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Article of Interest - School Playground

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Bridges4Kids LogoRecess Gets Regulated
Worried about safety, schools restrict traditional games.
by Sandy Louey, Sacramento Bee, August 22, 2004
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During recess at Woodridge Elementary School, a girl walked up to the foursquare court, wanting to join the game.

"You want to play," Briauna Ford, a sixth-grader, told her. "You got to read the rules."

Eight rules for Switched, a game Briauna and her friends made up, were scrawled on a piece of notebook paper: Rule No. 2: "You must say 'switch, switch' two times to begin the game." Rule No. 6: "Make right choices no yelling."

Briauna and her friends drew up the regulations so the game wouldn't end up in shouting matches and hurt feelings - which could get Switched tossed off the playground in the Rio Linda Union School District.

Recess may be child's play, but it's serious business to adults. Dodgeball has spawned a hit summer movie and a TV game show. But as school doors begin to open again around the Sacramento region, kids thumping each other with a large inflated rubber ball isn't something you are likely to see on school playgrounds.

Concerned about safety and injuries and worried about bullying, violence, self-esteem and lawsuits, school officials have clamped down on the traditional games from years past.

Gone from many blacktops are tag, dodgeball and any game involving bodily contact. In are organized relay races and adult-supervised activities.

"It's fun stuff," said Azia Orum, a Rio Linda sixth-grader. "We just can't do it. People get hurt."

The restrictions trouble some early-childhood experts and parents. Recess is usually the only part of the school day where kids can do what they want. Experts say free play helps kids learn how to cooperate, socialize and work out conflicts.

"We ask kids to work hard," said Roberta Raymond, principal at Woodridge. "They need frequent breaks to give their minds a rest."

What games students can - or can't - play at recess varies. Each school tailors the rules to its own needs.

Growing enrollments in some districts make firm rules all the more important, educators say, though kids at lunch or recess are always difficult to monitor.

Maeola Beitzel Elementary School in the Elk Grove Unified School District has about 1,200 students, while Natomas Park Elementary School in the Natomas Unified School District has about 1,100 students. Both are year-round schools, with at least 800 enrolled at any one time.

At Natomas Park, that means three recesses in the morning and two in the afternoon, along with five lunches for grades one to five. Up to six yard-duty supervisors roam during lunch.

Games where kids chase each other - tag or even cops and robbers - are generally banned in Natomas Unified's elementary schools. No grabbing or pushing is allowed.

At Natomas Park, students can only toss and catch a football - tackling or blocking isn't permitted. But the no-contact rule applies beyond the grade-school gridiron.

During lunch recess one recent afternoon, yard supervisor Janice Hudson spotted a first-grader pushing a girl on the swing.

"Do not push," Hudson told the student. "Let her push herself, please."

"One person can be a little stronger than the other," she said as she walked away.

During second-grade lunch, Hudson set up relay races so students could run within the rules. The whistle blew and the racers took off, dashing down the five lanes. A crowd screamed "Go! Go!" Each of the more than 30 students got a chance to run.

Natomas Park administrators say physical safety was the main reason they instituted restrictions. But they admit to worrying about bullying and potential lawsuits from parents.

At Maeola Beitzel Elementary, Janis Mayse, the mother of a fifth-grader, doesn't think the fun is worth it if a game is played to the detriment of another child.

"All of us want to hang on to the games we played as kids," she said, "but we have to keep an open mind that there are games that kids can get a benefit from without hurting one another."

Many see the recess restrictions as part of larger cultural shifts. Schools now must craft lesson plans on responsibility, honesty and violence prevention, Maeola Beitzel Principal Judy Hunt-Brown said. And those lessons, among other things, fit neatly into the structured, organized play so prevalent on today's schoolyard.

"To some degree, the school has needed to take a larger role in teaching children how to play with each other - the whole taking turns, how to deal with conflict," Hunt-Brown said.

Tightened restrictions on playgrounds are part of the growing trend to more strictly control what happens during the school day. Child behavior experts are concerned that strict rules for play threaten to straitjacket students' creativity.

Recess is supposed to be spontaneous play. The unstructured time helps fuel the imagination, said Dolores Stegelin, associate professor of early childhood education at Clemson University.

"It encourages creativity. It strengthens social development when they can be creative and plan something together and set up their own rules. It allows for leadership," said Stegelin, a member of the Association for the Study of Play. "Adults need to be there, but there needs to be more time for kids to be innovative and do their own activity."

Dodgeball teaches students eye-hand coordination and gross motor skills. Getting singled out and eliminated from competition is part of life, said Tom Reed, professor of early childhood education at the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg.

"Life is not always fair," said Reed, also a member of the Association for the Study of Play. "You don't get what you want. Things like this are learned on the playground."

That's what worries Kellie Randle. A former teacher and a parent of a student at Joseph Sims Elementary School in Elk Grove, Randle believes kids aren't as creative as they once were.

"I'm concerned about the direction of a society where kids are encouraged not to run and play," she said. "If you take away running, freeze tag and red light, green light, you're taking away a big part of childhood."

At Woodridge, the bell signaling the end of summer school recess rang. The Switched players got ready to return to class.

Rule No. 5: If two people get a corner, choose a number between one and 20. The person who is closest gets the corner.

Rule No. 8: If you make bad choices, you must leave the game.

"It went better today with the rules," said 11-year-old Erma Murphy. Her friends nodded in agreement.


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