How Much Should Adults Be Involved In Recess?
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.
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.