We’ve had two months of this school year, and I’m happy to report we’ve had very few instances of mistreatment of students at recess (i.e., bullying, fighting, etc.).  That doesn’t mean the behavior at recess is perfect, only that the issues we’ve had generally come from carelessness and underdeveloped senses of risk rather than maliciousness. Why are kids so prone to accidents, injuries, hurt feelings, and feelings of exclusion on the playground, and what can be done about it?

Over the Summer I read Boys Adrift by Dr. Leonard Sax and The Orchid and the Dandelion by Dr. Thomas Boyce. Both books drew my attention to the incredible, and often complex, child development that happens during free play and especially at recess. What looks like horseplay involves kids pushing their balance, gross motor control, and strength to the point where they grow and gain greater abilities. Making up rules to newly invented games and bickering with their playmates is a foundation upon which the students are building their interpersonal skills, self-advocacy, and negotiation abilities.They misuse equipment, but not to misbehave and not to injure themselves, but to find and push their physical abilities. They get upset because their ability to cope is being tested, and they often find greater ability to manage conflict through practice. They take risks and see themselves succeed at things that weren’t possible before.

So what’s to be done? Should recess be a free-for-all where there’s no limits put on students and their risks and their conflicts? I think there’s a sweet spot between allowing every risk and allowing no risk. Keeping students safe is our top priority. Not necessarily safe from a skinned knee, but hopefully safe from broken bones and injured heads. Needing a bandaid is better than needing a cast. If we adults settle every disagreement between kids, they will have no opportunity to resolve differences on their own. That said, kids can’t resolve all disputes, even with practice, and it is our responsibility to establish boundaries where someone isn’t applying the necessary self-discipline. What does that balance look like? Often kids will come and tell me (as the recess supervisor) that someone hit them. I generally ask, “Do you need to see the nurse, or can you keep playing?” If they don’t need immediate medical attention, I ask them if it was on purpose. If it wasn’t on purpose, I ask if that person apologized. (Some kids don’t fully understand that we still apologize even when it is an accident.) If there’s not an injury, and it was an accident, and there was an apology, then I usually ask a question or two to find out if they are making an unsafe choice, and send them to back to playing. I often praise kids for working things out if they don’t really need me to intercede. There are times when I need someone to stop and think about the possible outcomes of his or her words or actions, and the kid can figure out him or herself that a correction needs to be made. It isn’t really fair to act as if the kids have infinite knowledge of the outcomes their decisions can have – that is wisdom, and even as adults, many of us could use more wisdom. The best way to help them is to encourage them to practice the habits of thought that allow us to keep our friends and peers’ bodies and feelings safe.


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