School recess remains one of the favourite times of the day for most elementary school students. Until recently, it was also a largely forgotten part of school life. With the advent of the “overprotected kid” and the spread of campaigns against bullying, obesity, and boredom, recess has become a hot topic for public discussion. Many school administrators and psychologists now see ‘free play’ at recess to be dangerous and threatening, especially for marginalized or bullied kids. A new breed of North American parents, armed with Lenore Skenazy’s 2010 best seller, Free-Range Kids, have risen in defense of unstructured ‘free play’ as a critical component in the education of healthy, happy and creative children.
Three years ago, in November 2011, a St. Catharines, Ontario, elementary school hit the news by banning balls from recess after a child bystander was hit on the head on the playground. After an enterprising 10-year-old boy, Mathew Taylor, voiced his objections, started a petition, and secured a meeting with the principal, Lockview Public School rescinded the ball ban. Mathew’s parents, Scott and Angela Taylor, only learned about the protest after the children had booked the meeting with the school principal. Banning balls at recess, in their view, was not only “a bit of an overreaction” but also a symptom of school boards “over-regulating the playground out of fear of lawsuits.”
Today’s school psychologists view the world through a child protection lens and tend to be hyper sensitive to the dangers lurking in and around schools, particularly on the playgrounds. A recent CBC News report, aired in September 2013, only stoked those fears. “More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, ” CBC reported, “and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up eight per cent between 2007 and 2012.”
Student injuries and accidents are upsetting — and their impact should not be minimized. Since the 1970s, however, the Safe Playground movement has all but eliminated “Adventure Playgrounds” and any equipment deemed dangerous, yet the incidence of accidents has remained essentially unchanged. One of Canada’s leading experts on playgrounds, Alex Smith, Founder of PlayGroundology, corroborates this, noting that he cannot recall one serious accident on Halifax’s 400 playgrounds over the past five years.
Public concern about children’s health and safety, according to British child health researcher Tim Gill, does not reflect the real level of risk. In his 2007 book, No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, Gill points out that children are no more likely to be abducted or murdered than they were 30 years ago. In 1971, some four out of five British kids aged 7 or 8 years walked or biked to school on their own; today fewer than one in ten do so. Fear of being sued, he concedes, is a much bigger factor affecting the policies of school districts and providers of facilities for children.
School recess has been significantly eroded in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Since the 1970s and particularly so in the past two decades, school districts in the U.S. and Britain have reduced or eliminated recess time in order to allow for more instructional time. Children have lost about 12 hours a week of free time, including a 25% reduction in play time and a 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities. In 2011, a U.S. study reported that only 57% of school districts required regularly scheduled recess and some 40% of districts were either eliminating recess or considering such action.
Crusaders for “Free-Range Kids” such as American journalist Hanna Rosin do tend to wear ‘rose-coloured-glasses’ when it comes to minimizing the risks to children in completely unstructured free play environments. More sensible child’s play advocates, like Megan Rosker, who campaigned to restore recess at her local Redington Shores, Florida school, see the need for some limits on “unstructured play” at elementary schools. “We need to strive for a more balanced parenting approach, ” she wrote in November 2014, where “kids are receiving … free play, devoid of screen time,” and also “a lot of form and structure in their day” to enable them to go on to inventive, satisfying and productive lives.
New research initiated by Brock University’s Dr. Lauren McNamara and generated by her “Recess Project” holds promise for breaking the impasse. Her three year study from 2011 to 2014 demonstrated that most of today’s children have “forgotten how to play,” particularly outdoors. While McNamara and her research team see the need for “free time” in a world where kids are highly programmed, they claim that there is a critical need to “re-teach kids” how to play, particularly during regular recess times. Based upon local Niagara Region case studies, they show how activity levels soar and fighting subsides when new playground equipment is added and yard supervisors or junior leaders provide guidance to promote physical exercise, active engagement, and fair play among the kids.
Achieving the right balance is not as easy as outside experts might expect. The Peel Region recess program, Playground Activity Leaders in Schools Program (PALS), initiated by a Toronto region health authority and touted by McNamara, is an attempt to move in that direction. With a deft and diplomatic approach, it shows promise for reducing the incidence of bullying and inappropriate behaviour and increasing levels of physical activity, particularly among kids from grades 5 to 8. Under certain types of administrative direction, it will quickly devolve into adults or their young surrogates “micromanaging recess.”
School recess is now under closer scrutiny and social psychologists are at work to either revamp “free play” or to eliminate the “free break time” altogether. What is threatening recess in Canadian, British, and American schools? Is unstructured free play for children endangered in today’s risk-averse society? Is it possible to reform school recess to strike a balance between freedom and purposeful form?