialization; it’s also a matter of learning what to do with oneself. When kids know, for instance, that they love to go out at sunset and run up the hill that looks over the town, then they already have something to show their friends if they so choose (or they may decide to keep it secret). But if they have no room for exploration, they don’t find these things out.

    In June 2009, I read Rita Kramer’s op-ed on this subject; it has stayed on my mind. She argues not that we have lost the good old days of childhood, but that the pressures on children have changed.

    “The middle-class urban child of today is programmed for success from the crib onward, in school and seemingly in every other waking hour. Anecdotes flood the media about the over-scheduled child and pleas are heard for a return to a less structured more carefree childhood.

    “Did it ever exist? Or has the kind of pressure placed on the young just changed over time from the demands of laboring to the demands of learning?”

  2. Terri W. says:

    Great! Now when people tell me they send their kids to school, I can ask, “But what about socialization?”

  3. I’d be more prone to blame the “bubble wrap” mentality (where kids have to be protected from sadness, fear, and harm at all costs) than television and video games. I watched TV as a kid (and we had PONG, though I think I read far more than I watched TV or played PONG), but I also spent some time negotiating the social fabric of the neighborhood.

    “Friends could be mean as well as kind.” That’s a lesson I definitely learned early on.

    I will say having a compassionate older kid (in my case, the older sister of a couple of my friends) who could adjudicate in really bad situations (or could do things like run and get the first-aid kit when someone got a bee sting) also helped…

  4. When I was a kid, back in the early 1960’s, there definitely was something you might have called “kid culture”. We had a shared vocabulary (everyone knew what “cooties” were, even if all but the youngest kids thought the notion was pretty silly), we had standard games that we played (red rover, statues, red-light,green-light, hide and seek, etc, etc) and standard responses for standard social circumstances (“I know you are, but what am I?”).

    This shared culture was very beneficial. If you found yourself at some event, such as a church picnic or a party at the house of one of your parent’s friends, you could pretty easily strike up some fun with the other kids present. Even if you didn’t know them, they knew the routine, they knew the culture.

    That shared culture seems to be pretty much gone now, and it’s a hard thing to recover. The idea that you might teach a kid these things, rather than having them absorb them naturally, seems pretty darned odd.

  5. palisadesk says:

    I can’t speak for others, but there are certainly varied causes I’ve seen in the last two schools I’ve been in. TV and video games have been with us for decades, so although they play a role, I’m not convinced it’s a major one. In my current school community, many (even most) families are large, live in high-rise apartments in quite crowded circumstances, and have little access to transportation, parks, play areas, recreational opportunities, and the like. The neighborhood is not conducive to children riding bikes, visiting friends, exploring or engaging in many of the usual childhood pastimes that we remember, and that I still see routinely occurring in more rural or suburban areas.

    Many of our students have little interchange with children outside their own family until they go to school; they live in extremely crowded situations, they are not nearly as physically active as one would hope, and they lack exposure to rich language, toys and games that develop thinking, creativity, etc. They are usually well cared for, but many are recent immigrant families and are grappling with culture shock as well as financial strictures. Most parents are working; we have very few welfare families.

    What we notice is that the children have very poor social skills with peers, and sometimes with adults. Their language is poorly developed (often this is true in their first language as well), and they have limited ability to concentrate or sustain any activity. In one professional development session I attended, we were told by some experts in pediatric development that crowded and chaotic home situations produced children with ADD-like behavior that was not necessarily ADD. These children have simply been over-stimulated and have not had normal opportunities for quiet, personal space, pursuing self-chosen activities or interests, or social interactions with a variety of people outside the family.

    We have not hired “recess coaches,” but we have had to address the problem of children simply not knowing how to play together. They don’t know how to jump rope, play ball, do simple games like 7-Up and Rover, Red Rover that were staples of childhood. We have had hopscotch and Four Square courts painted on the schoolyard concrete and teams of older students trained to help the younger ones play these games. They need to be taught to take turns, to lose graciously (or at least non-violently!), to work together when playing on a team, to show good sportsmanship (congratulate the winner, encourage teammates, etc).

    Kids are quite able to learn these things, but need to be taught, just as they need to be taught literacy and math skills. We have made recesses shorter but added one to the day, so that kids did not run out of positive things to do before the bell rang. So far, having middle school recess helpers, and some teachers who volunteered to coach kids in learning games like Four Square and touch football, has been pretty effective.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Recess coaches?


  7. Is bullying *really* on the rise, and if so, can we really blame its rise on video games?

  8. It’s too much structure and too much-me centrism. TV and computers are a result of that not the cause of it. My kids have played on teams with other kids for a couple of years and you see the kids have never spoken to each other. I had a rule in soccer that when kids were out of the game they couldn’t sit with the parents they had to sit with the team and these were 7-8 yr olds and there were a lot of problems with it. The family that lives behind us the house is so close you can hear the phone ring and my daughter asks whether she and the other girl can have a play date. Too much structure.

  9. They don’t need a coach – they need a parent.

  10. Maybe it’s too much interference from the experts. Parents are pulled from one extreme to the other. We either spend too much time with our kids, or not enough. We are at once too involved with their education and not enough. Should I have my child home doing his school work, or send him outside for free play? Maybe someone can blow a neighborhood whistle so we can all move our children inside for their block of quality parent time.

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    Palisadesk–I like your solution. I am far less intrigued by figuring out why kids on a playground have a hard time figuring out what to do, or how we got there, than I am about what to do about it. I have observed some ridiculously punitive responses (removing recess, separating girls and boys, making them sit in the gym) to a middle school having extreme difficulties managing the unstructure part of lunch periods. I had read about a similar school that had incorporated a unit on playground games into the early part of the phys ed year–so that kids had some things to do other than stand around and talk about one another (or worse). The principal didn’t seem to think that the kids were capable of or interested in anything else–so they kept on with their cattle herding methods.

    Often it’s just a matter of introducing new things that the kids can pick up on their own and run with.

  12. I just published an arti cle describ ing why I think that Elkind’s article is a betrayal of the “free play” move ment that he helped start. Check it out:

    The Neville Cham ber lain of Free Play


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