When I was in elementary school I hated school recess. A list with a rotating schedule assigned each classroom to an official “area” of the mostly cement playground where we had to stay, as a class, and play the prescribed game for that arena. For me, recess came with those classic uncomfortable aspects: being picked for a team (last), not knowing how to play the game, not having the skills for playing the game (I could not throw a ball; neither did I want to). To this day, I bond with my peers by sharing playground stories that included trying to avoid dodge ball, a game that almost all my current friends also seem to have despised. But I did love playing after school, every day, with three girls and sometimes three younger brothers who lived on my block (unsupervised, running between each other’s houses). Tag, kick the can, building club houses, spy games, Chinese jump rope, sorting stamp collections, and all sorts of other less-defined play – this lasted well through my elementary school years and even into junior high. We all still remember when Mark hid in a smelly trashcan during a game of sardines, which was such a good hiding place that we didn’t find him for half an hour. Pe-eww.
Recess is much better for my own elementary aged kids now – they have a grassy field, a big playground, choice of games to play and toys to play with. But recess now is far shorter. They don’t usually play organized games more complicated than 4-square. Our school recently increased recess from 12 minutes to 20, but even so, by the time they decide what to play, the whistle to go in blows. Teachers routinely use recess as a punishment or catch-up tool: if you misbehave in class or do poor schoolwork you lose recess time in 5-minute intervals. Also, my kids’ school has a “32o rule”: if it’s colder than freezing, recess is indoors. So for much of the winter, the kids play in the classroom (which almost always translates into watching a video) for their recess.
Just before the winter break, a couple of enterprising fifth graders distributed fliers to all the kids at our elementary school, inviting kids in all grades to a “capture the flag” game on the school playground on a Saturday afternoon. This was a huge success! A crowd of 40-50 kids showed up. The fifth-grade leaders explained how to play the game, and my daughter stayed out there for more than three hours playing in the freezing cold. I didn’t go, but evidently a cohort of half a dozen parents did and brought drinks and cake (so it was not completely unsupervised fun). This experience was an anomaly – during the school year months my kids do very little group play afterschool even on beautiful days, and playing a long game like this felt like a special occasion to my daughter. My kids do have “play-dates”, usually scheduled way in advance to accommodate their and their friends’ complex afternoons involving music lessons, afterschool art classes, choir, play practice, swim team, ice skating lessons, book club, girl scouts… We are not unusual in this regard, I believe.
None of this is news. Talk of sedentary, indoor, non-social and highly-supervised, and/or stressful, over-scheduled life habits of kids that include much screen time and little playtime abounds. At the same time, schools across the country are actively cutting out recess, PE, art and music programs in favor of academic activities and test prep (especially with pressure from No Child Left Behind).
I have been thinking more about my children’s play situations ever since reading two New York Times articles. This piece  details a huge “Block Party” put on in Central Park, NYC by the organization “Play for Tomorrow,” headed by psychology researchers and backed in part by the National Science Foundation. The goal of this “enormous play date” (and future scheduled events) was to raise parental and societal awareness for why children need play, why our children’s lives seem to have a “play deficit”, what parents and adults need to do to help children learn how to play, and why this is hard. It led me to this second article,  which gives a fascinating account of what scientists know about play (an “apparently purposeless [yet innate] activity,”); current theories for why it is important in child (and brain!) development; and its prevalence among other mammals. I do think this is a tremendously important topic. How do your children play?