Have We Gone Overboard About Bullying?

Eliminating recess will only make the problem worse

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Deni Mcintyre Will / Getty Images

The recent decision by the Chicago Public Schools system to reinstate recess, effectively reversing years of optional recess policy (an option that was exercised less and less), is a step in the right direction. It’s also a stark reminder not to lose sight of the basics.

If you spend a few minutes at a playground watching recess, you’ll see the full range of human behavior — from friendship and sharing to conflict and cruelty. This is why, for nearly a century, child behaviorists have chosen sandboxes, hopscotch boards and jungle gyms as their observation sanctuaries. Not surprisingly, the results of their work have been very clear: recess is really, really important for kids. It is the only place schoolchildren have for free choice, free play and the chance to interact. There are the obvious health benefits of physical fitness, but there are more subtle benefits to be gained, like social intelligence, morality and ethical behavior. There’s also good evidence that learning inside the classroom actually comes more easily when children have a chance to let loose outside the classroom. Olga Jarrett at Georgia State University, for example, showed in her 2002 report that students focused better with recess than without recess and that this effect was even stronger for hyperactive children.

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Despite this support, the truth is that we are in a recess recession. Growing up, most of us benefited from three recess periods per day; today kids are lucky to get one or two. And if you are a child attending a poor, urban or mostly minority school, the problem is worse for you: according to the Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics, you have, on average, 10 to 15 minutes less playground time per day than your affluent counterpart. You are also much more likely to have no recess at all.

So what pushes cities and towns to the recess-cutting point in the first place? The most accepted answer is that the U.S. has witnessed an unprecedented preoccupation with academic standards over the past 20 years. More testing means more test preparation, and recess is always the first to go to make up for the time.

Lately, however, another antirecess argument has hit the scene. It stems from a nationwide consciousness and fear of bullying. Essentially the idea (albeit mistaken) is that without recess, bullies will have less opportunity to victimize their peers. Bullying, of course, isn’t eliminated when recess is banned — instead it just goes underground, metastasizing in hallways, bathrooms, buses and on the Internet. What’s perhaps more provocative, although it hasn’t been extensively studied, is whether we are overdiagnosing bullying on the playground; are we mislabeling, for instance, harmless (and probably beneficial) play-fighting? Anthony Pellegrini, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, has often cited in his research that adults are not very good at distinguishing play-fighting from aggression — children are much better at this. The untrained adult has a hard time knowing exactly when to step in, and probably steps in too quickly. To make matters worse, in many schools a common punishment for perceived misbehavior (including perceived bullying) is recess deprivation. Never mind that these highly spirited and physically oriented children usually need recess the most.

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The real solution to bullying on the playground is to train recess supervisors to know the difference between playing and aggression, and to recognize and respond appropriately to escalating situations. This, at its most basic level, means learning how to feel comfortable with children arguing about the rules of a game or about whether the ball was in or out. When this happens, recess becomes a wonderful working laboratory for children to develop their social competence, leadership abilities and conflict-resolution skills.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, dedicated to improving the health and health care of all Americans, has reported that funding for physical education and after-school programming is strong, but recess funding is desperately lacking. This is the next frontier: putting the money where we know it will help children thrive in school. Imagine a world where we get as excited about funding access to recess as we do about funding access to computers. Sure, we want our children to be ready for the digital future, but we also want them to be leaders, creative thinkers and entrepreneurs — skills that they will develop on the playground as much as in the classroom.