The author of “Rethinking Recess: Creating Safe and Inclusive Playtime For All Children in School,” Dr. Rebecca London, shares her research and guidelines for recess from Playworks. Find “lookfors” and important mindsets for educators to explore about the key elements and benefits of recess. Should we be coaching teachers and assistants for guiding students to gain the most from recess time?
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[00:00:00.250] – Steve [Intro]
Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.
[00:00:31.130] – Steve
What do we need to know about recess? I’m pleased to have Rebecca London join our podcast today. She’s the author of, “Rethinking Recess: Creating Safe and Inclusive Playtime For All Children in School.” As a professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz, her research has shaped the discourse around recess and has influenced educational policies and practices. She advocates for the importance of play in a child’s educational journey. Welcome, Rebecca.
[00:01:05.080] – Rebecca
Thanks, Steve. Glad to be here.
[00:01:07.190] – Steve
Just really excited to have you. Play is a topic of special interest for me, both my play as well as kids’ play.
[00:01:17.080] – Rebecca
Yeah, exactly. We all need to play, right?
[00:01:19.270] – Steve
Yeah. I know that much of your research has been done in collaboration with Playworks, and I wondered if you’d tell listeners a little bit about Playworks.
[00:01:29.570] – Rebecca
Sure, happy to. Playworks is a US-based national nonprofit organization that was founded to support children’s safe and healthy play at school, and the founder of Playworks, named Jill Violette, Jill tells this story that she was working for a different nonprofit. She was doing work in theater, and she had gone to a school in Oakland to meet with the principal, who was a friend of hers, about her theater program. And as she was waiting to meet with her friend, there were just lines and lines of kids, mostly boys, lined up outside of the principal’s office waiting to be disciplined from recess. And when she went in to have her meeting, the principal said to her, “well, could you do something about this?” Meaning, could you do something about recess? And Jill, who’s an active athlete, and said, yeah, I think I could do something about this. And so she started to do some research and to think about what it is schools need to do to provide kids with a safe and healthy recess so that there aren’t lines of kids waiting in the principal’s office being disciplined for their behavior so that they can actually play and have fun during their recess time and go back to the classroom ready to learn.
[00:02:43.400] – Rebecca
And then the teachers don’t have to deal with all those problems that happen after recess when kids come back dissatisfied because they haven’t gotten out their wiggles or they’ve had a fight or they haven’t been able to play the game that they want to play. So the way Playworks works is it’s about creating a recessed climate that’s a healthy climate that encourages play in all different forms, encourages free choice, inclusiveness, and conflict resolution. There’s always conflicts when you’re playing, and you just have to figure out how to resolve them.
[00:03:15.870] – Steve
When I went to the Playworks website, I found a list of six guidelines. I’m wondering if you’d give us a little bit on each one of those. Is it better if I read them off one at a time and you respond?
[00:03:30.390] – Rebecca
Yeah, you read them off, and I’ll respond.
[00:03:32.360] – Steve
Okay. So the first one was, every kid has an opportunity to play everyday, from the classroom to the playground and to the neighborhood.
[00:03:41.680] – Rebecca
So this is an equity argument here. And I don’t know about in Switzerland, where you live, but in the US. Where I live, all children don’t have an opportunity to play every day. There are some schools that eliminated recess altogether, elementary schools for young children, because the thinking was 2025 years ago, that if we wanted to improve our test scores, which we needed to do in order to meet the national standards, then we needed to keep kids sitting in their seats longer. And we recognize now that that was not the best approach. But bringing recess back in school districts that didn’t have it for years, decades, even, where there were schools built without recess yards, that can be a challenge. And so this equity argument is about making sure that every child has a chance to play during the day. And what we know from the research, including my own research, is kids, young kids, elementary kids that go to schools in lower income communities, that have schools that are more predominantly students of color, that go to larger schools, have less recess minutes. So whereas kids who go to school in the suburbs might get 30 minutes across the day, kids who are going to school in inner cities might get ten or 15 minutes during the day.
[00:05:01.570] – Rebecca
And that’s a big difference, especially for kids living in neighborhoods that aren’t as safe.
[00:05:07.780] – Rebecca
So if you’re in a school that limits recess, living in a neighborhood where your parents don’t want you to go out and play in the street because it’s not safe, that really limits kids’ ability to play. Just have free playtime with their friends or their cousins or their siblings.
[00:05:24.310] – Steve
Next one is kids get to choose.
[00:05:27.190] – Rebecca
Yeah. So there’s sort of three kinds of recess, I would say. One is a free for all. Kids go out, they do whatever they want. There’s kind of no organization. You just put out some found objects, and kids will do what they’ll do. The second, the sort of opposite of that, is a structured recess, which is more like a physical education class. There’s a recess leader or a coach or a teacher who says, today we’re doing running races, and everybody does running races. There’s no free choice. In between that is what Playworks calls an “organized recess.” And that’s what we think is good for the majority of schools. Not every school, but for the majority of schools, have activities that are predictable, that are always going to be in the same place. The foursquare always happens here. The soccer always happens here. The basketball is always here and if you want to do free play, you have lots of chance to do it over here where people aren’t going to interrupt you. So kids can choose. They can pick any activity they want, or if they don’t like any of those activities, they can sit and read a book, they can walk and talk, they can do whatever they want.
[00:06:31.320] – Rebecca
But that there’s a lot of choice availability, and there’s a lot of predictability of what those choices will be so that when they go to recess, when they get out there, they know, okay, the game of the week this week is dodgeball. And this set of kids is like, “we love dodgeball!” And this set of kids is like, “we don’t like dodgeball.” And so they can choose. And then next week, the game of the week could be kickball and maybe they switch. And so just that there’s some predictability, there’s some organization, so kids feel safe trying something new. When it’s a free for all, it might be that the kids who are the best at soccer rule the soccer pitch, and there’s no way to get in the game if you’re a weaker or a younger soccer player. But if it’s organized, and maybe there’s two soccer games that are organized, or there’s a set of rules that says that everyone can join and people rotate in and out, then that’s a little bit more predictable, easier to join a game, feeling safer to be out there taking risks.
[00:07:27.790] – Steve
Next one seems like a biggie to me – kids have the right tools to resolve playground conflicts on their own.
[00:07:34.510] – Rebecca
Yeah. So there are several different kinds of conflicts that happen on the playground. Let’s start with something small. Who goes first? We’re playing Tetherball. Who goes first? You and I, Steve, we could fight about that for 15 minutes and never play. That’s our whole recess. We just fought for 15 minutes about who goes first. Or we could do rock, paper, scissors, rochambeau, or any other little game like that, resolve this in 30 seconds and go on to have a really fun game. In these small instances where who goes first, is the ball in or out, which team are you on? Those kinds of things which are very common in play, no one’s suggesting they’re not going to happen, of course they’re going to happen, can be resolved pretty easily with a tool like rock, paper, scissors. Other kinds of problems at recess are a little harder to resolve – my feelings got hurt. I feel excluded.
[00:08:33.000] – Rebecca
Those are the kinds of things that you can’t solve with rock, paper, scissors, obviously. And so what you need to do is create a culture on the playyard of inclusion. And I know that’s one of the other tenets, so I’m not going to go too far into that right now. But that’s also a conflict resolution tool, is to change the climate of the playyard so that everybody feels included. Now, a third way to resolve conflict on the playyard is just to have an engaged play space. And by engaged, I mean there’s something to engage every student in play. And when the kids are engaged in play, they don’t really have the time to go around and do some activities that might make kids feel bullied or to get into trouble by going behind the dumpsters where they’re not supposed to be or whatever it is, right? If they have something that they want to be playing, they’ll be playing it. And so what we see is when the play space is engaged, meaning there are lots of kids that are engaged in whatever activity they want to be engaged in that conflicts go down tremendously.
[00:09:42.730] – Steve
So the next one makes me smile. It’s adults play alongside kids. I always did that, but I thought it was for me. I taught fifth and 6th grade for years, then I taught first grade for years, and I would trade any duty that any teacher had for playground duty because I wanted to be out there. But what’s the reason that that’s listed as one of the elements?
[00:10:10.350] – Rebecca
Steve, I think you’re pretty unique in that desire. From my research in US schools, what I see is a lot of adults not wanting to play with kids, even when it’s the recess monitors, so it’s not always the case that it’s teachers that are supervising recess. They might be having their lunch or taking their break or doing their prep during that time. And so oftentimes, it’s paraprofessionals people who are not credentialed teachers who are supervising recess, and they see their job as keeping the playyard safe. And so they’re not proactive in keeping the playyard safe by creating an engaged play space, which is what I would recommend, instead, they wait until something goes wrong and then they correct it. And so even teachers who are out there monitoring recess might not be actively playing with kids. They might be talking with a group of kids who want to chitchat with a teacher, or they might be connecting with a teacher that they don’t see that often from another grade to talk about a student. They might be just taking a breather and enjoying the sun.
[00:11:16.300] – Rebecca
It’s not always the case that people want to play. But I will tell you that when adults play on the playyard, it changes the way kids see play, and they love to play with adults. So one of the models that playworks uses is called their coach model. It was the first thing they did. They took young people and they trained them, and they put them on playards to be full time recess coaches during the day. And these coaches are rock stars. When the kids see them, they get so excited. There’s high fives, there’s good jobs, there’s all this wonderful positive talk, and the coach will play. The coach will play with you and teach you the rules and show you what to do when you get out and model all that good behavior we’re trying to see. And the kids absolutely love it. When you’re a non-teacher monitor at recess, you might be the only person during the school day to see every single child, every single day. You might be that person who the child says, oh, I can’t wait to go to recess to see Miss Rebecca, because Miss Rebecca always remembers my name and knows who I am.
[00:12:31.170] – Rebecca
And so when adults play with kids, they’re just demonstrating to them that they care and that it’s a safe place again to take risks. Now, not everybody wants to be out there playing basketball in their work clothes, and I totally understand that. And as an adult, you don’t really have to. You can be engaged and play without actually playing. You can turn a jump rope, you can be a ref with a whistle, you can stand by and cheer and encourage good behavior. You can just let the kids know that you’re there engaged with them. You’re not off checking your phone or you’re not off attending to your other business, that this is a time where you’re actively attentive to kids, and when you see that, boy, they respond.
[00:13:17.150] – Steve
It’s really strange. As I’m sitting here listening to you, I had several flashes in my mind of my teachers playing. A second grade teacher comes to mind, a 6th grade teacher and there’s an impact from that. I hadn’t thought about it until I was listening to you explain it. A handful of teachers across those years.
[00:13:45.670] – Rebecca
I was at a school a number of years ago in a East Coast inner city school district. And at that school, the teachers monitored recess, and they each had a zone that they monitored, played with the kids. But on the day that I was there, there was a child who was actually suspended because he had hit somebody else, and that was a mandatory suspension, but was the child of a single parent, and that parent couldn’t come get them because they were at work. And so what the principal did was instead of putting this kid in a detention room for the day, he kept the kid with him. The principal was in charge of basketball, and this young kid went to basketball, stood right next to the principal, really for all of the recesses that happened that day, to learn how to behave, how to join a game, how to take turns, how to follow rules. And it was really one of the best, probably most effective disciplinary techniques I’ve ever seen. That it was compassionate, yet stern. He couldn’t go off and play what he wanted. He was stuck standing next to the principal.
[00:14:55.040] – Rebecca
Everybody knew he was being disciplined, but yet he wasn’t sat alone in a room to get angry. He was able to learn something from the experience.
[00:15:04.670] – Steve
I know the next one’s a biggie. Play is not treated as a reward.
[00:15:09.410] – Rebecca
Yeah. Every country in the United Nations has ratified the UN convention on the Rights of the Child, except for the US. And so I know from my colleagues internationally that in other countries, people look to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to set policy and to set practice. And in the US, we don’t. Play is not seen as a right as it is in other places. And so it can be used as a reward, and it can be used as a punishment. And from my research, from my experience, one of the most common ways that we discipline elementary students is by taking away recess.
[00:15:55.070] – Rebecca
Either for behavior or for missed schoolwork. In a lot of places, maybe there’s a detention room in some schools. In other schools, the kids, they sit outside during recess where everyone’s playing, but they have to sit against a wall. So they’re being shamed either because they were being punished or because they’re finishing their schoolwork and they’re not allowed to play. And play is a right. It’s a right because it’s how children learn. It’s a right because the UN tells us it’s a right of childhood to be able to play. Children are not supposed to be working. They’re supposed to be learning and children learn through play. Children are not our test taking, automatons. We need to make sure that we are growing healthy, well developed, socially adapted, emotionally mature young people. And if all we do is say you have to learn math, science, and reading, we’re not allowing them to develop all of those other characteristics that are so important as they go on in their lives. And so when we treat play as a reward or a punishment instead of a right, what we’re telling kids is we only are about one part of your development.
[00:17:11.820] – Rebecca
We only care about your academic, we don’t care about your emotional or your social development. And psychologists will tell you those four pieces of child development go hand in hand. You can’t do one without the other. And so children who are sitting without a break to be outside and to socialize and see their friends are not going to learn as well.
[00:17:34.350] – Steve
The last one you touched on and pulled back on a little – everyone is welcome.
[00:17:43.250] – Rebecca
Yeah. The safety of the playyard, I think, is really incumbent upon an inclusive playyard. And that’s one of the things that I learned from Playworks. Everybody’s welcome to play. When my kids were in elementary school, when I was in elementary school, there was always that group of kids that were really good at that, know, in California, at soccer, in other places, it’s football or basketball and sort of understood, well, those kids should be able to play because they’re going to play hard and they need that. But what about the other kids who want to play soccer, whose parents can’t put them in the expensive competitive soccer league because they don’t have the money for it, or because they can’t get them there because they’re working odd hours or whatever? So those kids don’t get a chance to play either in the competitive league or at school? That doesn’t seem right. And so what can we do to make our play spaces inclusive? And there’s lots of different things we can do to do that. First of all, we can just encourage everybody gets to play every game. And some schools that might not work because that soccer game has to happen for those kids.
[00:18:50.740] – Rebecca
Okay, fine. We have two soccer games. One for those kids and one for the kids who just want to have fun kicking the ball around, who don’t need to score a goal or don’t care if they score a goal or don’t want to be in that competitive game because it scares them. So we just need to make sure that there are safe places for everybody to play and that people are welcome. And part of that welcoming is changing the way we talk about getting out in a game. In a game like foursquare, part of the game is getting out. Every round of foursquare where there’s four squares and a ball somebody loses in every round. It’s part of the game. So we normalize that. It’s not “ha-ha you’re out,” it’s, “good job, nice try. Go to the back of the line, you’ll get up again.” And if you normalize it, it’s just part of the game. You get a high five as you walk down the line and you keep on going, it makes kids feel it more included. Instead of being embarrassed when you get out, it’s like, well, one of the four of us is going to get out.
[00:19:48.330] – Rebecca
That’s how the game works. And you just go to the back of line and start over again. And when we set up those principles of inclusiveness and positivity on the playard, it just makes it easier for those kids who don’t feel like natural athletes to come out and have a good time, even if they’re not going to win.
[00:20:07.810] – Steve
My next question, I think we’ve kind of hit some points of it, but I’m wondering if you might give us a couple of specific look-fors. So if I’m a school leader and from time to time I’m taking that opportunity to observe kids on a playground, what would you give a school leader as some items to be looking for and considering?
[00:20:34.170] – Rebecca
So I would look for number one, safety. Is your playyard safe? Are there hazards out there? Are there potholes? Are there places where kids could actually get hurt?
[00:20:46.240] – Rebecca
That we want to make sure we’ve mediated right away. And then I would look to see about engagement. What are the kids doing during recess? What percent of the kids are playing a game? What percent of the kids are walking around in a group? What percent of the kids look like they’re doing something that you don’t want them to be doing? What percent of kids are sitting alone?
[00:21:05.880] – Rebecca
So what are kids doing? And that will help you to figure out where you need to organize some games. If you’ve got about a third of the kids playing and about two thirds of the kids sitting around looking at the grass as little scientists looking for bugs, then you know there’s not enough to do. Because really, there are always kids who are looking in the grass for bugs, and that’s totally great, and they’re going to be budding scientists, and I totally support that. But it’s not usually two thirds of your students. It’s a much smaller proportion of your students. And so what games are available? Is there anybody organizing them?
[00:21:42.620] – Rebecca
Who owns that time? Or is it just like whoever gets the ball gets to pick the game?
[00:21:48.280] – Rebecca
Because sometimes when you get the ball and you pick the game, you just hold the ball the whole time and you don’t want to play with anyone because you finally got the ball.
[00:21:54.840] – Rebecca
So I would look for that. And then the third thing I’d look for is, what are the adults doing? Are they all together in one place? Are they spread out? Are they interacting with the kids? Are they supporting play? Are they yelling? Are they being supportive? What are the adults doing? So, safety, what are the kids doing, what are the adults doing?
[00:22:14.170] – Steve
I’m wondering about middle schools. Thoughts on what people should be considering? I know that most of the places that I end up at, recess, stopped at elementary, and I’ve certainly read and heard things that say that kind of at least a break is critical for middle school kids.
[00:22:37.040] – Rebecca
Yeah, a break is critical for everybody. Legislators in the US take a recess several times a year. So everybody needs a break. It’s not just kids. You need breaks, you get a lunch break. It’s mandated by law in the US. I get a lunch break. People need breaks. Kids need breaks for different reasons than adults, and middle schoolers are no exception. So I’ve done some research in middle school. What we see is that play changes as kids get older. Their needs for play, their needs for connection change. I don’t want this to sound sexist, but this is especially true in my observation for girls – sometime around 4th, 5th grade, so that’s like age 10-11ish, what we observe, really, quite obviously, is that girls play declines, and it’s replaced by socialization. So in a youth development framework, as kids mature, their friendships become much more primary in their lives. Their connections to family decline a little bit. And those social connections are incredibly important. And so, yeah, it is important to make sure they have time to do that. Now, some people, public health experts, might say, well, the most important thing about recess is physical activity.
[00:23:55.350] – Rebecca
I don’t entirely disagree with that because, yeah, we know that when people are moving around, it changes the way their brains function and it’s good for concentration. It’s good for being able to focus in the classroom. It’s not the only goal, though. If you think about a whole child perspective from a youth development perspective, physical activity is one part of it, but social health and emotional health are also really important contributors to academic success. And so we do want to make sure kids get those needs met, whatever they are. Now, I would say if there’s nothing for the kids who want to socialize to do, then that can lead to some negative behaviors. Middle school is also a time where everybody wants to fit into their social group. It’s a time when kids start to experiment with what does it feel like to push somebody out of a social group? What does it feel like to distance from a friend to get closer to a new group of people? So there’s a lot of potential for hurt feelings and for actual hurt feelings, not just kid hurt feelings. And so, again, there should be activities, it should be organized, there should be a plan, but kids should have free choice.
[00:25:05.710] – Rebecca
So in the middle schools that I’ve been to, a lot of these schools have a track, because they do track and field, so they’ll institute a walk and talk track. And so maybe you can get points for how many laps you do, or maybe the principal or the school counselor on a certain day of the week, walks the track and checks in with kids. And you’d be amazed at groups of two, three, who will walk and talk the track after they finish eating because they don’t feel like playing a game, but they need to catch up. They need to catch up on their social time with their friends.
[00:25:36.330] – Steve
Well, thank you. I really appreciated you walking us through this and kind of shining a light on what to me is very important. I’m wondering the best way that people who are listening might be able to look at some of the work that you’ve done.
[00:25:55.550] – Rebecca
Yeah. So you can buy the book if you want or if you want some free materials, I am a founding member of the Global Recess Alliance. We have a website, we have a statement that’s on our website, and we’ve just published an updated version of that that’s open access in the Journal of School Health. It’s all on our Global Recess Alliance website. So just Google us and you’ll find it there.
[00:26:20.740] – Steve
Well, thank you. Really appreciate it.
[00:26:23.100] – Rebecca
Sure. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
[00:26:24.590] – Steve
Have a good day.
[00:26:25.390] – Rebecca
Yep, you too.
[00:26:28.250] – Steve [Outro]
Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.