Posts Tagged Play

Rhode Island’s New Law Mandates Recess for Kids

Published by — Apparently we need the states to step in to prevent the disappearance of playtime in school.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Ask adults what their favorite subject in grade school was and often you’ll get “recess.”  Yes of course, they also liked the science of erupting volcanoes, reading intriguing stories, and hopefully much more.  But young bodies needs to run, play, and shriek.  Many adults remember the palpable relief of being liberated from their desks.  I am one of them.

You might think that recess is a given for little kids even into middle school.  Actually, not so much.  Elementary schools always claim to give recess, but researchers found that on a randomly-selected school day, only 79% had recess.  Of those, 61% of African-American kids and 75% of other minority students had recess compared with 85% of white children. Merely 56% of kids in poverty were playing.  Even at school, kids in poverty can’t cut a break.

An overview of the states show that few require recess.  Individual districts can set their own policies.  But the internet has pages and pages of complaints about not giving kids some time to themselves.  We’re often compared with other countries who give their kids plenty of time off (and have longer, less pressured school days).

So it was with mild fanfare that Rhode Island’s Legislature managed to pass a bill that requires elementary schools to give kids at least 20 minutes of daily recess.  Lest you think this new law would affect a mere handful of buildings, only 18% were already doing this, according to data collected by Recess for Rhode Island, an advocacy group.  The data also shows that school play spaces are often inadequate and lacking equipment.  Few schools have good indoor options.  Recess has indeed withered.

How on earth did kids lose their right to a break?

Usually the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), 2001, is blamed for the incredible shrinking recess.  Across the nation, school staff alleged that testing required endless test-prep that took time away from everything else.  NCLB demanded that all students be proficient in English and math as of 2014 — a stupid, impossible goal.

Still, threatened with sanctions, schools shaved time off wherever they could.  Any mom could have told you that tedious, mind-numbing test-prep wouldn’t produce sparkling results.  And it didn’t.  So maybe beleaguered schools were taking their frustration out on the kids.  Everyone was having less fun; cutting recess just made it official.

But another factor at work might have been to use NCLB as an opportunity to limit kids’ freedom to be naughty at school.  Many parents and teachers believe that free play leads directly to bullying, for example.  But the Alliance for Childhood, among many others, have evidence that free play is precisely where and when kids learn social skills, including the need to curb aggression.  If recess erupts with unwanted behavior, bad on the adults who aren’t monitoring the inevitable disputes that erupt among kids.  Socially-savvy adults on the playground can distinguish between kids’ natural process of learning to sort out their differences and aggression that needs adult intervention.  No one can learn how to handle their social world until they experience conflict and learn to respond to it both responsibly and effectively.

Punishing kids by benching them at recess is super controlling.

The original version of Rhode Island’s legislation, written by the recess advocates, prohibited withholding recess as punishment.  Sadly, punishment is still the go-to technique for curbing misbehavior, even though a preponderance of evidence argues that punishment doesn’t work.  Bad kids just get badder.  But the original mandate was rendered toothless to accommodate those who complained that withholding recess was a valuable tool for managing behavior.

The bill now asks school staff to try other options first.  Recess for RI’s data showed that fully 70% of the schools say they withhold recess for disciplinary reasons.  So, specifically those kids who most need to run and shriek are parked along some fence, usually for all to see, as if that would motivate anyone to behave in the classroom.

C’mon, who doesn’t need a break in their day?  Walking down the hall and having a chat with a co-worker is good for your mental health.  Everyone needs a mental pause to perform at their best.  Everyone needs to interact with others socially.  Everyone needs some physical activity if only stretching.  And children’s bodies especially are little dynamos.

Who have we become as a culture that the kids need the full force of state law to get 20 minutes off?  Still, some recess-deprived kids will finally get a break.  Thank God.

 (Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Restore Kindergarten to Boost Social Skills

Published by — What’s most fun for young kids is also what best prepares them for success.  So why are schools eliminating playtime?


Picture wriggly, shrieky, busy 5-year-olds exploring the kindergarten play yard’s treasures.  The sandbox brims with budding builders, diggers, landscape designers.  Some kids need mostly to run and scream.  Others settle into swinging, climbing and kicking balls to each other.  The luckiest kids have a bit a nature where they can make fairy houses for a community of imaginary beings living through dramatic, magical adventures.  They learn the arts of taking turns, helping one another on projects and solving their own problems.

Maria Montessori said that “Play is the work of childhood.”

Picture a wise adult or two, standing at a distance, perhaps out of earshot, eyeing the elements of the kids’ evolving social world.  The adults respond when asked to admire an accomplishment or play a role, but stay out of disputes unless it gets out of control.  A new kid or loner needs adult help connecting to others.  Grown-ups might redirect the aggressive impulses of a little bully and try to help her develop empathy by walking in her classmates’ shoes somehow.

But those were the kindergartens of yesteryear. 

These days kids spend precious little time playing at all in school.  Play and socializing might happen during short breaks between academic instruction, but many schools did away with recess altogether.  Now kindergarten teachers teach first-grade skills and have no mandate to help 5-year-olds develop the social skills that will serve them for life.  The Alliance for Childhood’s Crisis in the Kindergarten says, “Skepticism about the value of play is compounded by the widespread assumption that the earlier children begin to master the basic elements of reading, such as phonics and letter recognition, the more likely they are to succeed in school.”  That assumption is wrong.

And recently yet more research shows how wrong the assumption is.  In “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health:  The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,” Drs. Jones, Greenberg and Crowly examine the value of what they call the “non-cognitive” skills, or those skills not associated with IQ or achievement.  They argue that these playing-nicely-in-the-sandbox skills actually support the “cognitive,” or academic, abilities of the child.  The researchers mined the rich longitudinal data from the “Fast Track” study of low-income neighborhoods which collected teacher descriptions of a large sample of kindergartners starting in 1991 and then followed those kids’ outcomes 13 to 19 years later — until 2000.

Their studies reveal that when kindergarteners develop strong social skills, they have significantly higher odds of future success in a range of domains from physical health to academics.  Little kids who cannot manage feelings or negotiate well with others are more likely, statistically, to become young adults who use drugs, struggle in school, get involved in the justice system, be unemployed, and so on.

“Kindergarten” means “child’s garden,” where kids grow organically.

Common Core, while marvelous in some ways, is only the most recent instrument of pushing academic instruction into kindergarten.  In the 1990s, when computer-scored testing became cost-effective, states and their schools became obsessed with boosting their public image and value by increasing their scores.  I’m all for testing as a way of checking on the equity and quality of certain academic efforts, but schools became all about testing, needlessly squeezing everything else out.  Many early childhood experts are aghast about it.  Losing supervised play as the best and most natural way for young kids to learn cripples curiosity.  Developing self-control, cooperation and solving their own problems will produce the desired academic results, but only in good time.

Pre-literacy and play are not mutually exclusive. 

By all means, steep kindergartners in rich literature and intriguing stories.  Nourish the curiosity of those yearning to unlock the mysteries of reading.  Build out their vocabularies at every opportunity.  But mostly, let them love being at school — socializing, exploring.  That will do far more to boost 3rd-grade reading than un-fun reading instruction.

Kindergarten teachers wouldn’t mind teaching social skills if they weren’t also saddled with the pain of pushing instruction that many argue is inappropriately premature.  Harder, faster, younger isn’t working out.  And oh what a turn-off it is for so many kids.

So restore play in kindergarten.  Play is how children learn and how adults relax, recreate and restore well-being.  It’s the ultimate restorative practice.  In a world gone mad with aggression, you’d think we could agree that giving the kids a rich year of supervised play, learning empathy, would set them up with a higher quality of life.

Indeed, research strongly argues it will.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Refuel Kids’ Attention with Short Movement Breaks

Published by — It makes no sense to take dynamic young bodies and insist they sit still for hours at a stretch.


In a technology class at the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI, second and third graders are learning to change fonts on their laptops.  They look droopy, so I ask how they like the class.  They love it!  “Computers are so fun.”  “So cool!”

But the languid body language doesn’t match.  It’s the end of a period; they’ve been glued to screens.  So they’re fine with putting the electronics away and quickly arrange themselves into a formation that looks like back-up dancers at the ready.

Cynthia Sime, their regular teacher, leads them through a one-minute “energizer.”  Together they do a spoken-word doo-wop with a made-up word that sounded to me like Aroostasha sha sha sha.  The kids use the last four syllables to mark beats, as their hands slice the air from left to right.  It repeats as Sime adds a new physical challenge prior to each four-beat chant.  “Hands together! (hands smack together in front of their bellies).  Legs out! (jump into wide stance). Elbows in! (elbows whip back).  Knees bent!  Bottoms up!” (butts stick out).  And the last challenge she adds is “Tongue Out!”  With that the nonsense word sounds like total garbage, so when they’re done, kids dissolve into giggling.

Then, without asking, they settle right back at their desks, alert and ready for math.  The buzz in the air is palpable.  When Sime gives a first direction, they’re on it.

One minute of movement, release and a bit of fun tees up high-quality attention for this happy teacher, who isn’t battling restless, fried kids.

Darlene Pugnali, ICS Assistant Director, notes that outsiders often notice and commend the school’s calm and quiet atmosphere.  The quick, structured releases of energy, like the one I just saw, help the kids use the rest of the time for concentrated learning.  Pugnali explains that the school is deeply committed to Responsive Classroom (RP), whose website proclaims, “Teaching students to stay focused.”  They’ve generously put online a large library of these one-minute fool-arounds designed to give kids a jolt of fresh vitality and fun as they transition from one subject to another.

The payoff?  Better behavior, better academic results.

Pugnali says, “We’re always looking for the root causes of misbehavior.  Under what conditions does it takes place?  Sitting too long is certainly one of them.”

Many teachers at other schools say they don’t have time for breaks, recess, or any other down time.  Social Worker Soraya Gomes suggests that if teachers added up the time they’re spending redirecting behavior problems, they’d see it’s a whole lot more than one minute invested in recouping the kids attention.  “The engagement is so much higher.”

Jean Cavanaugh, Occupational Therapist, bluntly notes that energizers get “so much more out of them in a shorter amount of time.”

In Ben Keefe’s class, fourth-graders sit on a rug studying literature.  Using a cue indiscernible to me, teacher and kids pop off the rug to do what looks like a squats exercise.  He sings “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” one syllable at a time, at irregular intervals, as the kids mirror his knee bends.  The rhythm gets faster, the squats more rigorous. It looks exhausting.  The kids plop down, ready to go back to examining their book.

Keefe is considered the energizer school champion.  He says that he himself went nuts trying to sit through his graduate courses for his Masters in Teaching.  “So here I am with 10-year-olds, thinking it’s got to be far worse for them.”  His class takes a break every 20 minutes, and if he goes over time, the kids tap their wrists to indicate to him that they’re due a break.

They’re not learning if you don’t have their focus.

While Keefe is the champ, everyone likes pick-me-ups for transitions.  Still, Pugnali says, “I remind them gently that if the transition is coming in 15 minutes, and you’re losing your kids, don’t wait.  If they’re restless, stop in the middle of a lesson for one minute to get them back again.  One minute of movement can buy you 13, 14 good minutes of attention.”

ICS’ big claim to fame is its dual language program with strands in both Portuguese and Spanish.  Teachers bring energizer-like games and songs from other countries as a way of immersing the students in their kid-culture — a totally fun lesson in social studies.

ICS’ academic achievement hovers just above and below state average.  This is a feat, given that 38% of the kids are fresh-off-the-boat English-language learners, as compared with 6% statewide.  Fully 60% are eligible for subsidized lunch (a poverty indicator), compared with 47% statewide.

Too often schools just burn out their kids’ attention and then get irate when they misbehave, space out or resist.  Our education system takes dynamic young bodies, sticks them in a box called a school, and insists they sit for hours at a stretch.  It makes no sense.  It’s like a college professor teaching to a class of students checking Facebook the whole time.  The channel for learning is just not open.  Focus and attention need to be cultivated and used wisely.  ICS has it down.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Schools Can Learn from Researchers’ Rat Park

Published by — You want kids off drugs?  Give them places where they can run, swing, discover and have a blast with friends.


British journalist Johann Hari definitely upended my assumptions in his piece The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.

Hari’s long personal relationship with addicts and addiction started when he was only a child.  He tried and failed to wake a relative who had overdosed, which was surely traumatic.  So some years ago he decided to explore addiction, talking to addicts, experts, families and doctors.  He captured his journey in Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, told mainly through the stories of those affected by drugs.  I was especially struck by his story of two drug research efforts.

One experiment was famously captured in an appalling TV ad produced by the Partnership for Drug-free America in a 1980s.  I remember it.  We see a rat in a wire cage.  A food-like pellet drops into place and the rat eats.  An ominous voice tells the viewer that 9 out of 10 laboratory rats will “use” this drug, and “use it and use it,” until dead.  Over the course of the ad’s 30 seconds, the rat compulsively eats successive pellets.  It gets increasingly addicted and sick, staggering about in a pathetic stupor until overdosing.  It was riveting TV from an era big on discouraging drug use with a “scared straight” approach.

As an education journalist, I studied the roots and effects of teen substance abuse.  I mainly found studies explaining how repeated use of alcohol and drugs effectively carve paths of addiction synapses, permanently altering the person’s brain.  Hari calls this the myth of chemical hook.  The chemical gains control of the person, which can happen (speaking as someone who spent years quitting cigarettes).  But Hari goes on to point out that people get addicted to gambling and other behaviors, but it’s not like you can mainline a pack of cards or roulette wheel.  So what’s going on?

Any social being left alone in a cage would welcome oblivion.

Canadian professor Bruce Alexander questioned the validity of the experiment made famous by the ad.  Instead, he created a Rat Park.  Also a controlled, laboratory cage, the Park was large, and filled with toys, tunnels, fun stuff to do, and most importantly, other rats. Water bottles always offered them choice of both regular and cocaine-laced water.  The rats tried both, but over time greatly preferred the regular water.  Self-medication seemed to be far less appealing if a rat could get high on the dopamine of mammalian social fun.

Alexander went further.  He too kept some rats isolated in wire cages, and well supplied with drugs.  But then he put them in his Rat Park where, after some time and twitching from withdrawal, even these confirmed addicts came to prefer regular water.  Perhaps being messed up on drugs ruined their ability to have fun in the Rat Park’s equivalent of capture-the-flag.

Hari’s stories about human addicts resemble the Rat Park tale.  (Did you know that 15 years ago 1% of Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin?)  People respond really well to human Rat Parks, which to my mind greatly resemble fun 1950s neighborhoods.  You want kids off drugs?  Give them places where they can run, swing, discover, invent, imagine, and have a blast with friends.

It’s not you. It’s your cage.

Your environment affects your behavior.  Hari writes:  “Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.”

Our environments, Hari’s “cages,” are increasingly unsupportive of human connection.  Whereas once everyone knew their neighbors, now such intimacy is the exception.  As a nation, we’re in the midst of a drug overdose crisis.  The media is filled with stories of destructive and self-destructive behavior.

Isolation is especially pronounced among children, who play indoors, glued to their electronics.  They’ve had so little experience of playing nicely with others in the sandbox, they don’t develop social skills.  Their young bodies are supposed to sit for hours to “learn” and then get yelled at when they simply can’t behave.  You’d be hard pressed to find a robust network of trusting, warm human connections in most schools.  In fact, schools call human bonding “personalization,” a word whose impersonality kinda says it all.

Redesigning schools to take advantage of the brain’s hard-wired needs to have fun would surely lead to far better results than the command-and-control environments kids get now.  At least students would have the option to choose healthy academic water instead of being drawn addictively to the endless electronic relief from disconnection and boredom.  Yes, there’s some truth to the “chemical hook.”  But it’s not as deep and important a truth as the learned joys of Rat Park.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Only 1 in 12 Kids Has Normal Balance and Core Strength

Published by — Children are constantly in an upright position these days.  They’re not moving nearly enough, and that’s a problem.


Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist.  A very worried occupational therapist.

And who are they, anyway?  These therapists help kids (and adults) get over or mitigate the barriers to daily occupations — bathing, toileting, social functioning, gaining more independence — if they’re injured, developmentally delayed, or otherwise disabled.  They help people on the autism spectrum interact with others.  They understand how to teach a Down Syndrome child to take as much care of herself as possible.

Occupational therapists are also among the people who work with America’s 6.4 million kids between ages 4 and 17 who’ve been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.  That number has grown to 11% of the age group.  We’re the only country to break double digits in this sad stat.  Most countries barely make it over the decimal point.  England, usually second after the U.S. in worst-in-the-developed-world social health statistics, has about 2.4% diagnosed.

So, among her other clients, Hanscom’s include kids who have the occupational difficulty of tolerating schools.  Most are boys.  Many have had their fidgeting calmed by medication, but they still need strategies for how to sit still all day and resist the noise coming from their bodies begging for movement.

While working in classrooms of wriggly kids, Hanscom started seeing what she thought must be physical anomalies among them.  So she solicited others to help her conduct research.  To their horror, they found “that most of the children in the classroom had poor core strength and balance. In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared to children from the early 1980s, only one out of twelve children had normal strength and balance.”

A kid’s body is designed to train its own vestibular (balance) system.

Balance involves a sophisticated integration of sensory data — sight, sound, movement — that helps people control their motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation.  Young bodies learn to regulate balance by moving in every possible direction.  This is why kids like to play with speed, twirl until they’re dizzy and fall down, dance, jump, swing, skip.  Their seeming physical madness is evolution’s way of helping a kid calibrate the physics of staying upright while walking, running, etc.

And the “core strength” Hanscom refers to is what the Pilates people often call the “girdle of muscle,” around the abdomen and the lower back.  The core supports everything else that uses gross motor skills.

Ironic, isn’t it, that as people age, their core strength and balance are the two things that become universally weaker.  And here we are creating a younger generation starting life with those weaknesses right out of the gate.

In the school off-season, Hanscom runs a camp, Timbernook, which for all the world looks like a forest kindergarten or nature-focused adventure playground.  In other words, it looks like a place where kids can actually play.  Not surprisingly, when ADD kids go to Timbernook, their symptoms disappear.  They no longer have to battle the crummy feeling of being a constant nuisance to the teacher, because at camp their fidgeting is free to erupt into full-on thrashing about.  ADD is considered a neurological disorder, but increasingly some of us believe that some kids’ bodies scream for attention so loudly that the noise ruins kids’ ability to concentrate for long.  At Timbernook, kids’ bodies are finally learning a form of basic education that the very structure of regular school forbids.

What subject is so valuable that it’s worth sacrificing learning balance?

Picture a typical classroom.  Consider what Hanscom says:

“The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Let’s face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.”

“Starting?”  I dunno.  That 11% statistic begs to differ.

Yes, schools are part of the problem.  But schools are only a reflection of the larger society.  Parents are absolutely insane for safety these days.  They’ve heard the line that “sitting is the new cancer.”  They know that clinging to electronics, indoors, for hours at a stretch can’t be good for kids.  But…  Even kids who are involved in sports tend to sit the rest of the time.  They don’t work on cars, create pick-up games, build stuff or ride bikes to a fishing hole.  They get a shot of activity.  And then sit.

So while we fuss about nuances of Common Core, we stop children from learning the most basic things they’ll need to support their daily occupations.  Drugs and therapy only mask the body’s biological need to cavort about.  Is this really working for the kids?

Hat tip to Valerie Strauss for reprinting Hanson’s blog on her Answer Sheet.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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We’re Crippling Our Kids with Fear

Published by — What I hear us saying to the kids is:  “The world is terrifying and you can’t handle it, so we’ll protect you.”

While hiking in the Finger Lakes region, I watched as a three-year-old did a major face plant on a stone path.  Fellow hikers gasped with horrified “Oh, no!”s and were about to lurch forward to… well, I’m not sure what they thought they would do.  But the mom raised her hands in a big back-off gesture and frowned fiercely.  “Let’s see if she handles it,” she said quietly so as not to wreck the kid’s concentration.  The small crowd held its breath.

So, with only grunts, the sturdy little darling hoisted herself up to all-fours, butt in the air, tested her balance, and rose.  She and mom exchanged a glance and a nod that confirmed that she was all set.  The child toddled on.  Mom did not gush “good job!” at her or smother her with sympathy.  She did glare at us.

Mom took the mishap in stride, and clearly felt the rest of us should too.  Falls happen.  Expect them.  Adversity happens.  Inevitably.  ‘Cause that’s life.  Be careful, but don’t be afraid.  Fear is limiting.  And learning to manage your own recovery and restoration will prevent unnecessary future falls better than anything.  The older a kid gets, the less Mom will be there when adversity happens.  And that’s how it should be.

Instead, communities want laws that criminalize youthful independence.

I thought America had reached its peak for over-cautiousness, but no.  Recently a North Carolina mom was arrested for letting her 9-year-old go by herself to play in a safe public park full of kids and fun stuff to do.  Another mother called the cops.  The police collaborated with that helicopter mom to give the “bad mother’s” child a stern lesson in the evils of independence.  The kid hadn’t yet learned the world is an unmanageably scary place.  But thanks to this incident she’ll be scared to death henceforth that her self-reliance will put her into foster care and get her mom some jail time.

That North Carolina arrest was no anomaly. A poll conducted by Reason-Rupe found that a whopping 68 percent of their sample of Americans felt that the law should require 9-year-olds to be supervised in public parks.  At nine?!  We’re making healthy independence illegal and ensuring that kids grow up fearing their own neighborhoods and public spaces.

I hate to date myself, but when we were 9 or even younger, my friends and I were off into the big bad world with only strict orders to be home when the street lights when on.  Often we rode our bikes to a commercial street at least a mile away from the house.  And if we were stupid enough to let our bikes get stolen, oh well.  Such are the consequences of carelessness.  We were expected to handle our own squabbles, our own troubles, unless, as was sometimes the case, we couldn’t.  Once a group of older bullies would not leave us alone, so we agreed to rat them out to our respective parents.  The parents dealt with it.  No one called the cops.  And this was not Mayberry, but Los Angeles.

The recent poll goes on: 43 percent think 12-year-olds should be supervised at parks.  OMG.  Twelve-year-olds who’ve been shielded from unsupervised socializing with other kids become entitled little beasts who don’t know what hurts or offends, or in any case don’t care.  Maybe we want them supervised in order to protect ourselves from what they’ve become.  Parents should be the backup at age 12, not the kid’s first line of defense.  Kids will grow up, whether we like it or not.  So they need to be confident they can solo safely, socially, healthily when no mommie’s around.

Resilient kids fall down, go boom and recover.

Preventing kids from even the smallest risk is now the cultural norm of “good” parents.  Moms such as the one hiking with her three-year-old are often called “free range” moms, referring to the free-range chickens that get to run around instead of living out their lives in cages.  “Good” parents now metaphorically cage their kids by keeping them indoors, supervised at all times, and doing only what adults teach or direct them to do.  (No one seems to care about the substantial risks of kids living in the world of electronic entertainment, risks such as obesity and anti-social behavior.)  But this kind of protectiveness is like dressing kids in a ton of Medieval armor and hoping they’ll dance through life.  Young American can-do spirit is now met with “Watch out!” and “Be careful!” and “Stop, you’ll hurt yourself!”  Have we thought through what sorts of young adults we’re aiming towards as the result of all this protection?  Will they have the resilience, autonomy and common sense to solo out there in the real world?

What I hear us saying to the kids is:  “We don’t believe in you.  The world is terrifying and we know you can’t handle it.  So we’ll protect you and prepare you for a life without adversity.  Which is to say we won’t prepare you at all.”

Keeping kids scared will warp their adult chances at becoming resilient, innovative or much fun to be with.  I think that the nation’s poor academic performance stems from shielding kids from learning life’s basics.  What a nasty thing to do to kids.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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The Inspirational Virtues of Summer Boredom

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“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” — Dorothy Parker

A 2013 review of the literature published by Behavior Sciences concludes that boredom motivates a desire for change, new goals, experiences and pursuits.  “Boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.”  — On the Function of Boredom.

Boredom can be seriously toxic in certain circumstances — like smart kids enduring a tedious lesson.  But it can also be just what the doctor ordered.

In the pre-electronics age, a time quickly joining antiquity, my summer break from school was punctuated with boredom sometimes verging on physically painful.  Except for the annual two-week family vacation, my parents’ life went on as usual.  Entertaining us was not their job.  We could play, after all.  They worked.  Oh, they’d take us to the movies sometimes, the beach, someone’s pool.  My father might play ping pong or cards.  But essentially we were on our own.  They had zero sympathy for our plight.

Even with my big imagination and epic fantasy life, I could fall into a dull passivity that ached with the feeling I was owed distraction and entertainment.  On one hot mid-summer day, I sprawled out on the slope of the front lawn for all the neighborhood to see how utterly uncared-for I was.  I wanted aliens, traveling circus troupes or any sort of fun-lovers to rescue me with any sort of diverting jumper cables to spark my spoiled, entitled paralysis.  I imagine my mother glancing out the window, dishrag in hand, exasperated with her demanding daughter.  But it wasn’t her problem.

Since the naked ape became upright, kids have hated boredom so badly that it spurred them to act.  Get your own butt off that grass and get engaged in something.  When distractions are unavailable, curiosity will set in.  Besides passive rescue, what does your inner voice want?  What interests it?  Let that voice grow louder.  It has urges.  It has ideas.  It wonders…

One solution was to go find a friend.  But while my sisters had a wealth of playmates in our big-family neighborhood, the kids my age were all boys and no fun.

I liked making things.  Our world was full of tools, scrap wood, sand piles, dirt, water, and random junk for creating environments for imaginary beings or willing pets.

But sometimes the listlessness was so great, I resentfully gravitated towards books.  At summer’s start, books could feel like the school from which I’d been liberated.  In time though, literary adventures in foreign lands and unfamiliar times were a godsend.

Our local library ran summer competitions.  If you read a book and wrote a paragraph about it, assuring the librarians that you didn’t merely skim, they’d post it on corkboard walls put up for the purpose.  They gave prizes — the most books read, best writing, best handwriting, best illustration, best summary, best whatever.  Prizes included candy, because like constant entertainment, candy was also not then in constant supply.  The incentives worked.  Soon the neighborhood kids and I were all vying for the library’s honors.

Besides, the library building somehow stayed cool longer than others.  Comfortable seats looked out on a shady garden, also a pretty backdrop to daydreams.  I scanned the walls to admire my own paragraphs and to monitor the competition.  More than once I emerged from a story mortified to see my mother marching at me with pursed lips, wondering what happened to my promise to be home at such-and-such hour?

Oh I know. Books are passe.  They’re the sort of thing an older writer might mention as a cure for summer ennui.  But these days my electronic in-box is crammed with articles and despairful research on “summer learning loss,” all of which propose solving by giving kids a ton more school.  Yes, these days what most kids do in their downtime is largely brain deadening.  Still, the educational hand-wringers never suggest that the kids need time to build, roam, investigate, settle disputes with friends, invent games.  And they certainly never propose helping them develop pursuits of their own that could ignite curiosity into questions that a nice librarian might help with.  As an industry, Education accidently turned books into a colossal chore, when they really can be entertaining and just what kids want.  Books speak to and with that inner voice.  Video games, TV and texting just shut it out.

As a friend says: attention is currency; spend it wisely.  If good things — friends, construction materials and books are at hand — kids will marshal their own attention to concentrate in healthy ways.  These articles in my inbox are always looking to provide kids with improving experiences, when what they really need are safe neighborhoods with good libraries and fewer e-distractions, where they can invent themselves and worlds of their own.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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It Takes Guts To Depict A Healthy, Happy Childhood

Published by — This film’s 1950s vision of heaven for children’s play is as relevant today as it was when it was made.

Medieval storytellers and play-masters always faced the huge problem that Evil was so much more fun to portray than Good.  Devils often made their entrance from the back of the audience, delivering sin’s pinches to real bodies as they made their way to the stage.  The characters World, Gluttony and Lechery could flaunt their drunken or sacrilegious naughtiness, even as they were doomed to the fires of hell.  Virtue, Kindness, and Modesty?  Dull, dull and dull.  Tough work competing for attention.

But compete they did, because they had to.  Affirming visions of Good was the point of the stories, after all.  Facing adversity with triumph, in comedy, or noble defeat in tragedy, upheld an ideal of what it looked like when the community had it right.  However hard to achieve, good character was the basis of a good society, and so it had to drive a good story.  Performers had a moral obligation to imagine heaven on earth, because ultimately that was more satisfying to the audiences than cynicism.

These days, Hollywood has lost interest in ordinary, Leave-it-to-Beaver stories about healthy kids and families.  On the news we see children involved in violence, shootings, bullies, and toys that maim.  Frightened parents wrap their kids in bubble wrap, shielding them from life’s greatest lesson:  falling down, going boom, and making sense of what happened.  Actually, if we’d only let kids explore, watching them manage risk — climb a tree, build with tools — can be heart-stoppingly exciting.

So I was delighted to see that the Alliance for Childhood had dug out an old 1957 film that shows just such a bit of a heaven on earth for children.  It looks like a newsreel of the sort that used to play before the feature film.  In it “The National Playing Fields Association” promotes “Adventure Playgrounds,” described as having “originated in postwar Europe, after a playground designer found that children had more fun with the trash and rubble left behind by bombings — inventing their own toys and playing with them — than on the conventional equipment of swings and slides.”

Today adventure playgrounds are all over Europe and Japan.  Many call them “junkyard playgrounds” because they’re full of cast-off wood scraps, wire spools, paints, old pool slides, whatever.

As a 1950s vision of heaven, the children are spotless, even as they dig deeply in the dirt, dive into holes and dam streams.  Boys build while the girls cook, wearing dresses.  A gorgeously-voiced BBC radio announcer enthuses his way through a delightfully prosy script.  The camera lingers on kids having a blast learning that “Work is fun and service is satisfaction.”  The aesthetic is cornball, but every one of his words is just as relevant to today’s children, if not more so.

The narrator focuses on two conditions essential not only to having fun, but to building character.  Again, modern children hear a lot about bad behavior, with few if any images of attractive behavior other than getting good grades and excelling in organized sports.

The first condition is that children need to create worlds that belong just to them.  Everything in these playgrounds is created by the children’s hands.  “Nails and junk bring happiness,” and as the village of little structures develops, “so does character.”  Children choose what to build and do.  They begin or stop as they wish, and if they want to pull off to the side to be alone, that’s okay too.  This isn’t school or home; it’s their world, and no one else’s.

Douglas Rushkoff makes the point that kids are never the drivers when playing video games or other electronics.  They’re passengers in someone else’s software vehicle.  Likewise, organized sports are managed by adults.  But having a world of your own is critical to developing a sense of who you are.  Developing that world with others teaches you who you are in relation to them.

The second essential condition is the “Playworker,” whom we don’t see in the film.  Today European colleges offer 2-year degrees that certify playworkers to work for municipalities in parks, public playgrounds and the streets themselves.  The narrator notes, “Conspicuous by his or her absence, the leader guides, but never organizes; watches over them, but never interferes; is always there, but never in the way.”  The kids aren’t abandoned to create their own world; there’s attention, recourse to help and a potential relationship with a functioning adult.  Talk about an image of Good!  Imagine if U.S. municipalities cared enough about their kids to invest in people to watch over them out in the field.  Kids desperately need to feel safe in their own worlds, but neglect makes the streets dangerous.

As it is, we ignore children’s innate urges to build, dam, make things, climb, invent, interact, and make choices about their own lives.  Better to give kids a bit of land, some junk and to have someone standing watchfully to one side as they do so.  The last line of the movie is:  “And your reward is just this:  the sound of children’s laughter.  No music was ever sweeter.”

Good image.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Stranded in the Land of Over-Stimulated Kids

Published by —  Sometimes the grand adventure of making fun family memories turns to trauma.

My husband and I were supposed to transfer planes on January 5th, just after a storm and before the super-freeze — a fatefully bad day for travel.  The Orlando airport teemed with children, which is not surprising since it’s the put-in for Disney World, Universal Studios and, as we subsequently found out, about a thousand other theme parks and “attractions.”  Even with mouse ears on kids and adults alike, the tense gloom was palpable.  Big ads on the walls showed super-happy families on some ride or other, “making memories,” as Disney says.

Some memory.  People packed the waiting rooms and hallways, killing time because of delayed flights.  For our plane home, there was a first three-hour delay, and then another, and yet another.  We’d been in the airport for 12 hours already, when, at 3:30a.m., airline personnel announced that while we had a plane, we had no pilot.  New FAA regulations limit how long a pilot can fly in a day.

A groan rumbled through the crowd at our gate, eventually pierced by a kid whining, “But Mommie, I want to go home.”

Trust me, Honey, Mommie wants to be home even worse than you do.

Anyone can get caught in travel snarls.  But in Orlando an upsettingly high proportion of the stressed, miserable people were children.  This being the new post-civil America, many adults got belligerent, behaving far worse than the kids.  I so wanted them to calm down, since I too was freaked about losing control of my life.

For many, the grand adventure of making fun family memories had turned traumatic.

The three women in front of me at the re-booking terminal were in tears, worried about losing their shop-clerk jobs at a CVS pharmacy.  The soonest available reservations were three days hence, and those were going fast.  The airline guy was reassuring about how employers are understanding about such eventualities, but no, airlines no longer provide hotel rooms under such circumstances.  On those women’s salaries, God knows how long it had taken them to save up for this trip.  More nights in hotel rooms?  Get real.  Their plight drove home my relative wealth, allowing us to be reasonably comfortable.  But if their finances are so frail, why blow big bucks answering the lure of corporate-enriching past-times?

Amusement park marketing not only pitches fun, but intimacy and togetherness.  Throughout the airport, huge pictures show two-child families having a blast on roller coasters, sealing family bonds.  Were the many newly-weds we saw really hoping to establish the beginnings of a life-long relationship?  Did the women from CVS get so tight with one another that they could be kind and loving through a 3-day ordeal?

In fact, aren’t the rides, shopping for souvenir junk, and gawking at the bizarre environments just huge distractions from paying attention to one another?  I realize people have fun at these places.  But no one bonds with anyone except by sharing excellent, consistent attention.  The kids get so over-stimulated, it’s a wonder they can stand school the following week.  Poor teachers, who have to compete for kids’ attention with such a standard of amusement.

On my first trip to Disneyland, as a little girl growing up in L.A., I was so intrigued by following a marching band, I got separated from my parents.  Seared in my memory is running up and down Main Street calling for them hysterically.  After what seemed like an aeon, Park personnel reunited us, but all I remember from that trip are minute details of the separation.  Being terrorized by the Matterhorn is all that’s left of another trip.  Decades later, when we took my twin first-graders to Disneyland, they were terrified by some rocket ride whose name I don’t remember.  I do remember them being furious at me, but not a lot of family bonding going on.

Contrast that corporate-sponsored effort at closeness with a recent scene at a hospice facility where my friend’s mother was dying.  The disease had come on fast, but her kids all managed to come, many with kids of their own.  So, surrounded by her husband, children and grandchildren, she listened as a daughter-in-law played her favorite Christmas carols on a violin.  I lost it just hearing my friend describe the scene.  More importantly, it was a seminal moment for everyone there.  I could never wish such grief on anyone, but death does come, and when handled well, it can cement families together in adversity.  That’s a memory worth making.

So as I stood in endless lines in the wee hours on that awful night, I kept thinking that if those women had spent their hard-earned vacation dollars visiting their brother, their home town, or a high school friend who’d moved to some interesting place, at least they might be able to turn around and get friends or family to help them.  But the Magic Kingdom is home to no one.  It’s an adventure in distraction that is actually pretty shaky when it comes to guaranteeing fun memories.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Toys ‘R’ Us Uses Kids to Push Their Products

Published by — The toy corporations mocks environmental education to make a profit.

Here’s a painfully-clear portrait of our post-moral culture: A recently-released advertisement uses real kids, not actors, to deliver the message that Nature is deadly dull and that over-priced, made-in-Elsewhere consumerist toys bring true joy.

The kick-off to Toys”R”Us’ holiday season is here on YouTube.

At this point, everyone over age 5 is onto advertising’s lies. So clever corporate America has created a new technique called “reality prank,” which sets up a situation that captures real people having genuine, heartfelt reactions. The non-actor responses are hugely compelling. In two such “prank” ads — see here and here — unsuspecting people are put in scary if not terrifying situations. The pranks provoke pricelessly big, honest reactions — for the purpose of selling TVs and beer, respectively. Apparently using people for corporate or personal gain is okay, as long as it’s entertaining.

Toys”R”Us uses a busload of urban kids. The set-up is a fake environmental organization called “Meet the Trees Foundation,” which is taking them on a field trip to the forest. Actually, the one aspect that didn’t seem real was the kids’ seeming boredom about taking the trip. I’ve never seen elementary students be anything but thrilled to be on a bus taking them just about anywhere other than school. Not sure how they did that.

“Ranger Brad,” an actor, leads the expedition. As the bus pulls away, he preps them to play arguably the most boring game ever conceived: Name that leaf. Students yawn, as I would. When a boy gamely ventures a wrong guess, he’s gently put down, a moment designed to boil the blood of environmental educators.

But the pain is quickly over. Time for the reveal:

Ranger Brad strips off his colorless, tree-hugger’s shirt, revealing a deep red, designerly version of a Toys”R”Us employee shirt. His voice loses its environmentalist piety and amps up to full pitchman: “We’re not going to the forest today,” — because who on earth would want to do that? — “we’re going to Toys”R”Us!” The kids scream and whoop. Brad seals the deal with: “You’ll play with all the toys and you can choose any toy you want!” For a poor urban kid, life doesn’t get any better.

From there, the advertiser has easy, downhill sledding. We see shot after darling shot of kids loose in a candy store, riding bikes, wide-eyed at games, thrilled over the possibilities. “I’m going to cry,” says a kid in the throes of overwhelm. “This is sooooooo cool,” bursts another. This rich sequence ends as a lovely girl takes a fluffy stuffed creature into her arms and melts with pleasure. Cue corporate logo and cut.

The message is that environmental education is not good or bad, but why bother? Clearly it bores the daylights out of the team who made the ad. Why they threw Mother Nature under the bus is a head-scratcher, except that corporate America can’t make a buck off kids and nature.

Educators, ecologists and some parents would argue passionately that teaching children about protecting the environment is critical to our survival. I would add that Nature has a spirit that could become a real friend to urban kids, if they only had more access and exposure to it. Like any friend, kids need to become familiar with nature’s spirit, over time. Without bells and whistles, it’s not obvious what entertainment can be gotten out of it. Nature only “works” as a toy when you’ve explored it and know its treasures, like European kids who attend forest kindergartens. They whoop and scream too, but over mud, imagination, twigs and tools — much more accessible to a low-income kid.

Making kids happy is an ancient and desirable pleasure. In moderation, it’s a good thing. But thrilling urban kids with a shiny consumer object starts to look like a quick first fix. Hyper-marketed toys, like movie-tie-in products, are interesting for a surprisingly short time. Many new parents have been sorely disappointed to see the child far more thrilled with the box than the toy itself. As the novelty recedes, new and fancier toys must take their place to keep the child amused and not, God forbid, bored. The trendy toy of the year resembles the beginning of an addiction more than a prop for a child’s imagination and exploration.

But what I got from this whole phenomenon of “reality pranks” is that it no longer matters whom you use, or what values you trash, in order to sell product. In a post-moral culture the common good can’t possibly compete with entertainment. If we use kids — or terrify adults — to make the dollar, that’s kind of clever, no? Environmental educators matter so little no one is going to fuss about dissing them.

Although, I’m not the only one to object. Petitions are circulating. But as of this writing not even 1,000 people have thumbs-downed the ad. However insulting, unhealthy and greedy the message, the unfortunate values asserted are not much rocking anyone’s world.

But I can tell you that Toys”R”Us has seen the last of my dollars.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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