How Much Should Adults Be Involved In Recess?

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I asked a few smart writers to respond to my post on yesterday’s Motherlode blog, about how much adults should intervene to structure and organize recess. Please share your own thoughts in the comments section, below.—Annie

Lisa Damour, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Research on Girls, Laurel School:
As a clinical psychologist and consultant to schools, here’s my first rule: interventions always bring unexpected, and sometimes unwanted, consequences. In the consulting room, a comment meant to shed light may, instead, trigger shame; at school, a suggestion that a child needs extra academic support can be taken as a stinging insult, or a welcome challenge. While Professor McNamara’s program thoughtfully addresses the currents of kindness and cruelty that prevail during recess, any anthropologist would tell you that well-meaning outsiders who set about to “change a culture” usually address one obvious dynamic while disrupting subtler ones. Feelings do get hurt at recess, but other things are happening too. Girls assemble in smaller groups than boys, first graders seek out games with rules while third graders (especially the girls) prefer “just talking,” and unstructured play fosters creativity that supports problem solving in real life situations. This is not to say that adults shouldn’t help or redirect children – as a clinician, consultant, or mother, I’m stepping in every day. But hopefully while minding my second, third, and fourth rules: start small, go slow, and watch for unintended consequences.

Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting:
It’s reasonable to assume it’s true that many kids don’t know what to do anymore when faced with an empty playground. It’s unreasonable to assume that they therefore need guidance—an oversupply of which got them into that situation in the first place. But I doubt they’d be dumbstruck for long. Put a few objects in the playground…some balls, some wiffle bats; a climbing structure that could serve multiple purposes (house, actual climbing structure)…and kids will start to figure out something, if the adults don’t jump in prematurely. Today’s kids may need more time than the fabled children of yore, but isn’t the point to let them figure it out themselves, as they have done from the dawn of time? There will always be kids who prefer to sit on the sidelines. maybe, as kids get reintroduced to the freedom to play, one of the more socially skilled will encourage or actually create a role for one of the outsiders to join in. Maybe, maybe not. But if the kids are always being guided by the adults, kids won’t even get to develop social skills. Many will just figure out one more way to please the adults in charge. Maybe an adult can show all the kids a variety of uses for a few well-chosen playground objects, but the the adults should then be wise enough to get out of the way. Play arises from the needs of children—otherwise it isn’t play; it’s someone else’s agenda. Teaching them Zumba—please don’t. Reserve that for a dance or gym class. Free play does not involve more instruction or anyone’s idea of an “exercise regimen.” Talk about oxymorons! And what about having an area for some really exuberant play? Can we no longer tolerate letting kids run around? Some kids love to do it. It’s great for mind and body. And studies show that rough and tumble play builds the brain. It actually helpsdevelop those parts of the brain critical for self-control.

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids: How To Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry):
It’s strange to say but I agree with Rosin and with the idea of structured recess, particularly Playworks. Here’s why: The chain from one generation of kids to another has been broken and it feels like “today’s kids” don’t know a lot of the basic games that we grew up “just knowing.” In reality, these were taught to us by the older kids, just by playing outside, on our own—which many (most?) kids aren’t allowed to do anymore. Something as simple as organizing a game of Capture the Flag has become like a lost language. So having Playworkers teach kids some basics and then back away makes sense—just like re-seeding areas with wild flowers. When something natural has died out, you have to artificially bring it back. That being said, free time is fantastic. And once kids get a taste of it, they will take to it like ducks to splashing. Some will play with sticks and fire, some will do quiet games or just talk. Long story short: release kids back into the wild, with a little support to begin with and they’ll thrive.

Jessica Lahey, correspondent for The Atlantic:
I’m also shocked to find myself typing these words, but I agree with the idea that kids may, indeed, need guidance when it comes to some types of play. Peter Gray writes a lot about the need for kids to be “Free to Learn” and that freedom includes risky play. However, research also shows that risky play may be more dangerous for kids who have no experience with that risk. I recently watched a friend’s eleven year-old daughter climb about 150 feet up into a tall pine tree on the playground of our local elementary school, and I casually asked her mother if she was aware that her daughter was a few stories up in the air. “Oh, yeah,” she reassured me, “She does that all the time.” This girl, an avid tree climber, did not start with a five-story pine tree; she started with a small apple tree and worked her way up. She knew how to gauge which branches were dead, or could not hold her weight. She had the skills necessary to be competent in her climbing, and then set her own boundaries. That said, if children are not fluent in safe boundaries, if they are merely confident and optimistic rather than genuinely competent in their skills, adults can help them find their limits. I am always going to come down on the side of free play as a way to foster autonomy and competence, but given that a generation of kids has not been allowed to develop their own competence, we may have to help them rediscover the difference between the branches that are not likely to support them, and the ones that will keep them aloft.

Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy:
[Note: Emily is responding specifically to a commentator on the Motherlode website, “beemo” from New England, who wrote:
I think the word “bullying” gets thrown around too much—not every kid who asserts their will and every wallflower is in a “bully” situation. I think learning a little give and take and learning to speak up for yourself (vs. having your parental unit or teacher hovering behind you and doing it for you). Emily Bazelon’s book takes this key point up and is worth reading. Otherwise you end up with kids (like many that I see at “elite” uni every day) who can’t think for themselves and are paralyzed by any kind of decision making and have no sense of consequences – good or bad – because they were never given the chance to feel them. They expect people to run interference for them for the rest of their lives…. Having said that, as someone who was “bullied” (in Bazelon’s sense of the word – repeated torment, not a one off push away from the slide at the playground)—I’m not downplaying that by any means. But read her book, come back and then reread the article. And continue to take off the bubble wrap! I’m sticking with Rosin on this one.]

A friend of mine who visited a Montessori elementary school recently, to look at it with her daughter, asked the admissions director how the school promoted social and emotional learning. The part of the answer that my friend told me about, because it jumped out at her: The admissions director said the school tried to reduce bullying by helping kids figure out how to show leadership. By learning to lead, the kids turned their aggression into a force for good. I agree that recess should not be Lord of the Flies—and that it can be. I also think that the role of adults is to help kids sort this out and change it. Not to do it for them. When my older son went to public school, from kindergarten to third grade, recess was unsupervised and we talked about it a lot—how to negotiate fair teams, how to deal with the kid who liked to stack the decks, how to stick up for the kid who got mocked for dropping the football. When we moved, and Eli went to private school, recess became supervised and placid. Nothing to talk about. No “challenge.” Professor McNamara uses that as a bad word, but to me it’s a sign of opportunity. Hands-off recess was uncomfortable for my son; it was also valuable. If kids are asking for help on the playground, then sure, offer it. But don’t anticipate by shielding them from conflict ahead of time, and when you step in, think about the PlayWorks model of training fifth graders in leadership skills and conflict management rather than handing the adults the whistles. I agree with beemo (and I send a big thank you for reading my book!). You don’t turn your back on kids who ask for support. But as beemo said, no pre-bubble wrapping.

Brilliant readers, what do you think? How much should adults be involved in children’s recess?


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5 Responses to “How Much Should Adults Be Involved In Recess?”

  1. Angela says:

    As a preschool teacher, social-emotional teaching happens throughout the whole day, so my experience may differ a bit from elementary teachers whose days are more structured.
    At my preschool, the students socialize all day. We use Emergent Curriculum to inform our learning and centers (dramatic play, group circles, art, sensory table, etc), but the kids have the freedom to choose how they play. And our methods inside the classroom are the same as when we play outside.
    Our students (3-5 year-olds) are pretty self-centered. And I don’t mean selfish, but they’ve only been on this earth for a short time, and their world is very small. As teachers, part of our job is to help our students bridge the gap between themselves and other kids. The best way we do that is to keep our eyes and ears open to what’s going on, but to also give some distance and allow social development to happen.
    We talk about emotions – happy, sad, excited, angry, nervous. We talk about solutions, and we have picture cards to go with it – when an issue on the playground comes up, we offer them the cards and they pick one – Get a Teacher is always what we start with, but then we begin to offer more self-sufficient solutions, like Taking Turns, Sharing, Ask Nicely, Ignore.
    (This is longer than I thought it would be!) As far as risk-taking and the actual play that happens – give our kids some sticks and rocks, and they’re happy campers! We also have a play structure with slides, climbing, and monkey bars. The kids are comfortable with risk-taking, and we typically let them test the limits of their ability. For instance, if a student wants to get on top of the monkey bars, they have to do it themselves – we don’t help them up, because we may be helping them past their current ability. This encourages them to practice and try harder.
    The students are also great at making up dramatic games with each other – and again, we keep eyes and ears open to be aware, but we let them create and play.
    Kids don’t need structure so much as they do a foundation. As we build the foundation with them, they add their own structure to it – they find out how to stand up for themselves (and hopefully others), they learn how to collaborate, and how to enjoy their play. Given the freedom to do so, they will push themselves to try new things, climb a little higher, jump a bit further. They also learn to build friendships, solve social conflicts, and advocate for themselves. But it comes through a somewhat hands-off approach – if we don’t offer independence, they’ll never take it.

  2. Jim K. says:

    Put down the electronics and get active! Advice goes for parents, too. Adults should model play activity when necessary, but then step aside once it is progressing.

    Yes, step aside. Kids learn more from skinned knees than hovering parents.

  3. Gary W says:

    I would prefer to let kids figure it out. To me, allowing kids to negotiate not only builds social skills but also improve their creative problem-solving ability

  4. Stephen Mugford says:

    An interesting debate here. My sense is very much that it is best handled by looking for the sweet spot–akin to ‘Baby Bears’s Porridge”. That is some general boundaries, guidelines and oversight combined with a willingness to allow a complex adaptive system to emerge. Then ‘nudge’ if need be.
    The knowledge management expert Dave Snowden has made this point in several nice descriptions, using the instance of organising a children’s birthday party as an example. See e.g.: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Miwb92eZaJg
    Stephen M

  5. Anita says:

    Play is one of eight of our occupations (according to an occupational therapy practitioner). A child’s role in Play varies by context, depending on a child’s home environment plus their culture. Therefore, children benefit from learning their role in Play activities through adults in both structured and unstructured environments.

    I’ve used modeling with kiddos in the past, using one recess for structured Play then followed with unstructured Play to observe role carryover. Additionally, some kiddos need to prepare for Play, similar to how some adults need to prepare for social events. Childhood is the time to learn those healthy coping skills to prepare.

    “Professor McNamara uses that as a bad word, but to me it’s a sign of opportunity,” to quote Emily about when a child faces a challenge. Recess offers a wealth of one-on-one opportunity. Recess may be group Play, yet the challenges are superb for one-on-one learning, plus modeling. Children will benefit from schools that offer unstructured Play with willing supervision to encourage those learning opportunities at recess. Recess isn’t a teaching break.

    Jessica emphasizes the individualistic needs of a child in “we may have to help them rediscover the difference between the branches that are not likely to support them, and the ones that will keep them aloft.” Recess offers teachable opportunities in Play roles, both in preparation and within Play.

    Lisa included “unstructured play fosters creativity that supports problem solving in real life situations.” Yes! Recess is gross motor Play which is a role to foster throughout life. Childhood is the best time to learn those skills from skilled adults.

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