Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Let's Play!

Student A:
“I’ve never played this game.”
Playground Leader Student B:
“That’s OK, we’ll teach you!”

Student C: “Great job trying to make that shot!”
Student D: “You got me- I’ll try again next time!”

Student E: “Mrs. B! Let’s play kickball!”
Playground Staff: “I’d love to! Let’s go!”

Sophia Boyd wrote a great article for NPR this month on recess in US schools. The organization that brings us Jump Rope for Heart, SHAPE America, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have released new recommendations on how schools across the country can implement high-quality recesses.

I knew that different schools have different means to offer recess activities but I was unaware of this fact expressed by Ms. Boyd: only eight states currently have written policies requiring recess.

The January 2017 report, Strategies for Recess in Schools, gives new recommendations of fact-based ways to achieve positive recesses for K-12th grade. One of the contributing organizations to this report is one that I have personal experience with: Playworks. I have written regularly on the intense struggles one kids can experience on today’s playgrounds, which carry into the classrooms and beyond. I’ve described the successes I have witnessed using Playworks strategies. The spirit of programs like this is to teach what I call “bridging skills”. Bridging skills help connect people. On the playground, the 3 critical portions are: involvement, inclusion and explicit expectations.


Students, teachers, other school staff, parent and community volunteers are all encouraged to actively participate in the initial design, long term maintenance and daily practice of the program. No one sits on the sidelines, watching like predatory birds, waiting to swoop in when a problem arises. It’s all ages at all levels: working and playing together and if problems arise, dealing with them together.


Recess is a time for EVERYONE to participate. Whatever recess is put in place should allow for the entire population to be involved. There are no “good” players and “bad” players- only TRYING players and SUPPORTIVE players. This part can be really tough to accept initially with a traditional winner/loser mindset. It’s essential, however. We all have a right to try and we benefit for experiencing the opportunity to encourage others to do so.

Explicit Expectations and Enforcement

Everyone needs to have and understand the same recess rules and they should be tailored for each age’s abilities. Physical activity should be performed in a safe environment with known consequences for not doing so. Other than restrictions like these, each school can (and should) tailor their programs to fit their community.

But...Why Bother?

There is much talk today about cutting back our national involvement in the education of our youth. Let’s make no mistake. If we want vibrant opportunities for a majority of our future Americans, we need to spend some time and money today on building bridging skills like these.

Bridging skills are rarely taught in video games, where a majority of today’s youth spend  significant time. Even today’s youth sports programs struggle to find balance- there’s an extremely strong emphasis on winning in many programs. There is a time and place for competition but children should be allowed to just play for play’s sake as well. Elisha Goldstein, PhD, wrote this of play and aging in 2011 in his Huffington Post article The Joy of Play: “Youth is a matter of mind and attitude.” If our children don’t even have this first chance of joy, what will their aging look like?

Bridging skills will help us throughout our lives. Our children need to learn how to, and practice, interacting with others just as much as to exercise, read and do math. These social and emotional skills aren’t just picked up by all children naturally or in the course of their everyday lives or from a lesson in class. These skills need to be presented to and then practiced by students to be absorbed for use in all the other situations they find themselves. As adults with modern-day problems, we should see this for the reality that we all face. We probably all could do with some reminder lessons on helpful ways to handle situations with others.

Those quotes at the beginning of this piece? They are what you’ll hear on a playground that’s living the recommendations outlined by folks like SHAPE America. Along with genuine laughter and the other sounds of healthy active living.

That’s the kind of research we can all benefit from!

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