Children need more structured playtime, not less
Posted by Dean Holden at June 2nd, 2014
by Annie Murphy Paul, 3 May 2014
The cover story of last month’s Atlantic magazine struck a nerve with many parents. Written by Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, and titled, “The Overprotected Kid,” it describes a generation of children who have experienced hardly an unsupervised or unstructured moment in their lives. Looking for an alternative to America’s risk-averse culture of child rearing, the author takes her 5-year-old son, Gabriel, on a trip to North Wales, where an “adventure playground” called the Land opened two years ago.
At the Land, there are few rules and minimal adult intervention. Ms. Rosin describes children starting fires, building forts using hammers and wooden pallets and doing flips “on a stack of filthy mattresses.” She watches as children push tires (and at one point, her willing son, sitting in a bin) into a creek. She concedes that the goings-on at the Land fall outside what most American parents would find acceptable; she presents this extreme version of youthful freedom to make a point. But is her point right?
Lauren McNamara would say no. An assistant professor of educational psychology at Brock University in Canada, she has studied what goes on among children during unstructured playtime. Professor McNamara, who grew up in California, conducted research at schools in Chicago before joining the faculty at Brock, in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Children in both countries have little experience with old-fashioned play, Professor McNamara said. She and Ms. Rosin agree on that much. But Professor McNamara doesn’t believe that more freedom is the remedy. The children she observed during school recess were given plenty of freedom, and their freedom quickly turned ugly. Teachers released children onto the playground with few resources and little guidance. A result was frequent and sometimes intense social conflict, as students told her in interviews: “Some kids get real aggressive when the teacher is not looking.” “I wish there was less bullying and exclusion.” “We need help out here.”
Professor McNamara set out to offer them that help, recruiting some of the students in her Brock classes to act as playground organizers and coaches. In her initiative, called The Recess Project, these undergraduate “recess leaders” help the older children on the playground become leaders themselves, guiding younger children as they learn how to juggle or make crafts or do Zumba, the dancelike exercise regimen set to fast-paced music. All activities are optional; the idea, the professor said, is to give children choices “on the continuum of unstructured free play to structured games.” An emphasis is placed on resolving conflicts productively and on including everyone. The ultimate goal is nothing less than changing “the culture of recess.”
Professor McNamara’s Recess Project is akin to ventures in the United States such as PlayWorks and the Recess Enhancement Program (REP), although these organizations rely on trained adult coaches to lead schoolyard activities. (PlayWorks also has a Junior Coaches program that trains fifth graders in leadership skills and conflict resolution.) Like Professor McNamara, the directors of PlayWorks and the Recess Enhancement Program report that their interventions lead to less conflict, more physical activity and even to better behavior among students once they’re back in the classroom. All three programs arose from the same reality noted by Ms. Rosin: Children today, either because they are continually entertained by digital devices or continually ferried from lesson to practice to play date, don’t know how to handle unstructured time. Ms. Rosin’s answer to this dilemma is for adults (as the inside-the-magazine title of her article puts it) to “leave those kids alone.”
Professor McNamara fervently disagrees. “Children need guidance, role models and activities that help them connect and maintain their friendships,” she said. “When kids feel connected and accepted they will engage more effectively with each other, feel better, negotiate play more effectively. We need to help them do this; they are struggling on their own.” In an article in a scholarly journal documenting her research, Professor McNamara elaborates on this view: “There appears to be an assumption that recess is a delightful moment in our children’s day when they are free from their academic restraints to burn pent-up energy, to laugh, and to play. And it is for some, perhaps. But we suspect many of our students are challenged by the lack of structure, the social awkwardness, the conflict, the lack of equipment, and the absence of organized activities. The students themselves had pointed this out to us — they had brought their issues and concerns forward and nudged us to pay attention.”
Clearly, Ms. Rosin’s stories of bygone childhood freedoms resonate with many adults. Perhaps others will recognize the scenario that Professor McNamara describes, a social mosh pit that is less Norman Rockwell and more “Lord of the Flies.” On a purely logistical level, Professor McNamara’s solution seems the more plausible: Schools aren’t about to break out matches and hammers at recess. It also seems the more humane.
The dangers today’s children face from unsafe playground equipment and child abductors are indeed, as Ms. Rosin documents, wildly exaggerated. But the harms they face from their own classmates — from bullying and exclusion and sheer meanness — are often understated or ignored by adults. If children don’t yet know how to be kind and generous and inclusive, isn’t it our job to teach them?
To read responses to this article from Emily Bazelon, Jessica Lahey, Lenore Skenazy, Hara Estroff Marano, and Lisa Damour, click here.
Brilliant readers, what do you think? Was recess for you (or is it now for your kids) a time of exhilarating freedom, or crushing social anxiety? What’s your reaction to the notion of adult-organized recess?