(Don’t Worry, He Doesn’t Live at Phoenix Rising)
Three times in ten days, a student we’ll call Henry stormed into the Phoenix Rising school office in tears of frustration. The culprit was 4-square, a seemingly harmless game that was not exactly bringing out the best in the group of twelve boys who played it every day at recess. Henry’s proposed solutions ranged from banning 4-square altogether to changing schools.
Four days later, a miracle occurred. The very same group of boys, including Henry, were laughing, joking and enjoying large amounts of silliness* – while playing four square. What happened? “We decided that anyone who argued was out,” explained one. “And we made lines again. We all agreed and then Kellon [a staff member] authorized it.”
This is just one example of the power of unstructured play. Children have the opportunity to work through conflicts and come up with solutions. In this case, adults were monitoring the situation, but they didn’t resolve it for the students – they supported the students in resolving it for themselves. If everything had been structured from the beginning, the opportunity might never have arisen.
In general, recess at Phoenix Rising is cheerful chaos; gleeful shrieks fill the air and everywhere you look children are up to something – alone, in pairs or in boisterous groups. Boys are busy designing their own games filled with elaborate and mystifying rules. Trios of girls chase each other around the yard, pretending to be various animals (dogs are a favorite). Students who have earned their ‘drivers license’ can check out bikes and ride on designated paths, while the monkey bars, swing sets, sandbox and A-frame structure all get a full workout. All the children are supervised but for the most part, they are left alone to enjoy periods of unstructured play.
Unfortunately, such scenes are increasingly rare. “Play is under attack in our nation’s schools — and shrinking recess periods are only part of the problem,” says The Huffington Post’s Darrell Hammond. “Homework is increasing. Cities are building new schools without playgrounds. Safety concerns are prompting bans of tag, soccer, and even running on the schoolyard.” Just two weeks ago, the Richland School District in Washington State banned swing sets. The reason? Too many accidents. In Australia, a school recently banned unsupervised cartwheels and handstands for the same reason.
Yet free play – the chance for unstructured time with peers, nature and imagination – yields benefits that pediatricians and child psychologists say are crucial. Recess is a fundamental component of development and social interaction children ought to receive in school, says Catherine Ramstetter of the American Association of Pediatrics. It “offers a unique opportunity for children to experience a break from the academic demands of school as well as a forum for creative expression, social engagement and physical exertion.” “Studies have shown that children do a better job of processing information if they don’t move from one challenging task to the next, but rather, have a break in between,” says Dr. Robert Murray of Ohio State University.
At Phoenix Rising, recess is enough of a priority that every child from Pre-K through 6th grade has their own rain gear, rented by their parents for $25.00 a year. That way, regardless of weather they can go and jump in puddles, slide on the lawn or just enjoy being outside. Every day, one hour of the 6.5 hour school day is devoted to recess, which also includes lunch and snack. “It’s important to step out of the mindset that defines recess simply as “what you do when you are not learning”, says Education Director Nick Gillon, “Rather, when students have the time, space, and opportunity for regular, unstructured, outdoor play they get a chance learn with their bodies, refresh their minds for new learning, and build friendships that are the foundations of social learning,” Let’s hope the national move away from recess is one trend that reverses itself so that 4- square doesn’t join the list of banned activities. View Photos