Recess Stifling Childhood Creativity? School Playgrounds for Hire: What Happened to Free Play at School and Is Adult-Directed
By: Anne Taylor
In October of 2015 school playgrounds and “Playgrounds For Hire” became the topic of numerous news articles. This subject made waves because parents in the city of Minneapolis had to petition to have recess brought back to their elementary school.
Yes, PARENTS HAD TO PETITION that recess be brought back to Minneapolis public elementary schools.
In an interview with TC Daily Planet last winter, a Minneapolis public school teacher commented “I would like to see more recess because studies show that more play time makes kids more attentive. It is hard for them to stay focused without play or movement. In fact, it leads to more behavior problems.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees calling recess “a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development.” Simply put, studies show recess offers children important cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits, yet many schools continue to cut down on breaks to squeeze in more lessons, which may be counterproductive, it warns.
For years now we’ve been hearing more and more how recess is being taken away from our children in school. While many of us remember having recess through 8th grade, children today don’t experience this much needed and necessary play beyond pre-school. Recess is being cut for a myriad of reasons, from an increase in standardized testing and cut-throat academics, (including those in grades K-4th grade) to punishment for bad behavior and even low grades.
A parent reported that one affluent middle school in the western suburbs tried revoking recess to students if they had missing assignments and/or grades that fell below a “C.” Students in this middle school were only offered time outside on alternating days and was dependent upon outside weather. Which in our state, translates to May or possibly June. Following lunch, students are sent back to their classrooms and given an opportunity to finish homework, play games, watch a movie, check-in on their iPhones (ie: social media) or chat among friends. As one student puts it, “It’s like a prison not being able to go outside all day.”
In October 2015, an Edina, Minnesota school piqued the interest of many on the usage of playground “recess consultants” to the tune of up to $30,000 in the name of making kids’ playtime “more inclusive.”
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune “Playworks” consultants organize recess-time activities, such as foursquare and jump rope, that are “overseen by adults and designed to reduce disciplinary problems while ensuring no children are left out.”
“Playworks” is currently operating in over 20 areas across the state of Minnesota. This includes contracts for hire by a number of school districts, as well as providing services to youth organizations such as the YMCA of Greater Twin Cities and Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health. According to an article in the National Review, with “the constant correction and micromanaging of kids’ social interactions, Playworks effectively turns the playground into the principal’s office — which would definitely result in fewer reasons to go.”
Many have argued that there are already adult staff and parent volunteers on the playground that monitor recess, so why burden school districts with such micromanagement and added cost? Has our view of recess changed?
In the Orono school district, a playground program dubbed “Recess Rocks” teams up with teachers, parent and grandparent volunteers to monitor kids’ behaviors at recess. The focus is on acts of kindness on the playground (such as reward stickers) for good behavior. They also offer what they call a “buddy bench” should a student have no one to play with allowing other children the opportunity to come forward to play with a student.
While many like the idea of encouraging parent/family involvement at their school, some have concerns. One parent states, “We expect our kids to act a certain way and they do not get rewarded when they do.” Another responds, “Crazy. Recess is not recess if it’s structured by adults.”
In Minnesota, several charter schools are working with the organization LiiNK Project, another 3rd party business. Recently, LiiNK Project has received notoriety for increasing an academic-focused recess plan for its positive results in a Texas elementary school for having increased academic-focused recess play, while doing so multiple times throughout the day. While the school claims to have seen positive academic results and less behavior problems, when did it become the schools motto to become character developers and under who’s list of regulations?
Once again, we are seeing the intrusion of such play where even that has a cost of freedom while outside of the classroom, leaving more opportunity for both ‘mining’ and ‘minding’ the behaviors of child on a playground.
I think we can all agree that there are some behaviors that are simply not tolerable – both verbal and physical. But being told that hearing phrases like “you’re out!” is hurting kids? How far have we gone? Isn’t that the nature of sports and learning not everything in life IS fair?
The theory of imaginative, unstructured play can be found extensively in Waldorf education where unstructured recess play is undoubtedly a necessity. According to Seacoast Waldorf School in Maine, ”Today, the average American child spends just four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day…Four to seven minutes. That’s just 23 to 42 hours a YEAR (out of an average of more than 4300 waking hours, translating to less than 1% of a child’s ‘awake time’ being spent outdoors!).”
Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom and author of the nonfiction book “Balanced and Barefoot” writes her discovery that by decreasing “children’s time and space to move and play outdoors, we are seeing a simultaneous rise in the number of children that are presenting with sensory deficits. The number of children that now need occupational therapy services to treat their sensory systems is on the rise.”
She goes on to say that “…less time outdoors on a regular basis, more and more children are walking around with underdeveloped vestibular (balance) systems. In other words, they have decreased body awareness and sense of space. Teachers are reporting that children are falling out of their seats in school, running into one another, pushing with more force during games of tag, and are generally clumsier than in years past. In fact, the more we restrict and coddle our children, the more unsafe they become.”
With Minnesota weather ebbing and flowing in varying degrees from muddy, cool springs to harsh temperatures for weeks on end in the teens and below zero, we might want to take in to account that even for famed ‘outdoorsman families,’ children still need time away from the confines of a concrete classroom setting with free and unstructured play during ALL seasons.
One wonders why consulting companies are trying to reinvent the wheel on the theory of play during recess. The only goal then would be to monitor social, emotional learning and character while on a playground on school time. A place that was once known as a sanctuary to children of all backgrounds, somewhere along the lines a group of ‘experts’ decided 3rd party companies could be up for hire to take over the very basics of childhood pedagogy: The freedom to just ‘be.’ Play now must come with monetary rewards. After all, the Common Core thread is about creating successful human capital (money, money, money, money) within limited parameters, and once again, a one-size-fits-all approach now follows children to the playground and beyond.