In PreKindergarten, we head outdoors for recess twice each school day; once mid-morning, and again after lunch. Our recess times range from 30 to 45 minutes in length, depending on the day and the weather. During recess, our students run freely between a large sandbox area with a castle-like structure, a heavily mulched section with swings and climbing structures, large rocks for climbing on, and fields for running games, ball games and other activities dreamed up by imaginative children ranging in age from four to fourteen.
Ask children about their favorite part of the school day, and the majority will respond “recess.” (As their classroom teacher, I’m not insulted – really.) But to assume that recess is all fun, fluff and physicality is to ignore the tremendous (and I don’t use that word lightly) amount of learning that happens outdoors.
During recess, children negotiate body space, let off steam, blow off excess energy, and develop fitness with physical activity. They use critical thinking to create rules for games, solve problems, form collaborations, get into arguments, jostle for power, and take physical risks. And most importantly of all, they practice these skills with a certain amount of autonomy. Try walking over to a group of children playing outside, and watch them scatter like roaches from a light. Recess is a time to play blissfully out of earshot; to revel in being under the radar, but also to appreciate that there is a caring adult within reach.
One of my favorite things about recess at a small PreK through 8th grade school is watching the interactions and developing relationships between children of different ages. PreK children often connect with their seventh grade buddies, multi-age siblings and friends might play a game of chase together, and no fifth-grade football game is so serious that a five or six year old can’t join in – learn a few rules, and even get the ball on occasion.
I often think that our recesses allow us to revive what was best about our own long ago childhoods; back when children were sent out in the school yard with kids of all ages for a solid amount of time, and didn’t come in until the bell rang. And while there certainly are elements of similarity in the mixed-age play and relative freedom to explore a large and varied playspace, much has changed. The blacktops have been replaced with grass, the area under the swings is heavily mulched and the playground structures meet rigid safety requirements for material, height and accessibility. The ratio of children to adults is monitored to ensure proper supervision, and teachers place themselves thoughtfully so that they can both see and be seen by children at play without hovering or interfering with the flow of activity.
These are reasonable safeguards for daily recess times, ones which add an element of safety without detracting from the quality and substance of play. But I’ve come to realize that when it comes to the safety of children, schools need to tread a fine line on the playing field. The gains we have made in making recess safe for our children are in danger of threatening crucial aspects of their education. At what point do we cross over from a rational concern for the safety of our children to an overbearing presence on the playground – one which precludes our children from developing important life skills?
In my twenty-eight years as a teacher and twenty-five years as a parent, I have watched growing overprotectiveness, helicopter parenting, and most recently a heightened fear of bullying cause us to make what I consider to be serious mistakes in how we control our children’s play – particularly their play outdoors. Parents are understandably concerned about the safety of their children, but many schools are given to making nonsensical rules to appease an overprotective but vocal minority rather than providing an education about the importance of allowing children to take risks and practice physical and social skills independently – in an environment with a developmentally appropriate and thoughtfully drawn safety net.
Recently, an elementary school in British Columbia banned kindergarten children from touching each other at recess. The rationale? According to the principal, the rule was created in response to complaints from parents about “rough play.” The school instituted a “zero-tolerance” no-touch rule for their kindergarten students, “resulting in the missing of playtime and trips to the office for those who are unable to follow the rules.”
Where was the middle ground? Here was the perfect opportunity to grasp a teachable moment for both children and parents, and talk about the issue of physical play and fighting at recess. For young children, understanding that the same play that is stimulating and empowering for one child may feel scary to another is a big, tough, hard lesson to learn. It’s a process, and one that continues throughout the elementary school years. Hard and fast rules, like “no-touching,” simply skirt the issue rather than address it head-on.
One of our biggest goals in the PreKindergarten year is to help our students understand that while teachers and other adults are there to keep them safe, children are also capable of keeping themselves safe in many situations by following rules, showing respect, and communicating clearly to each other with words and body language. The toughest part is mastering which problems they can handle independently, and which ones need a teacher’s help. During recess times, children get real, hands on practice figuring out the difference.
Recess should be a time when children get to practice being individuals in the real world. It is a time for learning how to climb up on the swing and pump all by yourself. It is a time to chase and be chased, and to learn how to make it clear to others when you don’t want to play anymore. It is a time for learning to get down from the top of the monkey bars without help. And if you fall? There is mulch underneath; and in the bigger scheme of things, a skinned knee is simply not a big deal.