Don't drop the ball on recess

I'm not one of those parents who believe schools would be improved if they just changed everything back to the way it was when I was a kid. American culture doesn't stand still, so it's inevitable that theories about learning and educational standards are constantly being reviewed and revised as we try to help students maximize their scholastic abilities.

But there is one venerable element of school that had a very positive effect on my early academic development and should never be eliminated: recess. During the past few years, numerous stories have focused on school districts around the country that have decided to squeeze out recess in order to beef up the classroom workload. Last month a story on the AP newswire reported that some new elementary schools in Atlanta have been built without playgrounds.

While I'm no expert in this field, I think it's fair to say that schools without playgrounds reflect the kind of stern, heavy-handed administration and lack of sensitivity that got Captain Bligh in trouble on HMS Bounty. "All work and no play...." Well, let's not even go there.

The pro-recess forces say that eliminating unstructured play time has a negative impact on kids by depriving them of needed physical activity and the freedom to choose their own favorite pastimes. To me, a more sinister effect of dumping recess is that it dooms a lot of great playground games to oblivion.

Activities like foursquare, dodgeball, and tetherball provide some of the only opportunities kids will ever have to enjoy less competitive recreation. There is no winner in foursquare. Nobody's keeping score, either. It's just a fun way to pass some time out in the fresh air. The rules at my school were simple, and were passed along by word of mouth.

The server started by hitting the ball to either adjoining square, and once the direction of play was established you had several options when the ball came to your square. If you wanted to knock it right back to the person who just gave it to you, the call was "RE-verse!" You could also hit it to the person diagonally across from you, and that call was "cross country!" There was also an illegal call.

Calling "log cabins" meant no one could knock the ball back into your square. Of course, once three people made this call, the fourth player was hung out to dry. That was clearly unfair, so it was generally accepted that calling "log cabins" was not permitted, except as a joke. We had no governing body making these decisions. Word got around, and that was that.

My daughter played foursquare through fifth grade. It's pretty much unchanged since I enjoyed my last recess. But for how long? How many more schools are going to be built without playgrounds, without the sound of kids shouting and those big red rubber balls slapping against the pavement? I'm glad Dick and Jane aren't around to see this.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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