Socializing kids in how to do recess at school

An article about the “cognitive and social benefits” recess brings up an interesting idea: kids in schools that haven’t had recess for years will have to be taught how to do recess again.

Despite the cognitive and social benefits of recess, principals still hate it: In the scholarship on recess, they inevitably describe their recess periods as total chaos. In Chicago, recess has been out of the schools so long that principals are nervous about having it back.

That’s the twist in this rebirth-of-recess narrative: In part because of these fears, recess in many schools is now a very different beast. It’s more structured and sports-focused, less dreamy and aimless. Whether it leads to the same cognitive and social benefits is an open question. The nonprofit organization Playworks puts full-time “recess coaches” in low-income schools—currently they’re in 387 schools in 23 cities—who teach children how to play: They organize games; they model how to resolve disputes (rock-paper-scissors); they try to get kids more active and engaged. (A recent study found that schools with Playworks reported less bullying and better behavior.)

“Recess has changed because the times we live in have changed,” says Playworks CEO Jill Vialet. Children no longer know how to play, she says; they don’t run around after school with all the kids on their block. “What we’re doing is creating just enough structure. That same structure that was created by the older kids in the neighborhood in times past—we’re creating that now on the schoolyard.”…

Recess may look problematic to the grown-ups, but for Pellegrini, the value of recess is that the children, not the adults, are in charge. It may not look pretty, but that’s the point. “A very important part of what kids do on the playground is social competence—that is, they learn how to get along with others,” he says. “You have to cooperate, you have to use language, you have to compromise. And that’s not trivial. That is huge, in terms of both academic success and success in life.”

Sounds like there may be some conflict between what the adults want and what might benefit the students the most. How much do liability and public relations issues (even though the article suggests violence at recess is rare, news can spread fast) affect this?

This reminds me of some of George Herbert Mead’s thoughts in Mind, Self, and Society about how children learn. Mead suggests that children at younger ages often learn by playing, acting out adult roles and developing and debating their own rules. This sounds similar to how unstructured recess is described above: together, kids take what they know and apply it to the recess setting, learning as they go along. Vialet suggests kids have lost some of these skills and need to be taught some basic ways to play and act.

I wonder how this might mesh with Annette Lareau’s findings in Unequal Childhoods. In her description of parenting styles that differ by race, it seems like kids who are brought up in the natural growth style might be better off in these unstructured recess times that middle- and upper-class kids. But perhaps technology has subverted some of this; natural growth today may look more like being free to explore one’s own media and entertainment options.

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