This week, our Congress will be returning from their August recess -- a yearly tradition that recognizes the human need to take a break from a grueling schedule and spend some time playing.
At the same time, as children across the country return to school, some will find that they have no recess at all. Others will find that their combined recess and lunch period is so short, they have to choose between food and play.
Play is under attack in our nation's schools -- and shrinking recess periods are only part of the problem. Homework is increasing. Cities are building new schools without playgrounds. Safety concerns are prompting bans of tag, soccer, and even running on the schoolyard.
Despite countless studies proving that play is integral to children's learning and health, most kids aren't getting enough space and time to play during the school day. These seven absurd stories from last school year say it all:
- A New York mom sued her child's preschool because the kids there played too much. According to the suit, "The school proved to be not a school at all, but just one big playroom." The mother worried that all this play was ruining her tot's chances of getting into an Ivy League college. Meanwhile, an article in The New Republic reported that children in Finnish elementary schools -- who get an average of 75 minutes of recess a day -- consistently rank higher than U.S. children in International Student Assessment Scores.
- School inspectors in New Jersey identified a new playground menace: trees. To eliminate the threat of "suspended hazards," the director of a rural child-care facility in Moorestown, N.J., Sue Maloney, was ordered to remove all tree branches below 7.5 feet from the school property, despite the fact that in her 30 years on the job, these branches have not only provided valuable play opportunities, but have yet to injure a child.
- When a youngster in Cabell County, West Va. broke his arm jumping off a schoolyard swing set, his parents filed a lawsuit, prompting a plan to remove all swings from Cabell County schools. Luckily, after consulting with the West Virginia Department of Education's Office of School Facilities, officials discovered that swings are actually required at state elementary schools, and the plan was halted.
- In Spring 2011, the New York Department of Health went public with a list of classic games that pose a "significant risk of injury," including wiffleball, red rover, dodgeball, kickball, freeze tag, capture the flag, and tetherball. For years, schools have already been banning tag, soccer, and touch football--all in the name of "safety."
- Hostile attitudes towards children's play extend beyond the United States. In Namatakula Village in Nadroga, Fiji, primary and secondary school children were told they were no longer allowed to play after 6 p.m. during the week. The village headman Jovilisi Natoya instituted this new rule to "ensure that [children] concentrate on their studies instead of wasting time playing."
- Administrators at the Barlby Community Primary School canceled afternoon recess and banned hard ball in response to complaints from neighbors. These neighbors had contacted the environmental health department to express their concerns about "excessive noise." This is despite the fact that Barlby Community Primary has been around for 100 years, which means that the disgruntled neighbors had knowingly moved next to a school.
- Last winter, students in Edinburgh, Scotland were not allowed to go outside to play during recess because the abundance of snow was deemed potentially dangerous -- and because wet boots make a mess in the classroom. An exasperated parent told Scotsman.com, "I'm a trained risk assessor and this is not a health and safety issue."
These stories are only the beginning. Let's start this year off right! It's time to defend our children's right to play -- in the classroom, on the schoolyard, and after school hours.
If you are a parent or a teacher who is concerned that your school is all work and no play, you are not alone. Join the fight against the rising tides of paranoia, testing frenzy, and blatant disregard for the physical, emotional, and mental health of our children. Get started by signing this Back-to-School Pledge and receive a PDF guide with 15 action ideas you can implement this year.
What ideas do you have for bringing play back to our schools?
Follow Darell Hammond on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kaboom