As Recess Changes, Do Children Get Enough Free Play?

Oct 25, 2017

Across the country, and in New England, elementary schools are revamping recess with a focus on organized games and teamwork, instead of free play.

The nonprofit organization Playworks is helping schools do this by providing training and in some cases coaches. The idea is to structure recess around activities that encourage students to be physically active, include everyone and discourage bullying.

In Rhode Island, 36 schools have received Playworks training, and the organization hopes to expand to 400 schools across New England in the next two years. Playworks already operates in schools in nearly two dozen states.

So what is Playworks? The nonprofit began in the late 90s in California, and tackles what organizers see as the major headaches that come with recess: not enough physical activity and playground conflicts.

To address these problems, Playworks teaches kids and staff a variety of playground games designed to encourage group participation.

For example, a kind of tag involves tapping with just two fingers, and all children are “it” at the same time. Playworks staff say this avoids singling out any one student and encourages gentler play. Teachers are shown how to have kids use rock-paper-scissors to resolve disputes. Playworks also helps teachers and school aids design a “recess map” for the school yard, designating spaces for sports and larger group games.

“We train them on how to create systems for recess, how to facilitate new games,” said Jonathan Gay, head of Playworks’ New England branch. “How to teach conflict resolution to the students, with the overall goal of making sure that every single kid gets into the game and feels safe and included, and then they go back [to the classroom] focused and ready to learn.”

The cost of Playworks services can range from about $5,000 for teacher trainings to $60,000 or more for a Playworks coach to join a school’s staff. These costs are often subsidized by grants. In Rhode Island, Playworks New England has partnered with the health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island to cover the cost of training.

At Washington Oak Elementary School in Coventry, Principal Christine Mandese decided to add Playworks last year.

“Recess was pretty unstructured,” said Mandese. “The kids were just kind of running around. We had a good amount of, what we call write-ups, behavioral concerns with kids getting into arguments at recess. Kids were kind of just roaming and didn’t really have activities to participate in.”

So what about just letting kids run around during recess? Schools have handled recess on their own up until now. What’s changed?

“What has happened with recess is it becomes a place where not every kid feels like they belong,” said Playworks coach Jill Barry. “Not every kid has a game that they can play or feels confident in the activities that are available.”

And society places a lot of expectations on schools. We want them to educate students, feed and prepare them for the 21st century, and teach them be good citizens, all while achieving high scores on standardized tests.

In Rhode Island, a law passed in 2016, mandates at least 20 minutes of unstructured recess each day in elementary schools. In advocating for the law, a coalition of youth and civic organizations known as Recess for RI reported that just 18 percent of the state’s elementary schools were providing at least 20 minutes of recess to their students.

Organizations like Playworks can help make those 20 minutes efficient. Kids get physically active and expend energy.  Staff members at Washington Oak Elementary say since they added Playworks, students are getting more exercise, having fewer fights, and behaving better back in class. All good things for teachers who have a lot more responsibilities than monitoring the playground.

But advocates for free play see a downside when kids lose unstructured time, without intervention from adults. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, children will often defer to adults and adult rules when adults are present.

When kids are free to make up their own games, they develop creativity and empathy, establish their own rules and learn to navigate conflict, says Janice O’Donnell, the former director of the Providence Children’s Museum, who studies children and play.

“There’s problem solving that the kids have to work out. Maybe they’re mad at each other, maybe they just won’t play with each other for a week,” said O’Donnell. “That is not terrible. That is learning how to take disappointment. That is learning how to get along with other people.”

O’Donnell says techniques like rock-paper-scissors may resolve arguments quickly and peacefully, but they also remove the possibility of compromise.

“We didn’t use to have to do this, but something has happened,” said O’Donnell. “We’re controlling children in a way that’s not good for us or them, or for our society. And it does worry me a lot.”

O’Donnell says, ideally, kids should get at least an hour of free play every day. The good news, she tells parents, is that there’s plenty of time for that kind of extended, kid-driven activity outside of the school day.

Rhode Island Schools With Playworks

Primrose Elementary School                      Barrington                              RI

Rockwell Elementary School                       Bristol Warren                        RI

Learning Community                                  Center Falls                             RI

Blackrock Elementary School                     Coventry                                 RI

Tiogue Elementary School                          Coventry                                 RI

Washington Oak Elementary School          Coventry                                 RI

Western Elementary School                       Coventry                                 RI

Ashton Elementary School                          Cumberland                            RI

Cumberland Hill Elementary School           Cumberland                            RI

BF Norton Elementary School                     Cumberland                            RI

Garvin Elementary School                          Cumberland                            RI

Eldredge Elementary School                       East Greenwich                       RI

Whiteknact Elementary School                   East Providence                      RI

Lonsdale Elementary School                       Lincoln                                    RI

Hamilton Elementary School                      North Kingstown                     RI

Stony Lane Elementary School                    North Kingstown                     RI

Fishing Cover Elementary School               North Kingstown                     RI

Quidnessett Elementary School                  North Kingstown                     RI

Varieur Elementary School                         Pawtucket                               RI

Baldwin Elementary School                        Pawtucket                               RI

Melville Elementary School                        Portsmouth                             RI

Bailey Elementary School                           Providence                              RI

Carnavale Elementary School                     Providence                              RI

Fogarty Elementary School                         Providence                              RI

Fortes Elementary School                           Providence                              RI

Kennedy Elementary School                       Providence                              RI

Leviton Elementary School                         Providence                              RI

Reservoir Avenue Elementary School         Providence                              RI

Sackett Elementary School                         Providence                              RI

Webster Elementary School                       Providence                              RI

West Elementary School                             Providence                              RI

Greystone Elementary School                     North Providence                    RI

Marieville Elemenary School                      North Providence                    RI

Clayville Elementary School                       Scituaute                                 RI

Pocasset Elementary School                       Tiverton                                  RI

Globe Park Elementary School                   Woonsocket                            RI

Southcoast Schools With Playworks

Hathaway Elementary School             New Bedford               MA

Congdon Elementary School               New Bedford               MA

DeValles Elementary School               New Bedford               MA

Hannigan Elementary School             New Bedford               MA