Posts Tagged Playworkers

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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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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