Posts Tagged Play

School Recess Is Good For Kids’ Mental Health

Published by — Pediatricians, among others, believe that recess has a critical role in the school day.

Three years ago, prior to enrolling her son in the middle school, Phyllis Penhallow often had reason to be at the school just as lunch was over.

“I’d pull up, park, and the doors to the cafeteria would open.  Teaching assistants herded the kids out to some grass.  There was no real equipment, just a bin with 2 wiffle balls, no bats; 3 rubber balls, two deflated, no pump.  The kids stood there for about 7 minutes and then got herded back in.  I imagined herding cows out to graze.  Except that they couldn’t graze.  They stood.  I noticed the kids looked kind of sad, uninvolved, and not wanting to be there.”

And that, my friends, was those kids’ recess.

No running, whooping, cartwheels (it was grass), 4-square, tag, or card games.  No double-dutch jump rope, kids sharing the latest dance moves, or showoffs doing whatever solo physical feat it is they do best.  No explosion of pent-up energy.

Even worse, there was little visible socializing.  Research argues that a key feature of recess breaks — K-12 — is for kids to learn how to interact with one another directly, with adults only hovering supportively in the background.

And if all this seems like something kids can do outside of school time, read the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) passionate advocacy piece, The Critical Role of Recess in Schools.  Please note the word “critical.”  Breaks should take place at school — K-12.

During May is Mental Health Month, be aware that pediatricians believe recess should be treated with serious respect — or academics, physical, social, and mental health will suffer.

As it happens, Penhallow is a lecturer at the University of Rhode Island in the Human Development and Family Studies Department.  A specialist in early childhood, she consults with the State’s Department of Ed on early-learning standards.  She’s teaches about how children develop in happy, healthy, high-performance ways.  And she knows that national studies say recess is dying.  The time is being cut or eliminated and reallocated to academics.  Even where there is recess, obsessive-compulsive safety policies forbid running run around or doing anything deem remotely risky.  So the practices at Penhallow’s school, Chariho Middle School, merely reflect current thinking, however unfun.

But change was imperative.  So Penhallow started talking to other parents who, not surprisingly, knew little of the research on the subject.  But some — probably those with the super-wriggly boys — felt the kids should be more physical.

Everyone agrees that pre-school kids need to be very active, running, tumbling, making stuff.  But then they go to kindergarten and first grade and sit.  Teachers move and talk, but kids sit.  Yes, they get gym — often as little as schools can legally get away with.  But the AAP argues that structured sports and gym time is still very adult driven, serving its own instructional purpose.  Gym is no substitute for real recess with opportunities for kid-driven choices about what to do with each other, in, as Penhallow puts it, “adult-free space.”

Penhallow and her parent colleagues admit that, out of frustration, they were too aggressive in how they tried to make changes.  “You have to hear about the school’s obstacles, their structure, time in the day.”  (Always good advice, Parents.)  But eventually, the recess advocates won sympathy from the school’s administration and Chariho’s Superintendent.  The district lengthened the time a bit, and parents helped fill the bins with items for quick sports like badminton.

But the District’s most innovative move was to hire the Boston group, Playworkers, to train adults in supporting unstructured time.  Playworkers’ motto is:  “Make Recess Count.”  Their site has many relevant research studies and testimonials from happy principals, mostly from low-income schools where recess has all but died out as a casualty of testing mania.  Those principals adore how a rich recess experience improved discipline, liberating clear-headed time for academics.  Investing in adults who supervise recess gives kids’ free-time world a bit of structure and much more support.  Staying out of kids’ business and intervening only when asked or it’s necessary is a skill, like any.  And playing is essential — for all of us.

The efforts worked.  Kids report that recess is way more fun — not perfect yet, but a real break.

Obesity is epidemic, but we won’t let kids run around.  Violence, low graduations rates and a high proportion of disaffected youth are alarming, but schools rarely think about supporting kids’ mental health.  Skills for healthy conflict resolution seem to be at an all-time low — witness Congress — but kids have no time for supported social life.  Recess isn’t just rejuvenating, fun and relaxing.  It’s instructive in its own right.

At a panel discussing recess — where I met Penhallow — a pediatrician in the audience, Dr. William Hollinshead, suggested that parents ask their doctors to write prescriptions for recess.  Perhaps the schools will listen to doctors.

Because too few others are concerned that eliminating recess is making kids fat, school-hating and nuts.

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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A Playworker from the UK Explains His Work, Passion

Published by — Keep calm and play on!

Marc Armitage, “playwork” expert, has the affect of an over-sized mischievous boy who’s got a Totally Great Idea.  Home-based in Britain, he’s one of the world’s premier experts in the arts and sciences of play.

Perhaps you’re wondering why wasting time needs a science at all.

Armitage spoke recently at the Providence Children’s Museum, a whistle stop on his lecture-training tour in the U.S. to help us ex-Puritan Americans embrace play.  His deliciously sonorous Welsh accent — think Richard Burton, if you’re old enough — is especially fun as he announces the title of his talk:  “Keep calm and play on.”

He pitches a mock snit because the Museum’s asked him to explain the theory of play and playwork — cue theatrical yawn.  He’d much rather train people to play and do playwork.  Much more hands-on.  Much more adult giggling.

He tells a fascinating, crazy-quilt history of academia’s interest in the study of play.  The motley collection of scientists and thinkers on the subject range from zoologists to urban planners.  European colleges and universities offer degrees for professional playworkers.

But first, Armitage asks us to think back to our own favorite places to play.  My imagination took me on a lovely tour through my childhood haunts — certain tidepools, two enchanting garages, and the huge abandoned house that the City eventually tore down and turned into a useless park.

He makes two big points about our collection of fun-filled spots.  First, that most places were outdoors — rivers, woods, water, or trees with rooms made from droopy branches.  Indoor spots were tucked away in attics, basements, and forgotten nooks.  No one fondly remembers institutional settings like daycares, schools, or even public parks.

Secondly, he notes that our favorite spots were off somewhere, out of sight of the adults.  Hmmm.

Armitage explains, ” Play goes on underneath our noses and we don’t even know about it.  And there’s an evolutionary reason for this:  If we knew what our kids were doing, we would stop them.  Because dodgy stuff is what children do.  Evolution wants them to play.”  Meaning, get out there and encounter reality for good and ill.

But wait.  If play is especially robust with no adults around, what’s a playworker?

Play is the work of childhood — according to PiagetMontessori and others — so playworkers support that work.  They don’t interfere, organize or direct.  But they don’t abandon the kids either, providing adult supervision at a mutually-comfortable distance.

Armitage says, “Playwork is about allowing children to do what they know they need to do, but making sure the conditions are right for them to do it.  Playworkers observe what children want to do, and teach them how, when necessary.  For example, how to put out a fire.  The reason why teenagers burn buildings down is because they’ve always wanted to play with fire, but don’t know how to control it because they’ve never had any experience with it.”

With great theatrics, Armitage shows us the difference a conventional teacher and a playworker.  As the teacher, he sets down an imaginary box of jump ropes for a group of children.  He explains that there are short ones for individual jumping, and longer ones to be held by two children.  There’s double-Dutch.  Perhaps he instructs them about the songs and games that go with jump-rope games.

By contrast, a playworker puts the box in the midst of the kids, backs off, and shuts up.  He watches to see what they do.  They might tie the ropes onto something for dragging, swinging or something else.  If they want help, the playworker works with them figuring out what they can do to make it work.  No enabling.

And if they get into a snag with each other, hopefully the playworker has what Armitage charmingly calls “pastoral” skills to help them reconcile on their own terms.

“Our (adult) heads work in a very different way than children’s do.  The word ‘safe’ does not get mentioned when they are playing.  They also never use ‘stimulating’ or ‘creative’ or ‘educational’ or ‘heathy.’  What children mean by play is not what adults mean.  Playing is what children do.  They don’t need a reason to do it.  They don’t have an end result in mind.

“We have to have an agenda because,” he notes wryly, “that’s where the funding comes from.”

Armitage trains a variety of people how to work with kids and youth in a playworking style.  But in Europe, cities and towns hire professional playworkers to support parks, school playgrounds, wherever kids gather.  These adults make play places safe and fun.  And they could become a high-functioning grown-up pal for those kids who have too few adult relationships in their lives.

Can you imagine American cities and towns investing in kids like that?

American kids’ joy is at least as important as their silly test scores.  Playworkers deployed to recess, parks and youth haunts would keep everyone far safer, and maybe happier than we are now.  The kids could fulfill their evolutionary mandate.  The adults could keep calm and play on.  Good message.

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, Providence, RI 02903.

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Testing for Fun at School Would Improve Achievement

Published by — Finding a way to assess fun in the classroom could help re-center the balance between pleasure and work in schools.


Recently an early childhood educator got me and several hundred other people beautifully primed for learning – in about five minutes, ten tops.

Maryann Finamore, the Director of the Westbay Children’s Center in Rhode Island, was our teacher.  Granted, her technique would have grown old quickly with older audiences.  But this once it worked like gangbusters for a crowd expected to absorb a lecture with 52 Powerpoint slides.  No lie.  I have the stack.

After the obligatory funder and sponsor intros, Finamore uttered the dreaded words, “Stand up and choose a partner.”  Oy.  I tell people I left California so I never again had to hug people I don’t know.  I believe in highly-participatory educational activities, but for other people.

The woman sitting next to me and I exchanged frozen smiles, communicating an agreement to be good sports.  Finamore explained that we’d learn a clapping game, one of many that older children no longer pass down to younger ones.  Such traditions are now the province of formal education, if they’re maintained at all.

Among kids, the game is to go faster, gradually, until you’re going so fast, you mess up and burst into giggles.  We adults would merely learn it.  She demonstrated and then talked us through which hand connected with which of your partner’s.

A sailor went to sea, sea, sea

To see what he could see, see, see.

But all that he could see, see, see

Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea sea.

We learned it, practiced it once.  And then an enormous lecture-hall-sized group of adults – politicians, educators, agency directors and God knows who else – clapped and sang our way through the ditty together.

Then the room erupted like newly-opened champagne.  People laughed and applauded, partly from relief that our dignity had survived, also from the sheer fun of playing.  As we settled into our seats again, I was keenly aware of my hit of dopamine, or whatever it is that tells you you’re feeling especially terrific.

I was profoundly ready to learn.  Mentally refreshed, as only a good laugh can do.  While everyone was getting settled, I marveled at the lack of research or public discussion about the importance of clearing the brain’s palate with a laugh, a break, a bit of fun. Surely kids would listen and participate more if their little pleasure principles had more frequent tastes of satisfaction.

I know two speakers who use memorably funny cartoons to make their points.  Both lecture on really dreary subjects – child abuse and statistical research – but still make their audiences laugh.

Normally, however, in my grim work examining the painful realities of American children’s education and well-being, I don’t expect a lecture to have a moment of fun.  Ms. Finamore made it look easy.  I sat there in my laughter buzz, wishing I could get a similar sensation to every kid, every day, in every classroom.

One goal of education is to spark curiosity, wonder and a hunger for knowledge.  How can that be done without pleasure?  What would be the kids’ motive to stick with the subject at hand?  No wonder all kids seem to care about is what’s going to be on the test.  In a recent study, students say loud and clear that the work is too easy; but if it were merely harder, and not more fun, they’d just balk at doing it.

So exactly when in a kid’s school day might she be getting a hit of pleasure?

To find out, I scoured Rhode Island’s annual opinions-and-perceptions survey, called SurveyWorks.  For years the state has been praised for having the nation’s best affective data, i.e., information submitted by parents, teachers, and kids about conditions that influence students’ ability to learn.  The survey looks closely at bullying, for example, and delves into issues of school safety with multiple questions for all parties.  It asks students about depression, wanting to hurt themselves, their drug and alcohol use.  Important information, to be sure.  But it largely examines negative conditions.

Where’s pleasure?  Curiosity?  Laughter?

Surely there’s some way of assessing fun.  Like:  In what class or activity are you most likely to laugh, have fun or get curious?  It can be done.  We can use surveys to find out more about what students are motivated to learn and why, what turns them on about academics and why.

Failure is not fun.  An occasional hit of school-based fun would reduce failure.

And that which gets measured gets done.  This has become a over-worn cliche.  But all states, and especially the federal department of education, have put more and more and more emphasis on achievement-test scores.  If tests help to close the drop-out factories and make it easier to shed ineffective teachers, fine.  But a punitive, test-driven school culture – gotcha! – is not what’s making Finland’s kids kick butt in the international assessments.

Finland’s schools make a point of balancing pleasure and work.  We could too.  And actually, that country doesn’t measure either achievement or pleasure.  If we measure the one, we owe it to the kids to measure the other.  Then as schools compete for high scores on the pleasure scale, I bet we’ll see test scores rise as well.

We’ve made learning way too dreary.

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, Providence, RI 02903.

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Eliminating Risks for Kids Kills Important Learning

Published by  — We aren’t doing kids any favors by protecting them from everything.  Kids need appropriate risk in their play.

Recently I was commiserating with one of my favorite colleagues, a woman whose job smushes her face daily in the unfortunate habits of modern parenting.  We regularly exchange solutions, possible partners, and books that might help ease the scourge of over-protective, enabling, anti-resilient parenting and schooling.

Suddenly and out of the blue, her face registered thrilled shock.  As if a white egret had miraculous perched at the next table, she whispered:  “Did you see that?”

I waited a discreet moment to glance over surreptitiously.  Three adults were talking while a kid amused himself with a book.  So what?

Apparently, she told me whispering, the boy had been restless – like most kids would have been – and had started rocking about in his chair.  Sure enough, he tumbled to the floor.

But here’s the miracle:  Without more than a moment’s skip in the conversation, the adults glanced over to assure themselves that he was in fact okay, and let the kid get his own butt back into the chair, with no to-do.  They skipped the thundershower of cooing concern.  He was old enough to know better than to be rocking around like that.  They didn’t act like he shouldn’t have gotten hurt.  We all have to learn certain lessons several times.

The boy must have been embarrassed, because by the time I looked over he was conspicuously into his book.

My friend and I marveled at this public example of good parenting!  Let the kid learn from with natural consequences.  With risks come tumbles.  If you fall, fail or screw up, learn a lesson.  If you need to amuse yourself for a bit – because life can’t always be about you – what materials do you need?  If you’re in a public place like a coffee shop of if the adults want to talk, you need to pipe down for a while.

He also had an excellent sticky bun, so he was well compensated for his patience.

More than anything now, American kids need to learn resiliency.  Hyper-protective, enabling parents don’t help.  Resiliency is about grit, the ability to tough out boring or difficult stretches, to bounce back from mishaps and failures, to learn from them, to sooth and entertain yourself.  These are skills that help kids be successful over a lifetime.

Risk-free childhoods are totally getting in the way of the way kids learn naturally.  I’m not suggesting being harsh to them or putting them in harm’s way.  Just let them meet adversity and cope.

Research funded by a German insurance company revealed that kids who grow up in super-protected environments are likely to be accident-prone adults.  Well, yeah.  If your body and ego have never been bruised by falling off your chair, your body and ego haven’t learned to warn you about the dangers of rocking.

Other research is beginning to suggest that babies compulsively put stuff in their mouths as an evolutionary adaptation. They’re immunizing themselves against the bacteria of their home and land.  Again, by sterilizing our kids’ environments against the risk of infection, we set them up for allergies later on, literally.

We’re heading back to school soon.  Surely the learning experts will give kids opportunities to develop some grit and personal responsibility there.  When kids suffer natural consequences, won’t teachers guide them through bouncing back and lessons learned?

Gosh, no.  Thanks to the American lust for liability lawsuits, the habits of anti-risk parents have infected schools.

Schools have sterilized their play areas so they bore the pants off of kids.  The only benefit of most schools’ play spaces is that absolutely nothing exciting can happen.  Thus no law suits.

A school near me is across a very quiet street from a nature preserve.  That land could be a fabulous learning lab or fun place for recess.  Nah.  The school can’t risk getting the kids across the street, never mind policing them in open nature.  To let them loose and insist they come back at the sound of some whistle is unthinkable.

Although, building a set of rules with the kids and staff together, including consequences for breaches, would give the kids a message of trust.  Learn responsibility or we’ll yank your freedom until you learn not to abuse it.

Many schools no longer have anything like recess because they are panicked about not using the time to drill for tests.  Discovering the world first-hand is a waste of school time.

Furthermore, freedom and opportunity might lead to bullying.  Rather than teach the kids social-emotional skills like empathy, listening, and expressing yourself effectively, adults eliminate free social time altogether.  Which teaches what?  Granted, social skills haven’t been public schools’ job historically, but so?  It is now.

For the record, Finnish schools, the international darlings of education, give their kids frequent breaks and places to run and roam.  They play outside, minimally supervised, even in rough weather.

Taking risks is learning the hard way, which is fine.  Risks help emerging adults become healthy, resilient, mindful, empathetic learning-sponges.

We’re going about the business of learning bass ackwards.  By trying to eliminate risk, we silence curiosity and the resulting natural consequences.  Then we force-feed kids learning for which many have little or no taste.

Let them fall, fail and flounder.  But be there as a guide and resource.  That way we’ll get better results, of all kinds.

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, Providence, RI 02903.

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Let Kids Outside for Long-Lasting Learning

Published by — We need to expose kids to the outdoors where they can play and learn naturally.

“We’ve come to believe that being outside is not good for children’s health.

Adults worry kids will catch cold, get sun-burned, bitten by a dog or tick, break a bone in an accident, become victims of “stranger danger,” or a thousand other adversities.

“We can try to protect kids from everything.  But at what cost?  Kids are spending up to 8 hours a day on digital media, contradicting their natural programming to learn the natural world.”  Meaning: kids are hard-wired to become skilled at living in whatever bit of the eco-system is their home – the jungle, forest, seashore, desert.  Human children evolved to thrive in nature, not in protected isolation like zoo animals.

David Sobel, senior faculty member at Antioch University in New Hampshire, specializes in “place-based education.”  That just involves using wherever the kids are as a giant learning lab.  Specifics in a moment.

Sobel spoke recently at Roger William Zoo, in a huge tent-created auditorium, packed to standing room only, in spite of pouring rain.  Thrillingly, all manner of educators, politicians and agency staff were there to think about giving children back their childhoods.

Which starts by giving them back the outdoors.

After graduating from Williams College, Sobel went to England to train as British infant teacher, which in our terms means pre-school.  He returned in the early 1970s to found the Harrisville School in New Hampshire.

He tells this story from those early days directing that school.  A period of relentless rain had been driving his pre-schoolers stir crazy.  The instant the rain stopped, kids burst outdoors to run around.

Rainwater was gushing out of a drainpipe, creating a “child-sized rivulet” that cut a path along a slope.  Two boys took an interest in making a dam to divert and control the water’s flow.  Other kids came along.  Soon an large upper dam developed.  Then subsidiary channels appeared, bringing water to a lower dam.

Sobel exclaims, “Suddenly it was a massive project.  They argued about should they raise this dam, deepen this ditch?  But they worked it out.  They’d yell ‘Ten minutes to flood,’ warning they would let a dam go.  So for the next 2 weeks, the curriculum was about mud, dirt, water and damming.  It was a good example of kids descending into their wild selves, their animal selves.  It was just old naturalistic play, such as kids do all over the world.”

Such as even Americans of a certain age used to do.

Now it’s called “place-based education.”  As a principal writer and thinker on the subject, Sobel has devoted much of his career to helping people understand that the natural world holds enormous, compelling power for teaching kids science, among other things.  Whatever bit of nature is close at hand is a fine start to a learning lab.

Bottom line:  “We need to create the infrastructure so kids can do that.”

In agricultural times, students came in from the fields and cow-barns to learn the science behind what they knew from hands-on experience.  I love the kit-based science promoted by the National Science Foundation because kits bring interesting natural experiences indoors.  But at the end of the day, it’s still a bunch of stuff that comes out of a box, onto desks in a classroom.

Kits are not tidal estuaries, rivers, or green space begging to be explored.  They’re prefabricated experience.

About 20 years ago, Sobel says, Germany started a “forest-kindergarten” movement, specifically to combat children’s alienation from nature.  Sometimes called the “rain or shine” schools, kids were outside all or most of the day.

“Now they are doing this in Scandinavia.  Some schools have a yurt or a green house, but some have no heating at all.  Kids are oblivious.”

Furthermore, it makes them healthier.  Sobel explains, “Outdoor pre-schools have lower rates of absenteeism and infectious diseases than regular ones.”

In fact, “over the last 10 years, researchers have found that physical activity outside produces better health, strength, flexibility and coordination.  Contact with nature lowers stress, behavior disorder and anxiety.”

Apparently, even hospital studies show that if your window has a view of nature, you will heal better and faster than if your view is a parking lot or the building next door.

I love this:  “Physicians are now prescribing time outdoors for ADD.”

Currently 9.5 percent of America’s kids are taking drugs for this condition.  Yes, I’ve known a few kids brought back from total dysfunction with medication.  But the drugs can have serious long-term side effects, and mostly what we’re doing is drugging kids’ wild, animal selves into submissive compliance.  ADD drugs help perfectly healthy little energy dynamos tolerate the long periods of sitting at desks, often preparing for tests.

Since that’s the aspect of education we adults seem to care about.

But even on the subject of test scores, Sobel assures us that “place-based education improves academic achievement.”

So there it is: if you want healthier, smarter, more socially-adept, resilient kids, work with your community to make a cool, accessible place where kids can mess around with nature.  The adults’ job is to be around, but always at a little distance.  At that remove, adults’ can figure out how to feed kids’ natural hunger to know more about how to master whatever they’re doing.

Because that kind of learning you don’t forget the day after the test.

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 or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Parents Must Fight for Kids’ Right To Recess

Published by — When one parent realized an all-day kindergarten meted out recess like a precious commodity, she took action — and realized she wasn’t alone.

A year ago summer, Megan Rosker was about to put the oldest of her three kids into kindergarten in a public school near Tampa, Florida.  Her family had moved there from New Mexico, where she’d taught kindergarten herself.  As a teacher, she was fine with sending her child off to school.But a friend who had older children already in the school pulled her aside.  Did Rosker know that this all-day kindergarten didn’t have recess?


Well, not exactly.  As a reward for being good all week, the kids can run around during the last half hour of the last day.

Fat lot of good that does for squirmy little energy dynamos.  Humans of any age are insufferable if they can’t get a break from work.  Might this clueless practice be contributing to Attention Deficit Disorder, now at epidemic proportions?

“Like many parents, I simply didn’t pay that much attention to what was going in schools until my kids got there. I never dreamed that schools had gotten this far off track.  When I was teaching, no one had ever suggested that we do away with recess.”  In New Mexico, her kindergartners got two recesses every day.

Plenty concerned, but confident that reasonable minds could agree, Rosker and her friend spoke to the school’s parent-advisory committee.  “They were nice, but not interested.”

So they poked around to see what the experts say.

In fact, substantial research argues that kids and adults both learn and work better when they get breaks.  Anthony Pellegrini and Catherine Bohn examined various data sources and determined, in “The Role of Recess in Children’s Cognitive Performance and School Adjustment, that “children were more attentive after than before recess.”

Asian schools, whose test scores Americans envy, give their younger kids a 10-minute break after every 40 minutes of instruction.  Older students have 50 minutes of instruction before a break.

Pellegrini and Bohn conclude, “Unstructured breaks from demanding cognitive tasks seem to facilitate school learning, as well as more general social competence and adjustment to school.”

American schools often point to their 25-minute mid-day break and call the latter part of it recess.  But jammed into it are lunch, bathroom, locker, and “transition,” or going to and fro.  Such recesses encourage kids to bolt lunch so they can get out and be on their own.

Rosker and her friend found schools across the nation steadily chipping away at using time for “non-instructional” purposes, eliminating art, music and other fooling around.

Poor kids.

So they went back to the parent-advisory committee, this time armed with “tons of research.”  Rosker says, “Suddenly there was extraordinary animosity.  The teachers felt that with all the testing, they didn’t have time.  The kids lose focus, and they have discipline problems, and they could get hurt.  Parents were scared out of their skin about testing, so they really didn’t want to rock the boat.  No one supported us.  ”

Rosker was incensed.  So she did what she’d never done before, nudge her media-expert husband to take on her issue.  He got their plight covered by papers in St. Petersburg, Orlando, Tampa.  And then wham, the New York Times picked it up.

Rosker had no idea what she’d wandered into.  “Oh, now I get it.  We’re not the only ones dealing with this.  Many parents and advocates feel that this is a very big deal.”

So many people are worried that a group called Peaceful Playgrounds has assembled materials for advocates to use in a movement they call The Right To Recess.

Mind you, the teachers’ issues must be addressed.  Schools’ fear of liability is real.  Americans sue like it was a career option.  Fine, create a liability waiver and let the crazy helicopter parents refuse to sign it.  Allow the other kids to take calculated risks, since that’s the only way to teach adolescents to weigh the consequences of their potentially-foolish actions and curb their own risky behavior.

And yes, left to their own devices, students get into fights with one another, or bully.  So make sure they have close adult guidance that can teach them social skills, including how to deal with social aggression, which is a reality of everyone’s life.

But most worrisome is the way testing and accountability have become a national insanity.  Testing is fine; I love data.  But education bureaucracies seem to have forgotten that those are humans on their assembly lines.  Both frightened teachers and kids are getting their creative life-blood squeezed out of them.

Rosker makes the excellent point that recess and unstructured play provide “a portal into innovation that our current system is not supporting.  Play is the first experience of authoring from my own imagination.  I made this game, story, picture.  We’re not going to create truly creative people who can drive us forward as a culture, you know, like Steve Jobs.  We have a unique culture of innovation.  We should be leading in education, doing a great job with our kids.”

Hear, hear.

Ultimately, the Florida school instituted “brain breaks,” as opposed to recess.  God forbid they appear to be shirking their duty to test prep.

Rosker has since moved to New York City, where she finds the schools to be more “progressive.”  Barring horrible weather, public-school kids go outside for a real recess daily.

Even so, rescuing play-deprived kids has become Rosker’s life mission.  Join her here.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and GoLocalWorcester. 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, Providence, RI 02903.

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The Most Educational Toys are Completely Free, Or Mostly

Published by — The best, most educational toys don’t always need to plug in, have a micro-processor or cost a fortune.


Ah, the quiet week, the post-holiday pause. The gifts have been purchased, wrapped and unwrapped. The house is returning to normal. Most of the nation’s children are busy with new goodies from under the tree. Most will spend their vacation downtime hunched in front of some sort of screen. Some might actually be physically active, using a Wii to simulate an outdoor activity in a messy bedroom.

Consumer Christmas jumped to light speed with TV, of course. Before then Christmas was a time to spoil the children A LITTLE BIT with a doll or a toy car, chocolates, and a sweet collection of myths and magic. Solstice, Hanukkah and the Nativity are all celebrations of the waxing of the light as we face the dark of the season. But who notices that anymore? The season’s holy days are now fully transformed into a toy orgasm, in a triumph of mass advertising over cultural tradition.

So let’s head over to the Geek Dads column in Wired Magazine to see if your kids got the hottest must-have item. The columnists home-test toys with their very own children, or geeklets. These tech-heads know whereof they e-speak.

Jonathan Liu puts it right out there with “The 5 Best Toys of All Time.” And they are:

Stick, box, string, cardboard tube and dirt.

Hmmmmm. Not exactly sophisticated, cool, “the latest,” or advertised as educational.

Some readers objected to his priorities, so Liu included a few more in a subsequent column. They are:

Bubble wrap, rock, ball and water.

Once I got over the shock of the refreshing lack of batteries needed, I wanted to add doll, sand and clay.

But whatever. For once I am at one with hip, young super-sophisticates. Liu acknowledges that his choices involve a bit more risk than video games, and thus need some unintrusive supervision. But adults should be doing that anyway.

Still, the contrast between super-absorbing electronic entertainment and the traditional elements of play raises the question: What is a toy?

While researching children’s play and its relationship to academics, I found this oft-repeated saying: A good toy is 90 percent child and 10 percent toy.

A video game, or a movie-character doll, have plot lines already laid out. A kid “plays” by doing the plot correctly – finding the right pre-made path through the video adventure, or following the movie character’s story line precisely. Zero creativity.

Three important qualities characterize traditional play materials. (Ropes and blankets that make up indoor forts are hard to call toys, exactly.)

First, a good toy brings out the personality and passions of the child. What does he like to do? What does he repeat so he can get better and better at it? Is he a builder? Game-player? Adventurer? Pretender? Children are always telling us what skills and interests they want nourished, if we listen.

Secondly, traditional playthings are the way the child’s brain uploads the features, benefits and liabilities of the world around her. Sticks, for example, can be anything. (Which is why forbidding toy guns always seems to me like a losing proposition.) They can dig, be weaponry, scepters, farm tools. But they can also poke, hit and hurt. They come from trees, which are giant jungle gyms when frightened adults aren’t looking.

In a video game, the weapon in the avatar’s hand has no weight, length or other properties that might inform a kid’s later encounter with, say, tools. Playing with play stuff gets the kid ready to handle real stuff.

Because third – and this is a point almost entirely lost on adults – play is a way of getting ready for work. As kids get older, their traditional toys increasingly mimic adult work. Kids like to pretend to be adults. They want to tinker, build or cook, like the adults. Cars and roadways are dangerously adult, but kids can reproduce them in a sandbox.

On a fact sheet, The Alliance for Childhood recommends that you “bring back the art of real work. Believe it or not, adult activity – cooking, raking, cleaning, washing the car – actually inspires children to play. Children like to help for short periods and then engage in their own play.”

This is huge. If children learn to work through their play, later when they’re adults, they’ll look for work that has an element of play in it for them, hopefully. If play is just about being passively entertained, even with “interactive” features supplied by a keyboard, then work and school will just be boring drudgery because they’re not entertainment. Lots of essential work is tedious, but playful people can find the game aspect and make it work for them.

Honestly, I believe that the key reason we’re struggling to raise our kids’ academic achievement is that we’ve sucked play out of learning and work. Our work can look like such a drag to kids. We come home, plotz in front of the TV, and make it seem like there, on the screen, life finally has some juice.

Surely Geek Dads get their fill of playing with screens when they work. So no wonder that when they get playthings for their kids, they want to go retro with dirt, water, and totally fun cardboard boxes.

But theirs shouldn’t be the only such lucky kids.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears 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, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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We’re on the Verge of Protecting Kids into Incompetence

Published by — Kids need play, games and sports to develop into well-prepared, confident adults — and too much regulation puts that at risk.

Last spring, officials at New York State’s Department of Health decided that it was high time to regulate children’s games that pose a “significant risk of injury.” And who can blame them?

Well, except that the games that sparked their regulatory urge were wiffleball, red rover, dodgeball, kickball, freeze tag, capture the flag, and tetherball.

Yep, those old standbys. Maybe by thrashing around a kid could chip a tooth, but freeze tag?

The officials wanted summer programs that were planning to let kids play these games to register as a legal “camp.” Official camps pay a $200 registration fee and must give proof that they have adequate medical staff, including a full-time, on-site nurse. Such a rule would effectively kill off the little acting or nature workshops that expected to take breaks by letting kids run off steam with a little red rover. Where would they get the money for a nurse?

Fortunately a State Senator halted the implementation of these regs by insisting they go to public hearing. Surely common sense would prevail.

We’re not keeping the children safe, we’re killing off the joys of childhood.

Oh, and it turns out that the only group that was vocally in support of the Health regulations were licensed camps. The new regs would give them a corner on red rover. Always follow the money.

I found this story among a wealth of “play-hater” tales collected by the terrific advocacy group KaBOOM!. The caption on the story’s picture reads, “It looks like an innocent game of kickball. But really, it’s an injury just waiting to happen…”

C’mon. Kids can get hurt falling off their shoes.

You would think that a Health Department would be far more frantic about the roaring crisis of childhood obesity. Every one of those traditional games uses big, gross-motor skills that burn calories. Could a bad bruise or a broken whatever be more serious than a lifetime of weight-related diabetes?

A collective national insanity has frightened parents into believing that all risk of injury can be scrubbed from childhood. My column two weeks ago discussed robbing kids of tree-climbing, banging wood together, and other managed risks that teach them balance, caution and how to recover from mistakes.

But this Heath Department story also brings up a second, related issue. Not only are parents, schools and lawyers trying to eliminate physical injury from childhood, many want to eliminate injured feelings as well. To do that means eliminating conflict. The black-listed games are all forms of play conflict. Conflict, play and otherwise, can lead to disappointment, sore losers and arguments.

If we scrub conflict out of the kids’ lives too, when will they learn about it?

Last year Darell Hammond, Chief Executive Officer of KaBOOM!, was asked for his thoughts on the incredible rise of social aggression among our young people. He writes, “One theory is that the effects of cyber-bullying on older kids are “trickling down” to the younger grades. Possibly, but I would make a different argument: The effects of the play deficit on younger kids are trickling up.”

We medicate attention deficit. But we’re okay with play deficit.

All mammals play fight. A kitten pounces endlessly – on her siblings, on some string – rehearsing for an adult confrontation with a real mouse or rival cat. Not all human playing is play conflict; there’s pretending and building. But even pretending together requires a lot of negotiation. So all playing can invite disputes and disagreements.

Games, though, bring the added tension of competition.

And put regular sports aside, since they’re hyper-organized and supervised by the adults. There’s nothing free-range about sports.

Still, even capture the flag includes the element of winning and losing.

Some parents want to spare their child the experience of losing. No matter who is the best at tetherball or which team wins, all kids should get the same trophy. God forbid a kid gets bummed and has to face that he’d better ramp up his game, or swallow disappointment gracefully.

It’s painful to watch a child lose. But it’s no favor to the kid to postpone that experience.

In KaBOOM!’s most recent annual report, their researchers state: “Children who don’t play don’t learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and advocate for themselves. In a long-term study comparing groups of students who got a chance to play during the school day and those that didn’t, children deprived of play had increased problems with social integration, including greater likelihood of felony arrests by young adulthood.”

There, that’s real conflict for you.

I sometimes agonize about the education my kids got in their public schools. But I have to say that the real-life, K-12 curriculum of learning and playing with a wildly diverse population not only gave them compassionate hearts, but taught them to take no guff from street kids. Now, when confronted with a bully, an unreasonable boss, a hard-sell salesman, they push back. They turned to adults for help when they needed to.

And I realize that not all kids have adults available to help on a standby basis. They should. We should spend resources assuring kids of an adult presence instead of regulating the life out of their lives.

Childhood is a great time to learn that conflict is a part of life. Deal with it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears 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, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Nixing Managed Risk of Childhood Play Produces Wimps

Published by — Eliminating ‘managed risk’ from normal childhood play does a disservice to kids by sequestering them from life’s normal ups and downs.

When I was maybe, like 7 years old, I accidently broke Bill Kelly’s leg.

I’m guessing he was 12, maybe 13.

Three doors down from ours, the Kelly’s house teemed with neighborhood kids and their brood of 7. They’d set up croquet in their backyard. And I got it into my idiot head that I would hold onto the handle of one of the mallets and swing it round and round, enjoying the centrifugal pull of the mallet head. In the midst of my hands-on experiment with momentum, I lost my grip. The mallet flew. I heard Bill scream bloody murder and saw him go down.

Mortified, petrified, hysterical, I ran home, and when I could stop sobbing for a second, blurted out my crime to my parents. They were suitably alarmed. My dad went down the block to see what he could do.

While the grown-ups were buzzing about the incident, no big wave of fury crashed on me. In time I was marched down to apologize to Bill in front of his and my parents. Bill was rip-snortingly angry because his leg really hurt.

But most importantly, he couldn’t play baseball with a cast. The Kelly boys were sports nuts. I’m sure I gushed remorse, because my face gets hot with shame, to this day.

But that’s all that happened, such as I remember. Surely my parents paid the medical costs or settled up somehow. Surely the adults’ conversation was dark and concerned as they scrambled to care for Bill. I didn’t need retribution added to how stupid and awful I felt. My mother let me know she believed it was an unfortunate accident.

It was a hard lesson for all of us: Be careful. Be mindful. That lesson can’t be learned once and for all, like multiplication, but must be faced time and time again.

I’ll bet a point came when my parents and the Kellys had a good laugh, and perhaps a drink together. The families developed no tensions. Bill was back on the ballfields soon enough. The Steiny kids played at the Kelly’s house, and their kids at ours. Life went on.

In those days everyone assumed that stuff happened.

These days? Are you kidding? That could have been a massive law suit. That could have set off ugly tensions between the two families, perhaps infecting the swarm of neighborhood kids.

These days an amazing number of people assume that childhood should be scrubbed clean of broken legs, bruised egos and minor property damage. Communities teach children that they should not have to expect nor tolerate adversity. And in the event of accidents or even deliberate misbehavior, adults often turn to the problem-solving industry, the legal system – or some other authority with the power to impose retribution.

So parents, neighbors, schools and Departments of Parks and Recreation spend vast resources protecting themselves from litigation, in the name of protecting the children. You’re a lawsuit waiting to happen if you don’t practice zero tolerance towards foolish youthful behavior and the inevitable consequences of immaturity.

So kids do not learn managed risk. If kids never fall, how do they learn balance? If they never resolve their own heated disputes, how do they learn to deal with bullies? If they never make mistakes, how will they persist to real, hard-earned success? Childhood is the perfect time to suffer the minor consequences of getting dirty, getting hurt, and losing one’s temper.

What is childhood without managed risk?

Well, poor training, for one thing. Kids arrive at the school door with less and less common sense. Beyond organized sports and electronics, they know nothing of the kind of playing that includes banging wood together, roaming the neighborhood, breaking something or, sigh, accidently hurting someone.

In a recent study by the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, college officials report that students’ demand for mental-health services is soaring. These are the youth who have survived our educational system and have enough family support to get them to college. But even they now arrive at college fragile from over-protection and clueless about managing the big world in front of them. They have little resilience and no notion how to deal with a crabby roommate.

Consider that nationally SAT scores have declined, the NAEPs have been flat, and the states’ local testing programs show remarkably little progress. Yes, the quality of schools is part of the problem. But we’re asking the great majority of kids to build their understanding of Algebra I and the scientific method on a clueless foundation of protected and manufactured experiences. Organized sports, T.V., and video games do not teach creativity, resourcefulness or how to resolve disputes without adult intervention.

The fear of liability is not keeping the kids safe at all, but making them stupid with lack of everyday, knockabout experience. Put up with the occasional broken leg. And get real. Bullying will never go away. All of us need to learn the skills and confidence to manage social challenges.

Adversity is life. We’re sparing kids the work of learning to deal with life.

And just for the record: the most dangerous thing a kid can do is get in your car with you, even properly secured.

I’m pretty sure Bill became a successful doctor. Absolutely no worse the wear. And my accident was just a good story and big lesson for our ‘hood.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at 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, Providence, RI 02903.

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