Recess returns — with less free play

Chicago schoolkids are going out for recess this week for the first time in 30 years — the mayor added time to the very short school day — and principals are worried that children don’t know how to play, reports the Chicago Tribune.

When Chicago’s Bright Elementary School added 15 minutes of recess to its school day this year, teachers ventured outdoors to find a run-down schoolyard with no playground, a sometimes violent neighborhood and a generation of kids who didn’t know how to play outside.

At Namaste Charter School, officials this year spent $23,000 for a “recess coach,” a modern-day schoolyard referee tasked with keeping fights and bullying to a minimum while also teaching games that could be unfamiliar to today’s schoolchildren — games like four square, tag and dodgeball.

Recess helps children learn, writes Nicholas Day in Slate.

Repeated studies have shown that when recess is delayed, children pay less and less attention. They are more focused on days when they have recess. A major study in Pediatrics found that children with more than 15 minutes of recess a day were far better behaved in class than children who had shorter recess breaks or none at all.

They’ll get more out of class, too: Children seem to learn more efficiently when information is spaced out—when it is distributed over time. It’s been widely documented that the brain needs a break. High-performing East Asian schools have famously long school days—but much of the extra time is taken up by recess, not instruction.

But principals see recess as a time of chaos. So the new recess is “more structured and sports-focused, less dreamy and aimless.”

The nonprofit organization Playworks puts full-time “recess coaches” in low-income schools—currently they’re in 387 schools in 23 cities—who teach children how to play: They organize games; they model how to resolve disputes (rock-paper-scissors); they try to get kids more active and engaged.

Playworks claims to add only the structure that might be provided by a big brother or sister teaching the little kids how to set up a game. There’s little fighting or bullying, the group says. But will the little kids grow up to run their own games?

Recess is a “no-brainer,” says Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota. But it’s value is undercut when the kids aren’t in charge.

 “A very important part of what kids do on the playground is social competence—that is, they learn how to get along with others,” he says. “You have to cooperate, you have to use language, you have to compromise. And that’s not trivial. That is huge, in terms of both academic success and success in life.”

Low-income children are the most likely to live in places where it’s not safe to play outside. They’re also the least likely to have time for play at school. “The more minority students a school has, and the lower the income level of their parents, the less time allotted for recess—nearly half of poor children go all day without it,” writes Day.

Let’s recess for… recess

Julia Steiny  has an excellent column up this week lamenting the modern loss of recess, and running over some of the major arguments in favor of having regular breaks for play and other unstructured activities.  She also talks about two groups (Peaceful Playgrounds and Let Children Play) pushing for a “right” to recess.

I’m always skeptical of couching things like this in the language of rights, but as a practice recess seems like sort of a no-brainer to me.

British school bans 'army game'

Teachers at a school in England reprimanded two seven-year-old boys for making gun shapes with their fingers, reports the Telegraph. A teacher accused the boys of threatening behavior. Parents said they were pretending to be soldiers.

Government inspectors rated the primary school as “good” last year, but said children should have greater freedom to play.

As in the U.S., British schools are limiting children’s play in the name of safety.

Earlier this year, a Liverpool school banned youngsters from playing football with anything other than sponge balls amid fears youngsters might get hurt.

Research last month also found that one in six British schools had banned conkers over concerns of pupils being hit in the face.

We used to play Pony Express and Indians with real bows and arrows (made of garden stakes) and water pistols. It was one of the few times in history when it was better to be an Indian. We could have put someone’s eye out, but didn’t.

Parents ask for more play time

Some kindergarten parents want more play time at Public School 101 in Forest Hills, Queens, reports the New York Times.

Gone were the play kitchens, sand and water tables, and dress-up areas; half-days were now full days. Instead, there were whiteboards, and the kindergartners, in classes of up to 27, practiced reading and math on work sheets on desks at P.S. 101, also known as the School in the Gardens.

Play came in the form of “choice time,” a roughly 30-minute afternoon period during which each child chose what blocks or toys in the classroom to work with, and at recess, which was often truncated by the time it took for every child to calm down and form an orderly line back to class.

Half the parents signed a letter to the principal asking for “more unstructured time in the school day, an extra recess period” and better line-up procedures.

Principal Valerie Capitulo-Saide agreed to an extra 30 minutes of P.E. a week and decided students don’t need to form perfect lines at recess.

Via Early Stories.

Teaching in Philly and Taiwan

Claire teaches third grade at an inner-city Philadelphia school. Sister Nikka taught aboriginal students for a year in Taiwan. Scholastic discovered their blog here and asked them to write New Teacher: Two Sisters Tell Their Stories.

Monday, March 1, 2010:
How does your school begin the day?

Taiwan, 8:10 a.m.
I walk into the beautiful grassy entrance way of my school in Nan Ao, greeted by hellos from students scattered about the school grounds who are picking up leaves and sweeping. There are a few teachers dispersed amongst them. Everyone is cleaning and working together. There is music playing. In a few minutes, they will line up in the school courtyard to formally greet each other and begin the day.

All 200 students stand completely still and face the flag. A student band plays a solemn national anthem while another group slowly raises the flag. The students, in unison, bow towards the line to formally greet one another. Then they turn to their teachers, bow, and say, “laoshihao,” Hello, teacher.  -Nikka

Philadelphia, 9:22 a.m.
Packed together on cafeteria benches, students scramble to finish their breakfasts. The school climate officer begins to quiet the room. After several rounds of “SHOW ME YOUR QUIET SIGNAL,” (a peace sign) the school climate officer leads the staff and students through two recitations. First, the Pledge of Allegiance. Second, the school rules.

“School rule number one. There is no violence at our school. Violence will not be tolerated. If you feel that you have to be violent you will leave the school. If a teacher or a parent loses their mind and becomes violent they will have to leave the school.

“School rule number two. We have a beautiful school. Do not litter. We pride ourselves on our beautiful facility. Keep it clean and beautiful.”

“School rule number three. All students must be accompanied by an adult at all times. There are no hall passes. An adult is your hall pass. The only place you may be by yourself is the bathroom stall.”

As the climate officer reaches the end of the rules, students are still making their way into the cafeteria just in time for school to begin. -Claire

Claire’s school has no recess for fear children will be hit by stray bullets.  On the other hand, Nikka had a student who wanted to grow up to be a beggar.

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?

Students fight winter ball ban

At a Canadian elementary school, two fifth-graders are fighting a  winter ban on balls in the schoolyard.

Dana Slater, the principal of D. Roy Kennedy Public School in Ottawa, said balls are banned during the winter for safety reasons.

“They’ve got snow stuck to them, they’re frozen, often there’s pebbles on them and they’re flying through the air,” Slater said. “One student fell backwards on their head and ended up with a concussion. We had a student with a ball in the eye area, which was very serious.”

Miles Lawlor and Owen Moore say recess is no fun without balls. “People are just standing around talking and not getting any exercise, and that’s the whole point of recess,” Owen Moore said.

Via Detention Slip.

At my Illinois elementary school, we had ice skating for P.E in the winter. I can’t remember if we had outdoors recess in the winter. It took so long to put on our winter clothes and then take them off.

Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and recess

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, say researchers. And Jack will concentrate better with some down time in the natural world. A Pediatrics study found children 8 and 9 years old behaved better in class if they had more than 15 minutes of recess a day. From the New York Times:

Although disadvantaged children were more likely to be denied recess, the association between better behavior and recess time held up even after researchers controlled for a number of variables, including sex, ethnicity, public or private school and class size.

Thirty percent of elementary students have little or no daily recess time, the study found.

A small study of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder last year found that walks outdoors appeared to improve scores on tests of attention and concentration. Notably, children who took walks in natural settings did better than those who walked in urban areas, according to the report, published online in August in The Journal of Attention Disorders. The researchers found that a dose of nature worked as well as a dose of medication to improve concentration, or even better.

I visited two schools that let children with autism or hyperactivity issues take an exercise break to calm themselves.

Lawyered to death

Lawyered-up students are harassing teachers and administrators, writes George Will.

A 2004 survey reported that 78 percent of middle and high school teachers have been subjected to legal threats from students bristling with rights. Students, sensing the anxiety that seizes schools when law intrudes into incidental relations, challenge teachers’ authority.

Someone hurt while running at recess might sue the school district for inadequate supervision of the runner, as Broward Country knows: It settled 189 playground lawsuits in five years. In Indiana, a boy did what boys do: He went down a slide head first — and broke his femur. The school district was sued for inadequate supervision. Because of fears of such liabilities, all over America playgrounds have been stripped of the equipment that made them fun. So now in front of televisions and computer terminals sit millions of obese children, casualties of what attorney and author Philip Howard calls “a bubble wrap approach to child rearing” produced by the “cult of safety.”

In Washington state, students are entitled to a lawyer at a truancy hearing, an appellate court has ruled.