Monday, December 21, 2009

The Play's the Thing

During the month of July, each of us is presenting a post from the past. In honor of summer vacation, I have selected my post, originally published in December, 2009, on play and its gradual demise as part of the school day -- and why we should care. May your children and students have some time to catch up on their play this summer!

The mother of a 7
th grader in Oakland, CA, tells me that morning recess at her son’s middle school has been cut from twenty minutes to ten, and the entire recess, formerly held outdoors, is now limited to an indoor space. Even the theoretical 10 minutes is often whittled down to just a few minutes or none at all because teachers respond to the disruptive in-class behavior of a few students by holding the class through recess to make up for classroom delays.

This sorry state of affairs is not limited to the United States. I am just back from speaking at primary (elementary) schools in Australia. I had a few opportunities to interact with children on the playground and I was pleased to notice the great variety of types of play, and how there seemed to be a niche for everyone. Some activities engaged solitary children, others occupied pairs or small groups, and a few involved large numbers. Yet when I shared my approving observations with teachers, I learned that, as in the U.S., recess is an endangered species.

Studies consistently prove its value. In one set of experiments from the mid-1990s, researchers found that school children became less and less attentive the longer recess was delayed. Another experimental study found that “fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had had recess, with hyperactive children among those who benefited the most.” An article in the New York Times in February, 2009, cited a study of 11,000 third graders showing that recess mitigates children’s behavioral problems. (Consider the common punishment for misbehaving children: “No recess!”) And a meta-analysis of over 200 studies suggest that physical activity during the school day results in more, and better, mental activity.

For all their lip-service to the necessity of drawing on research-based teaching strategies, education authorities in the U.S. and Australia (and probably many other countries) don’t seem to care much about research on play. It is interesting that, by contrast, China launched a nationwide “Sunlight Sport” campaign in 2007, requesting that every school offer one hour of sports and games daily to every student.

I read about Chinese children’s play and the Sunshine Sport campaign in a fascinating Australian journal called Play and Folklore, co-edited by Dr. June Factor of the University of Melbourne, an author and folklorist who writes playful and play-filled books for both children and adults. I met June at a reading conference in California about 15 years ago, and I had the good fortune of visiting her in Australia during my recent trip.

The most wonderful thing about many of June’s books for children is that they are actually by children: she is merely the compiler, and what she has compiled is straight from the mouths of kids, whom she and her university students have observed, recorded and interviewed in school playgrounds. The researchers collected children’s games, rhymes, sayings, chants, riddles, jokes and secret languages in abundance. In 2000, she published an entertaining and enlightening lexicon, Kidspeak: A Dictionary of Australian Children’s Words, Games and Sayings. The two children depicted on the cover have harsh words for each other: “Nicky woop” says one in a speech bubble, to which the other retorts, “Drongo!” (Translation: “Go away!” and “Jerk!”)

June’s collections for young readers have been loved since 1983 when Far Out, Brussels Sprout came out. It has since been joined by Real Keen, Baked Bean…Unreal, Banana Peel…Okey Dokey, Karaoke, and others in the Far Out! series. All offer a rich sampling of the linguistic range and complexity of Australian children's vernacular language. “It’s children’s own literature,” says June, “handed down across many generations, sometimes across centuries. It’s a bridge across generations, common to childhood, not just contemporary childhood.” From Far Out, Brussels Sprout:

Quickly, quickly, I feel sickly.

Hasten, hasten, get the basin.

Ker plop!

Get the mop!


Mary had a little lamb

She kept it in a closet.

And every time she let it out

It left a small deposit.

They’re not always the most proper ditties in the world. As a result, a decade ago June learned that she was the second-most censored author in Australian school libraries, after Judy Blume. She told me this with more than a hint of irony, considering that the censors were trying to save innocent children from their own words. “It tells you much about the power of adult prudery and unease about the human body and its functions — but, I hasten to add, not nearly as much as in the United States!”

Often, these censorship cases have been dismissed when the schools discovered how many families already owned the challenged books. But what disturbs June more than censors in the libraries is timekeepers on the playgrounds. “Increasingly, playtime is being restricted,” says Australia’s leading observer of playtime. “It’s happening in America and it’s happening here.” In the U.S., where we once feared a “red menace” from Asia, there now seems to be fear that Asian countries including China will overtake us not militarily but intellectually and economically. If it comes to pass, browbeating analysts should consider how our schools rejected the demonstrable benefits of playtime. American education authorities could have the demise of recess to blame for our fall from intellectual eminence. Some might call them drongos!


Jennifer said...

The schools in our town often show movies instead of recess when it's raining. In the gym. Um, hello? Then the kids come straight to the library after school and we wonder why they can't behave. Sigh.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Important comments, David. In plenty of places, not only has recess been shortened or even abolished, but gym classes have been cut for financial reasons, so moving around in school has become verboten. What kid can learn efficiently if they can't release some pent up energy? And since any kids who want to participate in sports have to do it with a team outside of school hours, every moment of every day is planned in advance. This costs money too, which leaves some kids out of the exercise loop entirely. As a result, lots of kids who do sports have almost no free time to just play outside with their friends, and lots of kids who don't play sports are so used to sitting still at school that they just sit still at home watching TV or playing computer games or talking on their cell phones. No wonder they're getting fat. Too bad for us. Unstructured activity does more than keep our kids fit; it's a great way for them to learn on their own and it teaches socialization too.

Unknown said...

I am firm believer that children will learn better when they have time to play, and be outside free to run around. If my class missed recess because of rain, then I would let them outside for a play when the rain stopped.

Study Skills Mentor

Unknown said...

It borders on cruel and unusual punishment. Seriously, there ought to be a student bill of rights that guarantees them some run-around time every day.

Dan Gurney said...

After 30 years, I know that a good deal of my best and longest-remembered teaching has occurred during recess or "choice time" as I call it. Teaching/learning is much more significant to the child when it is embedded in activities that the learner has chosen for him or herself.

And having time to simply decompress from formal educational settings is vital for the health and well-being of everyone at school.

Thanks for this post.