Picture yourself at the center of an elementary school blacktop. Orbiting you are dozens of children, each of them running past like tiny, glowing suns.
Now ask yourself: How could something so pure possibly need the support of academic research to exist?
Unfortunately, that’s the state American public education has come to within the last decade.
Armies of psychologists and administrators have banded together to rectify the disappearance of recess — an enemy of No Child Left Behind’s preference for testing — and they have used formal research as their biggest bargaining chip.
The main findings: The more play a school gives its student body, the greater rewards kids see in their character development, academic achievement, safety, and overall health.
An Oakland-based non-profit called Playworks is leading the recess revolution.
Started by Jill Vialet in 1996, Playworks is a system of play (not an oxymoron) that schools can adopt to give unstructured activities a bit more focus. It’s currently in more than 1,000 schools across the US.
When a school hires Playworks, they get assigned young coaches, typically college-aged, that teach kids specific games and strategies for cooperating with one another. The company has more than 300 games in its library, including nearly 40 variations of tag.
Creating such a robust catalogue of games was no accident.
According to Vialet, structure is a child’s best friend when it comes to play. While kids may have a built-in urge to run around and get dirty, playing with other kids is a social experience, which means it has to be learned.
“Kids are desperate to be taught ways to get along with each other and be successful in play and school,” she told the New York Times in 2011. “It hasn’t been taught.”
A 2013 study of the Playworks model from Stanford University found it led to 43% less bullying, 20% higher feelings of student safety, 43% more physical activity, and 34% less time transitioning from recess back to the classroom. A number of other studies suggest recess can also lead to better grades in school, regardless of the form it takes.
The fact recess gets put under such a microscope may be a symptom of America’s much larger struggle to educate kids correctly.
Beloved education theorist Sir Ken Robinson — whose TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” happens to be the most-viewed of all-time — believes kids are under too much pressure to test above their peers. An absence of recess could simply mark the absence of creativity in schools more generally.
“The problem with conformity in education is that people are not standardised to begin with,” Robinson writes in his latest book, “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education.”
In that regard, the future may be looking up. In December of last year, Congress passed the replacement bill to No Child Left Behind — the Every Student Succeeds Act. Contrary to NCLB, the new law gives states a lot more leeway in how much they tests their students.
But what may be even more exciting is that the law actually requires states to measure student achievement outside formal testing, be that in how safe the school is or how engaged the classrooms are.
In many ways, these less tangible metrics are exactly what Playworks is trying to target. Instead of grades, it will be play that keeps American education relevant.
It was well-known 20 years ago (and in some places never stopped being well-known) that kids need to be kids. As the political climate around education finally begins to move away from standardised tests, that older conventional wisdom is starting to make a comeback.
This time, however, schools won’t be extending recess from 15 minutes to 30 because of some whimsical notion that kids should be kids. It will be a decision made based on extensive inquiry into the proper route for childhood development, performed by people with clipboards.
It will be play on purpose, not by accident, and millions of kids will be better off for it.