Monday, March 19, 2018

The School Yard

If you were to ask any child, at any period of time, to name the best thing about school, the answer would inevitably be, "Recess".   Recess is the one unstructured time of day when kids are free to do what they like without adult restrictions.  Although recess is technically supervised by adults, the truth is that most adults see recess as their free time as well.  One of the greatest challenges as a school administrator was getting the teachers to break up their conversation clusters on the playground and actually watch the children.  Spending long hours with children leaves teachers lonely for adult companionship, and the playground is one of the few places where they can meet.

In thinking about recess, I came to a fascinating insight:   the activities most children choose at this time of day have not changed over the years.  Typically, the sexes separate at recess.  Boys tend to play sports.  All they need is a ball to organize a game of kickball, football, or basketball.  Boys seem very intent on rules, fair play, and competition.  And in their world, the skills in the school yard are way more important than their skills in the classroom.  

The school yard is also the place where scores are settled, and boys fight.  When I was a kid, boys' fights were common. But I remember an incident even years later,  when I was an educator.  I was in the playground, when a second grade boy came to me in tears, telling me that another boy hurt him.  In typical early childhood mode, I called the other boy over.  "So-and-so said you hurt him.  What happened?".  He answered, "Yeah, I kicked his ass.". (!!!) 

Girls' games are more about turn-taking and improving skills, but not necessarily competitively.  My friends and I spent recess playing jump rope, usually with chants; "Strawberry Shortcake Huckleberry Pie....".  We made our own Chinese jump ropes with rubber bands and chanted "Anna Banana Plays the Piana...".  But the real stars of the school yard were the black girls, because they could jump Double Dutch.  They swung two ropes toward each other, like an egg beater, and had the best chants and rhythms.  I was mesmerized.  

It seems that even today, jump rope continues to be a favorite recess activity among girls. Otherwise, girls tend to walk around in groups and chat.  Another incident occurred with a second grade girl once while I was supervising recess.  Her friends came to me to tattle.  Apparently, she was talking to a sixth grade boy in another school on a cell phone, and told her friends that it was her boyfriend.  I called her over to speak to her and she broke down in tears.  The phone was broken, it didn't work.  She was pretending to talk to a boy so the other girls would think she was cool.

It's interesting that the sexes still tend to separate in the school yard, unless there is  equipment such as slides and monkey bars.  So even though there seems to be an effort today to deny gender differences, it's clearly natural for boys and girls to play separately. Boys and girls are different, and I believe it's healthy for them to learn about themselves and feel a sense of belonging .  Children need to be comfortable with their own gender before they can try to relate to another.  Empathy for others begins with understanding ourselves first.

Sometimes recess is taken away as a punishment.  I think this is cruel and counter productive.  Children need to move their bodies and get fresh air as much as they need food and sleep.  And often, the children who are acting out are the ones who most need the freedom and space of outdoor time.  Punishment should ideally fit the crime; it should be a logical consequence to misbehavior.  Withholding a necessity like food or play time only hurts the child, doesn't help him.

  Times have changed, society and its mores have changed.  But the school yard teaches us that, amazingly, children have not really changed.  A seven year old today is physiologically the same as a seven year old was in 1960.  There's something comforting about that.

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