Friday, October 29, 2010

The Recess Doodies

To be fair, I’m pretty sure the actual term for the women who police the fields and playground at my son’s school is “duties” (referring to instructional assistants on “recess duty”), but the homophone epithet is just too perfect to ignore. Long before kids are able to dole out truly nasty put-downs, they toss around words like “doodie-head” to lash out at the bad guys in their world. And if you listened to either of my kids describe their interactions with these playground patrollers at our local elementary school, you’d understand that the lazy pronunciation is really not an accident.

I’m sure these women are perfectly lovely human beings (really), but they seem to have forgotten something fundamental about elementary school: recess is the kids’ domain.  Or at least it should be. It’s their one chance to run and play and be imaginative and silly in a school day that has become more and more about preparing kids for standardized tests and less about allowing kids to be… well… kids.

Recess is where we all learned to navigate the challenges and politics of daily life. Bobby won’t play nice on the kickball field? Good luck getting picked for a team tomorrow. Molly won’t share the tetherball? Have fun playing solo, kid. This is our children’s best opportunity to develop negotiating skills and the ability to problem-solve their own small life crises. As parents, we know that we aren’t helping our children when we jump in and solve all of their problems. How did the school miss the memo on that?

The playground rules seem infinite and arbitrary (at least to my independent, raised-in-the-70s inner child). Want to take a turn on the swing? Any other kid waiting can count to twenty and you’ll have to get off. (Can you even get a good knee-pump going in twenty seconds?) Flag football, which was my son’s favorite game at the start of the year, has now been divided up into official teams. You can only play on certain days, and then only on your designated team. The “doodies” have split up pairs of friends (because they might pass to each other more than they do to the rest of the team); best buds are scheduled to play on opposite days. My son doesn’t play flag football anymore.

Basketball and tag are both forbidden (people could get hurt). Foursquare has an adult moderator who will send you walking if you stay in the server square too long. “Bump” (a basketball-ish game) has been renamed “shoot” because the grownups don’t like the ball-bumping required for the original game. Transgressions of any degree will earn you a recess “standing on the wall” (which kind of reminds me of this).

The wall’s purpose is twofold: to force kids to stand still during a time when they should be moving, and to hold them up to the ridicule of their peers, who know only too well what it means to stand “on the wall.” ("Ooooooh! You're in Trou-ble!") Do either of those sound like logical consequences for playing unfairly in a soccer game or serving up an illegal hit in wall-ball?

Is it any wonder the kids are a little antsy when they get back to class? The adults have stolen their free time and turned it into a regimented outdoor disappointment. Grownups have usurped their opportunity to learn how to interact without strict guidance.  The kids can’t play tag, for crying out loud.

Believe it or not, I used to be a teacher. I do understand the need for some order and control on the playground. But I also believe that we can do a better job of using misbehaviors as teachable moments and retain some of the fleeting time that kids get during the day to actually move.

I’d like to hear your ideas. What has worked at your kids’ schools? What do you think? Please join in the conversation!


  1. I am still learning about the playground rules at Jackson's school (I'll have to ask him, since they never send a list of those things home). I'm still trying to get over the no playing in the rain policy--a hard thing for this native Oregonian.

    One thing that Jackson's school does is "bench" kids from recess. The kids most often "benched" are hyper boys who really need to burn off that extra energy during recess. Instead, they are benched and are even worse in the class. A bad cycle.

  2. Exactly, Lisa! I've talked to the principal at our school about having kids walk laps instead of standing on the wall. She was all for it, but she hasn't been able to convince the duties, apparently. [Sigh]

  3. I think the sometimes unknowing (but in this case deliberate) attempt by big people to remove unstructured play from childhood has gotten worse with each generation. The adults who have decided that children can't be trusted to choose up sides on the school playground should be required to explain this to their own parents. Then they should listen carefully to the response they get. It could be interesting.


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