Rethinking Recess, Part II

06/21/2010 01:40 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If there were a real "Hot Tub Time Machine," would you rewind to elementary school? Or middle school? Would you do it all again?

"Oh sure," you might say at first, excited with the prospect. "Life was so easy then, I didn't know how good I had it. I would go back and I'd never complain because I would know that kid stress doesn't even begin to compare with adult stress. I would relish in the glory of no job, no responsibilities, no bills, no mortgage, no kids talking back to me..."

Ignoring an imperceptible shiver, you would repeat, "Didn't know how good I had it..."

Then, hesitating, your smile waning, those same words might stumble out with a little less confidence. "No kids ... talking back ... to me," and that ever so slight shiver of nerves would hit again as the face of the long-forgotten playground bully would come into focus as it did day in and day out throughout your long, anxiety filled childhood; a face you may have buried for decades but had not forgotten.

Your heart would skip a beat.

The bully may not have tormented you, but chances are you saw the bully torment others. And as recent research has shown, the innocent bystander is just as tormented by the bully's actions, if not more so, than the victim.

Still want to go back?

Marc Sickel, runs the DC area-based company, Fitness for Health. He wants to rethink recess, shake it up a bit, take it up a notch. Sickel's philosophy is based on two important elements: conflict resolution and elimination of trauma on the playground. His goal: to make it possible for our adults of the future to resolve conflict calmly and rationally, to learn to work with peers with different skills and backgrounds and to remember bully-free childhoods.

No, Sickel is not a Pollyanna, he's a man with an idea.

Sickel and a handful of educators and mental health professionals across the country, want to change the nature of recess. They want to create an environment whereby the bully no longer rules and children on the social fringe (including the bully him/herself, the athlete who is socially inept, the genius who rules in the classroom but pales on the playground) can each find his/her rightful place. 2010-06-18-large_03hinson03.jpeg

Muskegon Chronicle/Cory Morse. "Play guru," Curt Hinson says free-play needs structure

Playworks, a California-based nonprofit has begun its program in low-income areas throughout the United States using grants to pay for "recess coaches" who run recess as a class period, thereby eliminating the traditional recess free-for-all.

Playworks' idea is similar to Sickel's, though Sickel prefers to train educators to run their own recess periods using their own staff and parent volunteers. Alternatively, Sickel is not calling for an end to free-play.

Sickel's concept reaches far beyond the elementary school playground. "There is a life-enhancing psychological and physical component," he says. "The negative recess experience or negative PE experience stays with a child through adulthood. Anything physical will reactivate the negative feelings from childhood. If adults associate physical activity with negative events in their past, they grow up to be inactive, averse to physical activity," concludes Sickel. Years of daily mistreatment can do that to you.

Not only will Sickel's ideas help slow the growth of another generation of obese Americans, Sickel's structured recess agenda aims to blur the chasm between jock and genius by teaming them on the playground. In one game Sickel has introduced in DC-area public schools, for example, the jock and genius collaborate, each focusing on his/her own particular area of expertise. Quickly adding numbers displayed on a series of mats, the genius instructs the jock where to move through an obstacle course to get to the final destination. Collaboration breeds teamwork and teamwork breeds friendship. "I want kids to realize that if we take your strengths and my strengths we can work together, we don't have to be enemies," says Sickel.

In the storybook version, they become best friends, each relying somewhat on the other's talents for the next decade of school.

But Sickel isn't looking to write a storybook. He just wants to make recess a less terrifying experience by making structure a recess option: a few more adults to man the games, a few more props to create newer, more interesting and more organized games, perhaps a few high school student volunteers to work recess and at the same time earn community service hours. Sickel explains,

"We are taking a challenging situation - a free-for-all school playground - and turning it into a teachable moment. This initiative is not only for the kid who stands on the perimeter and doesn't get involved, but also the child who is the bully. The bully is looking for attention. He may want leadership and doesn't know how to do it in a positive way and I think what happens is the bully goes around egging people on negatively. We need to empower these kids early on, as early as preschool, laying the positive framework because before you know it, bullying becomes their way ... of life. And the victim, the victim may daily go straight from recess into math, exhibiting low performance because he can't focus. He is likely not having attentional issues, but rather is riddled with anxiety. These more structured activities can help empower both the bully and the introvert and that will cross over into more positive classroom performance."

Sickel believes that most schools in the country are uninspired when it comes to recess, stuck in the traditional recess rut: four square, basketball, soccer. "We're not saying it's bad, let's just change the way we do it, change the creative flow, think out of the box. Instead of having one basketball court with 30 to 40 kids wanting to play, set up an around-the-world-basketball game where everyone has to make 100 points in 15 minutes. It's not team against team, it's everyone making those points, everyone helping everyone to achieve the goal. They are moving and working together and cheering each other on," says Sickel.

"It's a new way of looking at recess," says Bill Poole, the principal of a suburban DC public school that works with Fitness for Health to enhance the school's recess period. "We want to make sure that what we provide is engaging but not so structured that it becomes like an assignment. And so the kids can walk in an out and choose to participate. We want to make sure that we aren't making recess an 'assignment,' but offering kids ways to play collaboratively and have some fun with some really basic supplies. So far we have been very pleased with the results."

What adults often forget is that even the athletic child may not be socially adept at knowing how to walk out onto the soccer field and play a mass soccer game. Translating that to an adult situation, how many adults can arrive at a party without a friend or colleague by their side, walk up to a group of people, or even one person, they don't know and engage them in conversation?

"With a little bit more structure a lot of kids can become more social and find their way because they are part of a group now and can practice social interaction," says Dr. Ellen Dye, a clinical psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland. "When you are outside the group you are not practicing socially."

Let's applaud schools that see recess as a time to keep kids emotionally and physically healthy and safe. In suburban Maryland, for example, one elementary school counselor has created a recess period walking club for those who may be reluctant to participate in free-for-all play. While the walking gives the children the physical activity they need, participation in a group activity protects them from being the bully's target. What are your schools doing to enhance recess, to make it a platform for learning? Tell us about your programs and suggest ideas that may shake things up a bit and move recess into the 21st Century.