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School Recess Gets Gentler, and the Adults Are Dismayed
School Recess Gets Gentler, and the Adults Are Dismayed
By ALISON LEIGH COWAN
Published: December 14, 2007
MONTVILLE, Conn. -- Children at the Oakdale School here in southeastern
Connecticut returned this fall to learn that their traditional recess
had gone the way of the peanut butter sandwich and the Gumby
No longer could they let off their youthful energy -- pent up from
hours of long division -- by cavorting outside for 22 minutes of
unstructured play, or perhaps with a vigorous game of tag or
dodgeball. Such games had been virtually banned by the principal, Mark
S. Johnson, along with kickball, soccer and other "body-banging"
activities, as he put it, where knees -- and feelings -- might get
Instead, children are encouraged to jump rope, play with Hula Hoops or
gently fling a Frisbee. Balls are practically controlled substances,
parceled out under close supervision by playground monitors.
The traditional recess, a rite of grade school, is endangered not only
in the Oakdale School here in Montville, a town of 18,500. From
Cheyenne, Wyo., to Wyckoff, N.J., recess -- long seen as a way for
children to develop social competence, recharge after long lessons,
and resist obesity -- is being rethought and pared down.
In the face of this, a national campaign called Rescuing Recess,
sponsored by such organizations as the Cartoon Network, the National
Parent Teacher Association, the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention and the National Education Association, has taken hold at
many schools where parents and children fear that recess will go the
way of the one-room schoolhouse.
At Oakdale, Mr. Johnson finally relaxed some prohibitions after a
parade of parents complained. Now, twice a week when a parent or
grandparent is present, fourth and fifth graders are allowed to play a
modified version of kickball as long as the score is not kept. Many
parents are still not satisfied, however, saying that such coddling
fails to prepare children for adulthood.
"Life is competitive," said Shari Clewell, the mother of a fifth
grader. "Kids compete for attention. They compete for grades. You
compete for a job. You compete from the time you're little all the way
to the end."
Pretending otherwise is pointless, she said. "They're kids. They are
competitive. They can play jump rope and jacks and make it
But the principal is determined. "I'm honestly one of the most
competitive guys in the world, having coached sports for a long time,"
said Mr. Johnson, who has coached youth basketball and softball. "But
I honestly don't believe this is the place for that."
Acknowledging that the changes caused "quite an uproar," he defended
his policy as a way to build skills and camaraderie rather than
competition and conflict, and said that it had nothing to do with
insurance costs. He said he had seen too many recesses where children
"want all the good kids on one side and they want to win at all costs,
and kids are made to feel badly."
Children are still encouraged to move about, he said, and are free to
walk the grounds with the school nurse, or depending on the day, sing
in the chorus, play chess or pick up litter. And he insisted that
children could still play competitive games in their weekly gym
classes or in extracurricular programs.
But Ms. Clewell was dismissive of the alternatives. "I'm not having my
son pick up trash around the school," she said. "This is recess."
For now, the superintendent of schools, David Erwin, has not
intervened in the dispute, although he acknowledges that the public
outcry has caught his eye.
Connecticut is one of only a handful of states that require some type
of break, or recess, but its law does not spell out how long they
should be or what pupils should be doing. Because of the free hand
that schools have across the country, some pinch minutes once used for
recess to prepare students for standardized tests. Others, citing
liability concerns, have banned sports like dodgeball, where children
are the targets.
In Cheyenne, Wyo., one school has banished tag from the playground as
being too rough but allows other contact sports, like touch football.
Several schools in Colorado have banned tag for the same reason.
There are also financial reasons for the changes in recess. In Broward
County, Fla., one of the nation's largest school systems, to comply
with expanded phys ed requirements that the state mandated but did not
provide extra money for, the time "is being transformed into a
structured activity," said Elly Zanin, a district official. She said
she wished that were not so.
In Wyckoff, N.J., freestyle recess has become a "midday fitness"
class. Student have fewer options for activities and are told to keep
moving. By applying recess to the gym requirement, the schools have
freed up time for academics.
Such changes worry educators like Joe Frost, a professor emeritus of
education at the University of Texas, who has spent 30 years
researching children's play. He defended the traditional recess as a
way to give children the freedom to make their own choices and said
that it was "terrible, ill-advised and damaging" to inject so much
structure and oversight.
"Children need to engage in games such as this in order to develop
social skills, to learn to handle themselves, to avoid obesity, and to
get the activities they need, and these are traditional games, going
on for centuries," Dr. Frost said. "It's just difficult to imagine how
a person in education could come up with such a bad idea."
As for playground bullies, he said: "There are ways for teachers to
handle bullying without stopping the play for all the children. This
is a teacher problem. This is not a child problem."
But to Mr. Johnson, who has been a school principal for five years, it
is the lack of structure that places recess out of sync with the
educational and moral instruction provided the rest of the day. "We're
really responsible for what kinds of people these kids will be," said
Mr. Johnson, who has raised two children. "We can produce lots of kids
who are skilled academically, but they aren't skilled as people."
The approximately 400 pupils at Oakdale in grades one through five
seem to have adjusted to the redefined recess better than their
mothers and fathers have.
"Parents are in disbelief," said Jill Santacroce, the mother of an
avid soccer player who, she says, now spends too many recesses bored
or wandering around. And although one playground monitor, a part-time
employee, said in a letter to the editor of The Day, a newspaper in
New London, that only a fraction of the parents were upset, Ms.
Santacroce insisted, "It's a lot of parents, not just a few."
She said her son was scolded while playing Frisbee. "They were
throwing it too hard at each other and they were too close together,"
Mr. Johnson said the game "had an edge to it."
Mr. Johnson, who insists that students are having fun despite the
constraints, was offered hugs as he strolled through the playground
recently. Just as often, he jumped in to make sure that the play did
not get rough.
Did one second grader call another a mean name? he asked a reporter.
First graders who were engaged in what he called a punching game
assured him, "We're just pretending."
"Someone might get hurt," he warned.
Michael Lopez, a fifth grader who misses his soccer game, is making
do. "At first," he said, "it wasn't fun, because no one had anything
to do." Things improved once the school bought inflatable hurdles and
other equipment, he said.
Don Twitty, a father in nearby Groton critical of the retooled recess,
said children should not have to be Bubble Wrapped before they could
"Bumps and bruises are part of any activity that you do," he said.
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