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Tuesday 06 May 2003

The Purpose of Recess

Joanne Jacobs, in her excellent education-centric weblog, today points out a column in the Bucks County Courier Times about the soon-to-be-implemented recess regime in the Neshiminy (PA) School District. The headline is “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Hans Blix”, and the new recess policy is described thusly:

“Peaceful Playground” will be adopted by the district’s eight elementary schools in September.

First, something called a “peace maze” will be painted on each playground. Kids at loggerheads with each other will walk the maze’s seven steps of “conflict resolution.” […]

At recess, [the school district’s ‘violence prevention coordinator’, Marcy Spingler] said, it’s common to see lots of kids standing around waiting their turn at kickball or soccer.

But playground aides will train to present games that are played in small groups and that stress “inclusiveness.”

Which means if you’re athletically gifted with leadership qualities whom others instinctively follow, find yourself another playground, kid.

There will be no team captains in Neshaminy’s schoolyards.

“That’s so there’s no one saying, ‘You know what, you can’t be on my team,’ ” Spigler said.

The new recess games won’t require great physical ability, she said.

For example, in “hoop ball,” kids bounce a ball back and forth to each other, making sure it hits inside a hoop placed on the ground.

The classic hands-on game, “tag,” is replaced with a hands-off version called “Motion Pictures.” In this game, photographs of different points around the school playground are placed in a basket.

A child plucks out a photo, then runs like blazes to it, tags it and returns.

“It still gives them the exercise. They’re running. But we can avoid things like how hard do you tag someone. Nobody gets pushed over. You can play it by yourself,” Spigler said.

Also, kids will be encouraged to plan their recess activities.

“Kids with nothing in mind before recess tend to get in trouble if they don’t schedule their recess,” Spigler said.

This is horrifying, but I think that J.D. Mullane, the columnist, Joanne Jacobs, and the headline writers miss the true horror entirely.

Is the risk here really that children will grow up to be Hans Blix? I understand that lot of people find Blix annoying because of his insistence on inspections in Iraq, but remember that Blix is an inspector. That’s what he does: he inspects. Because of his role, the only tool he has is a proverbial hammer, so he’s going to see a lot of nails.

But Blix is a leader, and a successful and well-educated man. He’s held executive positions with the Swedish government and the U.N. Blix is a diplomat and an inspector, and as such his prime goal is going to be to avoid armed conflict and to go on inspecting forever. His public remarks while arms inspections were still going on in Iraq seemed, actually, to be incredibly blunt and critical of the Iraqis. He didn’t say ‘inspections are a failure, and you should start bombing’, true, but then it wasn’t his place to say that. He said, in as about a straightforward way was you’re ever going to hear a diplomat speak, that the Iraqis were not complying with their obligations. And for this he’s called weak.

The danger isn’t that these bubble-wrapped kids are going to grow up to be Hans Blix. The danger is that, having been deprived of the opportunity to learn social skills in the unstructured world of school recess, they’re going to grow up to be socially-incompetent adults with an incredible willingness to submit to authority, and with no ability to think on their feet. (See here for comments I made in January on the same issue.)

Recess, you see, is at least as important a part of the school day as geography class. It’s when kids learn to interact with peers as peers, rather than as colleagues in a system governed by outside authority.

There’s always been outside authority on the playground, embodied by the recess ladies, of course, but that’s because it’s assumed that these kids don’t yet fully know how to operate in a peer group, and that there will be some occasional intervention needed.

The structured-recess people don’t deny this, I think, but rather they think that by funneling the kids’ energies and wills in certain directions, they can affect their behavior as adults: a child who follows the peace maze enough times will solve his adult problems in a non-violent manner.

This is an enormous piece of social engineering, one that’s totally unnecessary and destined to fail. It will fail catastrophically if it’s allowed to go too far.

You see, one of the things that kids learn by playing games where someone’s feelings might get hurt is that feelings sometimes get hurt. Kids learn how to deal with feeling rejected, and, hopefully, other kids eventually learn how not to make others feel bad.

Games where knees might get skinned teach kids about limits, and, to a certain extent, they teach them how to take risks.

The real world, where these kids will spend most of their lives, does not have peace mazes painted on the ground, and it doesn’t have violence prevention coordinators. It’s up the adults these kids will become to prevent their own violence, and to make their own peace. The fact that the vast majority of adults in modern society are not violent would seem to indicate that the playground strategies of twenty or thirty years ago do not result in violent behavior.

Incidentally, The official pitch of the ‘peaceful playground’ people — Peaceful Playgrounds is a company that licenses playground markings and activity guides to schools — is largely an economic one. They stress a reduction in injuries (and thus presumably expenses, and apparently with all the kids playing follow-the-gruppenführer you can pack more of them into a smaller space:

When the Principal of Pioneer Elementary in Escondido realized that with a playground of less than 4 acres for a student population of over 1,000 students something needed to be done to maximize the time the students spent on the playground. She turned to Peaceful Playgrounds for the solution.

Posted by tino at 16:22 6.05.03
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Ah, my former school district. Well, the one I’ve got a diploma from, anyway.

I can’t help but agree with Tino that this is totally misguided. The really smart kids will be able to hold the dichotomy of “non-agressive at recess / agressive at little league” in their heads without getting in trouble, and the bullies will continue to act out no matter what, but I fear this will confuse a lot of kids.

On top of the confusion is the question of exercise. We’re constantly hearing from the worrying class that kids today are more obese than they were ten, fifteen years ago. Well, eliminating kickball isn’t going to help that. And what kid is going to want to play “hoopball” or “Motion Pictures”? I think the kids are going to not play any games if they can’t play the games they want to.

I’m not going to say that everything I was subjected to in school was wonderful. At Neshaminy High, we played something called “killball,” which wasn’t much fun for the smaller guys when you’re stuck in the jock gym class. But those games did teach me a number of things, like “life’s not fair” and “make do with what talent you have” and “you can’t be great at everything.”

I fear for the first kids that walk the “peace maze”. I feel sorry for the first kid clueless enough to try to use this tool to resolve a conflict with someone twice his size, because bullies don’t forget humiliations like that easily.

Anyway, my $0.02. Glad I graduated from there a long time ago. Bozos.

Posted by: Twonk at May 7, 2003 09:45 AM

i hate this kind of thing, touchy feely people thinking they can do make the world a better place but dont even think about the bigger picture. photographs in a basket - go away you idiots. i agree with tino and twonk.

Posted by: chris at May 9, 2003 06:04 PM

Just another version of conforming to the lowest common denominator

Posted by: at October 18, 2005 08:37 PM