Recess as Education

It was a warm Arizona spring day and we were untangling ourselves from the dog pile of eighth grade boys. We heard a yell from the bottom of the clump of bodies. It was Larry.

“My leg,” he said through tears that made muddy streaks on his dusty face. We gathered around. Larry was a big kid. Tough as nails and one of the masters of our game “Kill the man with the milk carton.” His leg was bent at an awkward angle. We argued about what to do. Getting the PE teachers was out of the question. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we had PE for the last hour and a half of the day. During that time, the two teachers, one male and one female, turned us loose on the playground and locked themselves in their room. We were forbidden to disturb them. I later figured out that they were canoodling in the classroom, but we were too naïve to understand this at the time. We thought they were lazy or just wanted us to have a good time. And ninety 14-year-olds left to their own devices for five hours a week had a great time.

Eventually, one of us ran to the school office. First one, then another, then a whole group of adults showed up. An ambulance did as well, and Larry was carted away. The next week, every eighth grader was interviewed about our “physical Education program.” After that, we were no longer allowed to run loose on the playground. The good news was that we were given balls and other equipment to play with. The bad news was that we had to have health classes as well.

Teachers regularly complain about not getting the respect they deserve. As an educator with forty years of classroom experience, I agree. But the problem is that we teachers do the dumbest things and then wonder why we get “no respect.” Exhibit A is the schools that ban “chase games” at recess. That’s right, tag is no longer allowed at some schools. Not only that, but such schools win awards for this kind of idiotic thinking. The justification is that some kids feel left out and that banning chase games reduces problems on the playground. In other words, teachers want to make their jobs easier instead of doing them.

I spent thirty years supervising the playground activities of preschool, second grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, and eighth grades. And I did it in the mountains where it was often cold and windy. I loved playground duty. It allowed me to watch students interact, help the ones who felt left out get involved in games I organized, and teach them how to solve disputes without fighting. When do you want students to learn how to resolve problems? On the playground with adult supervision or on the streets where guns often settle disputes? Unfortunately, too many lazy teachers hate playground duty and spend the entire time drinking coffee and complaining to the other teacher on duty. I know for a fact that a local elementary school that pioneered these bans had teachers who leaned against the chain link fence drinking coffee and ignoring the students. I know because I watched them once a week from my doctor’s office.

Even if these educators are right to eliminate conflict from play time, it makes them look foolish to the parents and general public. It’s like the state of Connecticut banning the use of red pens for grading papers because red ink made kids feel bad. You don’t have to be a psychology major to know that kids will just transfer their negative emotions to the purple pens that teachers switched to. Haven’t these educators heard of Pavlov? Even worse are the schools that reduce recess or abandon it all together in order to cram more for tests. Kids need time to run around. And not just little kids. Big kids, i.e., middle school and high school, need it as well. Recess allows the active students to burn off energy. It allows the introverts time alone, and it gives all students opportunities to figure out social structure and practice problem solving. I learned as much about individual students during recess as I did in the classroom.

I understand teachers wanting to make their jobs easier. Teaching is hard work. Much harder than anyone going into the profession can imagine. And it is getting harder all the time. Dropout rates for teachers are rising, workloads are increasing, and support is falling. No wonder there are more deserters from teaching than for most other professions. It also doesn’t help that everyone thinks they are an expert on education when, in fact, no one is. What we do know is that certain practices have worked in the past and the farther we get away from those, the worse our school systems seem to get.

The Internet is all aflutter over a video of a police officer arresting a female student who refused to put her phone away. Now, the officer was clearly in the wrong. He is the very definition of excessive force. But on the other hand, the fact that the student refused to listen to her teacher or the officer is a sign of how out of control schools are getting. And how entitled today’s students feel. It is common to hear or read about college students complaining that they are offended by something a professor or another student said. A few years ago, a male student was kicked out of college for calling a female student who was yelling outside his window, “a buffalo.” Even worse, these particular incidents are portrayed as racial issues instead of human ones.

Yes, people can say hurtful things to each other. And I even agree that some speech crosses a line. But I also know something else. Our eighth grade PE teachers were wrong to give us so much unsupervised time. But when we ran freely on the playground, we learned how to be polite to each other, as well as the consequences for being rude. Perhaps if kids today had more minimally supervised play time, they would get a little tougher themselves and a little gentler in how they treat others. The lessons from my playground time have carried me a long way. What we’re doing as far as recess and other educational reforms clearly isn’t working. It’s time to take a break from failure and go back to things that worked. At least the kids will have more fun.