No Recess? Give Children a Break

I'm not a child development expert studying the trend among some schools to do away with recess. I'm not even a parent. But I was - not too long ago - a child who, more than anything, loved to play.

The house my family and I lived in until I was 12 had a big, flat driveway with a basketball hoop at one end. I spent hours alone underneath that hoop, but thanks to my imaginary basketball team I was never lonely. As coach, I would speak to my players, calling them by name, encouraging them to shoot, run for the ball, pass. Sometimes I'd have to scold them, as any good coach would. My mother can remember standing by an open window on a spring or summer afternoon hearing me call to my team. I remember too.

I also remember recess at school. Recess, not physical education. I remember visiting what was to become my kindergarten class with my parents: a strange room, an unfamiliar teacher. But then I looked out the window. It was recess, and the older children, who started the school year earlier than the kindergartners, were at play. My sister, then a second-grader, was among them, and suddenly I wasn't so scared. My parents would have to leave, but my sister would be there, at least on the playground.

I remember being introduced to the monkey bars, learning to pull myself along from one bar to the next, arm over arm. Each year it got a little easier as I got a little stronger.

I remember foursquare. And kickball. I remember sitting on the blacktop with the other first- or third- or fourth-grade girls, our backs against the school building, talking about whatever it was that first- or third- or fourth-grade girls talked about. By sixth grade the subject was boys, and kickball had become soccer.

These days, most children don't have enough time, or opportunity, or perhaps inclination to shoot baskets for hours with an imaginary team. It seems that kids don't play on their way home from school, racing through backyards, finding shortcuts, stopping at a friend's house on the way.

Of course, there may be good reasons for this. Parents feel it's not safe to have a child walking or playing outside alone, particularly while they're at work. And nothing, certainly, is wrong with piano, French, or karate lessons. It may get their kids into college before mine.

But I can't imagine having missed that play time, and it makes me sad to think of having children who might miss it. Children who might not know what "recess" is because they've never had one. Already, a number of schools around the country have decided to eliminate recess altogether. Some schools are being built without playgrounds. The schools say they fear being held liable if something goes wrong, or that the structured play of physical education is more beneficial than free time at recess. And, they say, students should be spending more time inside a classroom, focused on their academic studies.

But a playground, like a driveway, provides an opportunity for children to strengthen not only their arms on the monkey bars or their legs on a soccer field, but also their imaginations, their social skills - even their coping skills.

I remember a time at recess one day when a classmate got angry and reached out and grabbed me around the neck. My sister was there and pulled me away. Mr. Coyle, the principal, also saw what happened and took the boy aside to talk with him. To this day, my family refers to it as the time my sister "rescued me."

I'm quite sure the principal helped rescue that little boy, too.

And it all happened on the playground. At recess.

* Suzanne MacLachlan is a former Monitor editorial writer.

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