Monday, October 15, 2007

The Playground Isn't Quite So Playful These Days

Yet another education-related theme is on the menu today: Are schools going overboard with restrictions on recess in the name of safety?:
School recess isn't what it used to be. But it may be safer.

The playground games and equipment that many parents fondly remember are disappearing. Some schools have shortened recess in the name of academics and banned activities such as tag, Red Rover and king of the mountain as too dangerous.

Teeter-totters and merry-go-rounds are a thing of the past, too. School officials say they're acting in the interest of safety. But critics say the concerns are overblown – and even damaging to children.
In a nation where people seem to be getting fatter every day, it would seem like a bad idea to have less play during the school day. Experts agree:
Dr. Joe L. Frost, an early childhood education expert at the University of Texas at Austin, said he cares about safety. But he fears children are losing "opportunities to develop physically, cognitively and socially" when recess activities are curtailed.

"There seems to be a dearth of information about the value of play," Dr. Frost said. "Kids need places for make-believe play.

"The best playgrounds are not necessarily the playgrounds that have the biggest, prettiest or most expensive equipment."
As you know, I'd be the first one to blame the administrators for this one, if it was completely their fault. But it's really not. Instead, I blame the lawyers.

Let's face it--our society has gotten way too ligitious lately. People sue each other at the drop of a hat, and many times, they win those lawsuits, even if the injuries they're suing over were the result of their own poor choices (I'm looking at you, McDonald's Coffee Lady). Because of this, we're cultivating a nation of victims and whiners who never take responsibilty for their actions. But it's also caused some people--especially those in charge of schools--to err way too much on the side of caution when it comes to playgrounds. And with changes in society, kids aren't getting that kind of unstructured playtime at home either. (Think about it--parents who said "Go outside and play!" to their young kids and didn't watch them like a hawk the whole time would likely be reported to Child Protective Services these days.)

My sister has three active boys, and there's a pretty substantial play area in their backyard. Seeing the swingset (made of wood, with no exposed bolts or anything), I remarked to my parents that I wondered how my sister and I survived childhood with all the "dangerous" stuff we had around. I'm not knocking some of the safety innovations that have been put in place since we were kids, and I certainly don't want to see kids get serious injuries on the playground, but again, I think that some people have gone too far. Again, experts agree:
Pressure from state officials to pack more instruction into a school day has whittled away the minutes that children have that chance to flirt with danger on the playground. New requirements for structured physical education also have chipped away at playtime.

"The historical pattern of children playing in nature or natural areas has shifted dramatically," Dr. Frost said. "The introduction ... of high-tech play equipment has led children to want to be where the electric outlets are.

"They have lost much of their ability to create and problem-solve."
There is one more thing in play here: Some of those quoted in the article note that high-stakes standardized testing (boo!) is to blame for the reduction in unstructured playtime during the school day, and one school district spokesman laments the fact that the only way to get more playtime would be to add more hours to the school day. (My response to that would be that we need to ditch--or at least deemphasize--the standardized testing, but that's another post for another day.)

Again, I'm not wanting anyone to get seriously hurt, but I think we've taken a bit of childhood away if we're trying to sanitize the experience so much that kids can't even get rambunctious or sustain the little playground scrapes that used to be a big part of growing up.

Did you have recess as a kid? If you have kids, do they have it now? Is there a way to have playground safety without totally sanitizing the experience? Chime in over at the comment section.

This wouldn't be an issue if the school had more recess: Parents were rightfully upset after a Denver school district sent home health reports, which included height, weight, and body mass index, even stating whether or not the district consdiered the kids to be overweight. The problem was, the notices were sent home with the kids, and some of them read the notices. (Imagine coming home and saying, "Mom, the school district thinks I'm fat.") Maybe they should mail them out next time...

Getting the jump on driver's ed: A 3-year old Wisconsin boy took his toy car on a joyride on a busy stretch of highway. Thankfully, he wasn't hurt, and he even obeyed the traffic signal that he encountered.

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