Independent K-12 School in Atlanta

The Paideia School

The Importance of Recess

Brian Eames, Upper Elementary Teacher

Anywhere in America, 1978, 12:45 on a Tuesday

At the periphery of a vast playground, two teacher aides hover by double doors leading into the brick building. Out on the green, one batch of boys is inspired by a Winslow Homer painting. They hold hands while running in an arc. The boy on the end is catapulted through the air. Another group of children plays kickball. No kickbacks. A third has settled in at the ubiquitous swing set, daring children running between the arcs of the swingers. Four girls practice back handsprings. The two aides swap casserole recipes and ignore the students.

Children are playing.

Later that same afternoon…

Children have returned from school, via bus, and walked the remaining distance home unattended. Snack (cookies and whole milk) is followed by a wave goodbye from parent. Children go outside. The youth of the neighborhood, ranging in age from 5 to 15, gathers in an open space — a field, perhaps, a large backyard or an empty lot. The older ones suggest entertainments. Two girls pull away to play jacks. One boy with a Superball lures a buddy away to see how fast the ball scoots on the second jump. The remaining 12 settle on a game of Kick-the-can. Not a single adult is in sight.

There is laughter. There are tears when the Superball hits a younger boy in the eye, but his brother tells him to buck up. He does. An hour passes. Kick-the-can morphs into a game of soccer. Nearing the dinner hour, the sound of pealing bells penetrates dusky air. Time for dinner.

Children have played.

Thirty years pass.

Atlanta, 2008, 4 p.m. on a weekday…

Small neighborhood parks stand empty except for a few nannies tending charges. Backyards are barren but for the occasional landscape crew. Parks with larger fields bustle with organized teams that kick or chase balls. YMCAs and recreational centers teem with children, many in colored jerseys. Coaches cajole. Parents wait in their cars, arranging schedules and plans via cell phone.

Other children, back at home, play inside. The most fortunate are experiencing a play date — a word that did not exist in 1978 — which means that parents arranged by phone or e-mail to congregate their children at a desired time. One parent is freed for errands. The parent of the host child is downstairs now, contemplating the homework ritual soon to come.

The children are safe.

Maybe your neighborhood is different, but mine is not, and it bothers me. I rarely see kids playing outside. Play — loose, sloppy, fun — is less evident in our city now than it was 30 years ago. Yet play is essential, for adults as well as children. The one last bastion of loose, sloppy play within school — recess — is an institution at risk, one threatened and even abandoned in some schools.

Recess is core curriculum. Just ask my son.

Paideia woodschip recess

“How was school today, Jack?”

“Good,” he says.

“What was the best part?”

“Monarch.” (A popular recess game.) If he had a big day on the woodchips, he launches into exquisite detail. I know the feeling.

“What was your favorite part, Dad?”

“Three-Ball Soccer.” I roll the ankle that has stiffened up on me, the price of my exuberance in a game with about 97 5th and 6th graders on .4 acres of space. Barbara Dunbar had seen me walking back to class with sweaty brow and dirt stains on my knees that day. “Too bad I don’t have any fun at work,” she observed.

Play is fun. Great fun, even. It’s a balm against aging, for students and teachers. It’s the best thing for them, though. The routines of most Paideia students are dictated by teachers and schedules, no matter how child-centered we try to be. While that is especially true of school, it is increasingly true of the life of our children outside of school, too. After school activities organized by adults have become the norm rather than the exception. There are lots of culprits: a different perception of safe that has evolved over a generation, busier streets, more homework, less connectedness in neighborhood communities of among adults, longer work hours. Whatever the cause, the result is that children play less today in the outdoors without adult control than they did 30 years ago.

Unsupervised Time with Peers

For many of our students, recess at Paideia is the only time of the day they will be with groups of their peers in a way largely unstructured by adults. So much happens! Spend a few afternoons out on the woodchips beside the MAC if you doubt it. It’s amazing! (Do beware of lofted projectiles. Unsuspecting adults have an uncanny ability for getting brained by an errant Bombardment Ball.) From a safe vantage you will see, most commonly, children blowing off steam through big, physical play. They run, they throw and catch and kick. They tag each other and run some more. But there is more going on than just aerobic release.

Some of the most important lessons happen in the burble of talk that never reaches an adult’s attention. A student has to grapple with the disappointment of not winning. A child has to mend a friendship he damaged in a science lesson an hour before. Two girls chatter silly gibberish to each other and feel close. Five kids attempt the unthinkable and skirt the entire playground without stepping on any woodchips! A boy has to leave the four square court even when he did not believe he was out; if he perceives he was treated unfairly by the group, he must decide whether to stay with the game, confront the students, ignore and suffer, tell a teacher or push and shove.

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In class when two kids spar, teachers intervene. If we have time, we bring them aside and help them work it through. Other times we quash it, lest the whole group’s mission be diverted. In after school activities, linear-focused adults have a goal they want to achieve in the time they have with kids: teach them 10 new chess moves or how to defend against a corner kick. Recess is not linear. It’s organic. Games grow, evolve, falter, break apart. Children butt heads, repair or nurse grudges, challenge themselves, bond. Out on the woodchips or basketball court or structure, they have room and time to figure out what they like, how they want to be, and who brings them joy.

Sometimes they choose wrong. Every teacher has had to abandon a lesson after recess to deal with an injustice so fresh in so many children’s minds that they cannot proceed. More common, though, is a smarting wound that gets exposed during dinner table conversation, or just before bedtime. Every once in a blue moon there is a real pickle that requires direct adult control. Usually, though, the conversations that come out of those difficulties are part of the organism that is recess, and, its most fruitful consequences. Real learning is real growth, and real growth doesn’t often tickle. It’s messy. It hurts.

Mostly, though, recess is a joy-filled time. For the release of tension alone, it would be time well spent, but given how much more potential for growth that it offers, it is shocking how poorly recess can be regarded in the larger society. We are not a people who place great emphasis on taking a break. Adults work straight through their days and nights all the time. We should try to be a bit more like our children, and give ourselves the respites we readily give them. We would be the better for it.

And the adult 3-Ball Soccer matches would be incredible.