Saturday, July 7, 2018

Play Is Not For Children

Here we go again.

There's a certain kind of adult in the world, a kind of adult who looks at a bunch of children running around a yard laughing and playing and thinks, "Man, somebody needs to get those kids organized."

Hell, if you don't feel qualified to supervise children playing, there's an entire recess consulting firm that you can hire (called Playworks because, I don't know, they've found the secret of turning play into work).

Somebody needs to put some lines on that field.
And now there's a research-based rubric for evaluating and optimizing your children's playground experience. Edutopia has written a breathless puff piece about it noting that it's important because "while there's little doubt that children get exercise on the playground" it's also true that "schools often underestimate the social, emotional, and academic potential of playtime and fail to design recess to optimize those benefits." Do schools underestimate it? Maybe, or maybe they've allowed themselves to be conned out of it by the army of Reformsters claiming that children need to be learning academically as soon as they emerge from the womb. But you'd have to be living in a cave top miss the mountain of pro-recess research-based pushback over the last few years (try here, here, here, here, here and here).

Edutopia boils it down to three tips.

Tip 1: Don't overlook the power of recess to boost social, emotional, and academic skills. Also, don't forget that water is wet and the sun will probably rise in the East tomorrow.

Edutopia goers on to note that the experiences of a playground are "life in miniature," which raises the question of whether or not a micro-managing adult with a checklist really fits. Edutopia suggests a battery of questions that address child engagement and empowerment, and I won't argue that those aren't important.

Tip 2: Use adults to model positive behaviors.

Edutopia means mostly that adults need to monitor to squash bullying and make sure that all are included. On the one hand, I see value in this. On the other hand, I'm not sure it's "life in miniature" to model that a Greater Authority will always step in to make sure that things are fair. If there's no space for children to work these issues out on their own, I'm not sure what we're learning.

Tip 3: Safe environments promote healthy, active play.

Well, sure. Also, people don't get hurt so much. The equipment on the playground should be well-maintained.

Much of this is unobjectionable, but moderation and balance is key. Here's Edutopia's "takeaway":

Recess isn’t a break from learning—if structured appropriately, it’s a valuable opportunity for students to grow socially, emotionally, cognitively, and physically.

Yikes. If you are worried about structuring your students' recess properly, you are too involved. The proper structure is for adults to keep a watchful eye so that students are sure to be safe. The other role for adults is to leave the children alone.

But, hey-- maybe Edutopia just projected too much of their own stuff into this and the actual report is-- yikes!  The actual report's title is "Development of the great recess framework-observational tool to measure contextual and behavioral components of elementary school recess." The report is found on Biomed Central Group, an outfit that belongs to Springer Nature, a publishing conglomerate of sorts.

The Great Recess Framework-Observation Tool (GRF-OT) is a seventeen-item rubric accompanied complete with "item factor loadings" and "inter-rate reliability" scales that let you score your playground. There are five categories broken into some subcategories.

Safety and Structure (five scale items): For a top score (4/4) the play area should have no danger areas. Play spaces and game boundaries are well marked. Fixed an unfixed equipment supports multiple games. A variety of organized games are available. Equipment is used as intended and in a safe manner.

Adult engagement and Supervision (four scale items): For top score, adult to student ratio is less than 35:1. Adults model positive culture. Adults are strategically positioned. Almost all adults are engaged and playing games with students.

Student behaviors (five scale items): Games initiated by students. No physical altercations between students. All communication between students is positive. No disagreements about rules between students that were disruptive to play. Students have no conflict, or manage conflict without adult intervention.

Transitions (two scale items): Transitions between classroom and playground are smooth.

Physical activity (one scale item): Almost all students are physically active.

Look, I get that this is well-intended, mostly. And some of it is sensible and fine. But some is self-defeating (how much conflict resolution will children even get to start working on if their teacher is right there playing the game with them). If children are only expressing positive communication, what does that do to good-natured trash talk, and what message does it send about whether or not children are allowed to have bad feelings? How much time will we spend enforcing things like the properly defined boundaries for certain activities, and why? Who decides on what acceptable structure and organization must be (can children play Calvinball on this playground)? And while I can see occasions when adult game participation can be useful (like, kickball pitcher for first graders), mostly, the appropriate location for adults is off to the side.

So much structure and order and adult micro-management-- how is this recess any different from an actual phys ed class?

There's an underlying assumption here that if we can carefully manage every aspect of the child's experience, we will get that child to become exactly the person we want. That's foolish. We don't know, and we can't know, and our desire to keep our children free from every sharp edge, every bitter disappointment, every unpleasant conflict-- all of that understandable desire invariably leads us to the same place, and that's the place where we strip the children of any freedom. Oh, it's for their safety. It's for their own good. But there's nothing good about minimizing a child's freedom.

No, I'm not advocating you give your eight-year-old an apartment next to the Rusty Heap Junkyard and only check in on her once a month. But we really have to let go of this notion that if adults just organized and structured children's play, we could optimize it for social and emotional growth. We aren't God, and our children aren't house plants. What tiny humans need is the chance to roam freely in a safe space and, even for a little part of each day, make their own choices.

Put your clipboard down and let the children play.


  1. So true. The little ones will find their space and place.

  2. and then we can average the scores and give a pass/fail grade !

  3. "One scale item...". Is that a zero or a 1 ?

  4. While this is what Edutopia has been talking about, CBS Sunday Morning was reporting on another trend: adventure playgrounds.

  5. One side effect of bubble wrapping kids to keep them safe at all times, including playtime, is that they grow up afraid of everything with a sharp edge or a loud noise. My brother, prior to retiring, attempted to hire a new sheet metal mechanic to replace himself. He found it most difficult to find someone who was not afraid of the machinery necessary to be a sheet metal mechanic. Lots of sharp edges created with loud bangy-cutty machines terrified most of the applicants... well the ones that made it to the 2nd interview... many were weeded out in the first when it was realized that they couldn't read a ruler or perform simple geometry.