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During School Recess, New Focus on Playing Nice

July 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Recess can be a chaotic, even violent, period during the course of a normal school day. Spencer Michels reports on how one non-profit is showing educators the health, and classroom benefits of teaching students how to play nice.
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SPENCER MICHELS: In the playgrounds of inner-city schools throughout the country, recess can be chaotic, so unruly, in fact, that some schools have eliminated or shortened it.

When it’s disorganized and unsupervised, kids wander aimlessly, bullying is commonplace, putdowns are part of playground life, arguments become fights.

That’s the way it used to be at this Oakland, California, school and others. Working on the schoolyard today, Bryant Kicks says a few years ago things were far different.

BRYANT KICKS, Sports4Kids coach: Chaotic. You know, there may be games being played, but they’re not necessarily the safest games being played. So if there’s a soccer game going, there are still kids running through the game. It’s more of a pushing and shoving match.

SPENCER MICHELS: The national emphasis on academic achievement is another reason recess is under threat. Some educators argue that time or money put into play periods takes away from teaching the three R’s. But eliminating or cutting back the fourth R, recess, outrages Jill Vialet.

JILL VIALET, founder, Sports4Kids: What we know is that kids who get recess do perform better academically.

SPENCER MICHELS: She founded Sports4Kids, a nonprofit that supplies full-time coaches to 170 mostly inner-city elementary schools across the country to organize and run recess.

JILL VIALET: They serve as sort of a proxy for the older kids of yore, and they basically are going into the school environment and they’re teaching the kids the rule, the culture of play, the rules of the game, and it changes the whole school dynamic.

SPENCER MICHELS: She believes playtime is essential, a vital tool that helps, not hinders, academic performance.

JILL VIALET: It makes it possible for teachers to really focus on what they do best and our person can take responsibility for the culture that envelops that, the wraparound services that makes schools work really well.

SPENCER MICHELS: Horace Mann School in Oakland pays $23,500 a year for the program, which actually costs about $50,000. The rest comes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also a NewsHour funder.

This school is 55 percent Latino, 35 percent African-American, and the income level is low. The coach keeps the kids playing games, like soccer or four square or Double Dutch, and settling disputes.

BRYANT KICKS: These kids, I feel like maybe the environment that they live in, it’s just more anger. They get angry, to start off with. And they want to push or shove or yell to see who’s the person who gets to control the game, whereas we want to make it — you know, anybody can play any game, no matter what shape or size you are, and just make it a safe environment.

SPENCER MICHELS: Alanna Lim, the principal at Horace Mann, chose to use the program because of what it does both in the schoolyard…

ALANNA LIM, school principal: Right now, doing yard duty is almost a piece of cake. There’s hardly any problems. I mean, I have to say, I don’t think we’ve had one single fight this year outside on the yard.

SPENCER MICHELS: … and in the classroom.

ALANNA LIM: The teachers spend less time dealing with the problems on the playground in the classroom, so that means more instructional minutes right off the bat. The kids come back more refreshed.

Settling conflicts

SPENCER MICHELS: Lim also loves the fact that her students are now practicing conflict resolution, settling arguments about games using Rochambeau.

ALANNA LIM: You know, rock, paper, scissors, right?

SPENCER MICHELS: Right.

ALANNA LIM: So you just, you know, "Ro-cham-beau," and so my rock beats your scissors. The problem is settled right there, whether you disagree with this resolution or not. It's worked out really well.

SPENCER MICHELS: Marleni Sanchez is an 11-year-old fifth-grader who has become a junior coach, helping the Sports4Kids professional coach on the yard.

MARLENI SANCHEZ, "Junior Coach": We're trying to, like, people to -- like, get good sportsmanship and play with each other nicely.

SPENCER MICHELS: And how do you do that?

MARLENI SANCHEZ: Like, if you get into an argument, all the thing you have to do is Rochambeau. Whoever wins gets the ball or what -- it depends on what game they're in. The loser, it doesn't mean like they lose.

SPENCER MICHELS: Play at recess and lunch periods, Vialet argues, is also essential for childhood development. She cites a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics that says children who had at least 15 minutes of recess had fewer behavioral problems than those who got no recess.

Attendees at a San Francisco conference on play heard from researchers who said the necessity of play had been proven in animal studies. Psychiatrist and author Stuart Brown, founder of the Institute for Play, says studies show that young rats need play to function.

STUART BROWN, Institute for Play: Rats, for example, have a tendency to engage in rough-and-tumble play from the time they're 4 weeks old to about 15 weeks old. And that, when you suppress that behavior and don't allow it to happen, just the rough-and-tumble play, they can't tell friend from foe, they have inflexibility in their social relationships with other rats, and they're in trouble. They don't reproduce.

SPENCER MICHELS: There are implications for humans, says Brown.

STUART BROWN: Serious play deprivation in human beings has serious consequences. And those consequences are the inability to have as much resilience and social competency and other elements, such as good memory and curiosity.

SPENCER MICHELS: A close observer of the Oakland School District and its board, retired teacher Jim Mordecai, is not convinced that spending money on recess is the best way to use school funds.

JIM MORDECAI, retired teacher: Each school in Oakland that participates is $23,500. You multiply it out by the 37 schools; that's over $800,000. So we have just cut 15 early childhood teachers that -- a lot of them could have been saved by that. In this terrible economy, we have to downsize.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, Sports4Kids continues preaching the gospel of well-organized play to an ever larger audience. Even with school budgets being cut, it is expanding to 240 schools nationwide this fall.