Photo Credit: Wm Chamberlain via Flickr, CCL 2013.
Excerpt from an actual letter I received from a former student several years ago:
“Dear Mrs. Antonelli,
Hi! How are you? I am fine. I miss you and everyone at _____ School. Middle school is OK but it’s not nearly as fun as elementary school. My favorite classes are Science and PE. Recess is totally lame. We’re not allowed to play soccer or tag. The teachers said we’re not even allowed to run…”
That letter made me sad. Why do we sometimes treat 11, 12, and 13 year olds like little adults?
Recess is critically important. Going out to run, play, laugh, jump… MOVE is critically important for our children’s mental and physical health. I’ve addressed this topic before in my posts on Working with Challenging Students and 5 Reasons to Get Students Moving.
So let’s just assume that you already agree with me and believe that recess is important. Let’s assume that wild horses couldn’t keep you from the playground for any reason other than inclement weather.
The purpose of this post is to discuss what happens once you and your students get outside.
What’s next? What can they do on the playground?
The reality is that many of them struggle with that question, especially if the playground is crowded and the swings/ play structure are full. We teachers like to say, “Go play!” but what does that really mean?
As a teacher, when I used to tell my students to go and play, I imagined they would organize a group game like tag. Or maybe they would find a shady corner and play a pretend game of house using pinecones and gumballs as their “food.” These were the things I played with my friends growing up.
Times have changed. I remember walking up on a group of students who were standing around bickering. When I asked them why they weren’t playing they said there was “nothing to do.” I started to chastise them, but realized that in one sense, they were right. The swings were full. The soccer field already had 2x more kids than safe playing a game that loosely resembled soccer. The playground structure was big and flashy, but the “things to do once you get on” factor was fairly low.
I suggested that they play a game and they all looked at me with blank faces. “Like what?” asked one little girl.
“Like Freeze Tag! Or Sharks and Minnows! Or Capture the Flag!”
More blank faces. One of the students in the group said, “We don’t know those games, Mrs. Antonelli.”
Of course they didn’t. Kids today don’t usually run through the neighborhood and play outdoor games in large groups. In fact, I hadn’t done that either as a child of the 70s. Where had I learned those games? Summer camps, church youth events, and school. But still, most of those games had been handed down kid to kid. Often it was the older children who taught us those games and “refereed” us through them as we learned. These days there is little contact between older and younger children and much less opportunity for playing these kinds of games. I could go on a long rant about our media-based culture and how kids don’t play outside enough etc. but I’m not big on ranting. Let’s just say that kids today don’t always know how to play together the way “old school” kids knew how to play together.
I realized that day it was time to rethink recess. About that same time a fellow teacher and friend, Taylor Schapiro, mentioned the idea of explicitly teaching children to play group games at recess. She had recently attended a Responsive Classroom training and recess was one of the topics discussed. She suggested that I teach my students a new “group game” each day at recess for several weeks in order to build up their repertoire of recess play ideas.
I’ll be honest with you: I really had to talk myself into it. Recess was usually a “break” for me. While I did have to remain on the playground and supervise my students, it still felt like down-time: twenty minutes to touch base with my peers, get some separation from the children, and be quiet. I really didn’t want to become the “game leader” and essentially add yet another “lesson” to my busy day.
Still, I did it. The payoff seemed worth the effort.
The next day I taught them the basics of how to play tag correctly. We learned how to:
- tag with light “butterfly” weight tagging hands (just hard enough to be felt, not hard enough to “push”)
- establish a perimeter for the game-field
- be honest about being tagged
- play with more than one “it” so that the game is more competitive/ fair
- install methods so that students could be “unfrozen” once tagged and continue playing the game.
We started with a simple game of freeze tag. There were two “its” (the “King and Queen of Winter”) and one student who was identified as “Spring.” Spring had the power of “thaw” and could “unfreeze” any student who had been frozen by “Winter.” It was very simple. Once I taught the game I stood out of the way and observed, calling out encouragement and any necessary corrections (“Not so hard!”) After a few minutes we stopped the game and switched roles, naming new “Winter” and “Spring” players.
After an energetic 10-15 minutes, I told the children they had some recess time remaining and that they could either 1) Go do something else or 2) Keep playing.
The children absolutely loved it. As we walked back into the classroom everyone was happy and talking excitedly about the game. They had all gotten a great cardiovascular workout and were ready for a read-aloud so they could cool down.
In that first day, I became a believer in teaching children to play group games.
There are so many fun games you can teach your students. I’ll share some of them in future posts here on Wonder Teacher, as well as other ideas and suggestions for improving recess time for our students.
What do you think about the current recess “state of affairs” at your school?