Ruining recess: Can adults stop interfering with free play?

We often complain that kids are physically inactive. They don’t know how to play outside anymore, not unless somebody tells them what to do. The problem has gotten so bad that some American schools are actually hiring recess “coaches” to teach kids casual games like “tag.”

How did we get here? There may be many reasons — the rise of electronic entertainment; city traffic that makes it dangerous for kids to play on the streets or walk to parks; the perception that children must be kept indoors to keep them safe from crime.

But I think there is another problem, too. We have become too intrusive and bossy. When we offer our kids “free time” to play outside, we impose so many rules that our kids no longer feel free. We’re sapping their motivation.

To see what I mean, consider an elementary school I know.

It’s got great potential. There are play structures and gymnastic bars; a blacktop area with basketball courts; and a lovely, sloping hillside — perfect for kids to climb or roll down — lined by shade trees. Several small, smooth, flat-topped boulders poke up about two feet from the ground, natural features left in place by the school architect. And what’s probably most striking is the expanse of grass, a huge field encircled by a paved track.

With resources like these, you’d think the students are having a wonderful time during recess. But instead they are frustrated.

They aren’t allowed on the rocks. The entire hillside is off-limits. They’ve been told they can’t sit or play under the trees, not even when temperatures were in the high 80s. And they’ve been told they aren’t allowed to play on any part of the grassy field except for a small section between two soccer goal posts.

Since that section must be yielded to students who want to play soccer, and the blacktop is only open to students on rainy days, kids aren’t left many options for free play in an open space. Kids aren’t allowed to run around in the area around the play structures, and in any case they feel heavily policed there. The equipment must be used just so; no digging in the bark chips; no running on the bridge; no touching of the ice that is melting off in the morning sun.

That leaves the paved track to play on, but even here there are problems. Ask the kids, and they’ll tell you they aren’t permitted to do anything but walk or run when they are on the track. No games.

So the great place to play is an illusion. All those interesting things to investigate are forbidden. All that open space is being left unused. Instead of being a time for spontaneous, vigorous exercise and creative play, recess has become yet another opportunity to get bossed around.

Is this an isolated case? I don’t think so. Look up the words “recess rules” on the internet you’ll many find many schools are similarly restrictive. I’ve seen documents specifying that children must not move their swings from side-to-side. Should we be surprised if many kids no longer show the enthusiasm — and know-how — for free outdoor play?

The case against adult intrusiveness is compelling. Research suggests that recess can renew a child’s ability to pay attention in class, but the effect likely depends on getting a break from all that adult control. Observational studies show that kids become less active when adults hover, and experiments indicate that physical exercise is more likely to benefit the brain when it is voluntary and fun.

Moreover, play advocates argue that kids can’t learn to handle risk if they aren’t given opportunities to test themselves. And as Neil DeGrasse Tyson has argued, kids need to be given the opportunity to tinker and experiment.

But if we want to make big improvements, we need to do more than complain. Sure, there are arbitrary rules and over-zealous enforcers. But schools are obviously concerned about injuries and lawsuits, and their fears aren’t unfounded. Can we alter the status quo? I hope so. But it will mean changing the attitudes and behavior of the population at large.

Image: SerrNovik / Thinkstock

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