Civil Liberties

Schools Hire Consultants to Make Recess Safe, Structured, Sad

Is there a war on childhood?



College students may be emotionally coddled at every turn, but at least most young people enjoy sixteen years of creative, unstructured free time in school, right? Well, not exactly: elementary schoolers must navigate a dismayingly sophisticated web of cultural factors (like helicopter parenting) and administrative policies (like zero tolerance discipline) designed to make them helpless and emotionally dependent upon authority figures long before they ever set foot on a college campus.

Consider this: several Minnesota public schools have hired "recess consultants" to create structured playground activities for students during the brief part of the day when kids are supposedly free to do something creative on their own. According to The Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Two Edina elementary schools, worried about the politics of the playground, are taking an unusual step to police it: They have hired a recess consultant.

Some parents have welcomed the arrival of the firm Playworks, which says recess can be more inclusive and beneficial to children if it's more structured and if phrases like, "Hey, you're out!" are replaced with "good job" or "nice try."

But some of the kids at Concord and Normandale Elementary say they are confused, or that the consultants are ruining their play time.

"The philosophy of Playworks does not fit Concord," said Kathy Sandven, a parent of twin boys who attend the school. "It is a structured philosophy — an intervention philosophy — not allowing kids for free play."

Playworks has been in operation since 1996. In fairness to the organization, Playworks claims that it doesn't take control of kids' recess time; it just provides safe, inclusive activities for students who have trouble making friends and participating in recess on their own. It can also point to studies showing that Playworks programs reduce bullying and accident rates.

But while the Tribune story takes great pains to present Playworks in the best possible light, the recess consultants certainly seem disruptive in practice (and are disliked by a whole lot of kids and parents):

Forest Elementary in Robbinsdale Area Schools spends $14,500 for an on-site coordinator to spend one week a month at the school.

At the school, recess is made up of clear adult-facilitated activities.

On a day last week, a kindergartner said he wanted to play basketball. A recess coach explained that wasn't a choice at the time; he decided to play another game.

It wouldn't surprise me if the presence of Playworks staff on playgrounds does indeed reduce the amount of fighting among kids. There's some evidence that putting more cops on the streets reduces certain kinds of violence, too. But that doesn't mean doing either of these things is healthy for a free society. In the case of the kids, it's worth wondering what kinds of people they will grow up to be if they are never given an iota of unstructured, adult-free playtime. As Bloomberg View columnist (and former Reason editor) Virginia Postrel wrote recently in response to a proposed tag ban:

Behind these policies is the superstitious belief that vigorous physical contact and make-believe violence will beget immediate and future real physical harms—magical thinking that fundamentally misunderstands how children play and learn. Prohibiting rough-and-tumble play doesn't make recess safer or kids less apt to hurt others. To the contrary, the bans deprive children of the very experiences they need to master peaceful social interactions.

"To simply forbid it is like telling children, 'We're not going to let you eat today, because the food might be contaminated,'" says Frances Carlson, author of Big Body Play, a guide published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "Children can't live without it, so they do it in hiding." Over the past three decades, as the research into its importance has mounted, the NAEYC has gone from hostile to supportive of full-body play. Unfortunately, laws and schools haven't kept up, hurting kids' development.

Contrary to what squeamish authorities seem to think, it's the kids who don't engage in rough-and-tumble play who actually tend to be more violent later on in life. So, says Carlson, forbidding playful physical contact "stokes the fire as opposed to diminishing it."

For my part, I can't help but think that this trend toward structured playtime has something to do with the rise of the campus safe-space movement (some evidence points toward yes). Is it any surprise that teens who have never enjoyed anything approaching actual freedom—who spent their purported free time being coached by paid consultants on the "right way" to play with others—cringe in horror when they arrive at college and are finally on their own? Is it any surprise that some small but significant minority of these teens cry out for the structure, the regime of emotional protection, under which they have lived their entire lives?

Maybe we should think twice about making recess as joyless and authoritarian as the rest of the school day.