Hey, Teachers, Leave Those Kids Alone

We've been having a beautiful stretch of weather recently, with more days of mild blue skies than I can recall in my 15 years of living in New York. On one such afternoon last week, I was sitting on my front porch waiting for my son to come walking home from middle school. When he arrived he went inside to get a glass of water then came back out and sat with me for a while, recapping his day. Such is our routine.

Like most days, I asked him if he was able to get outside at school because it seems like they almost always keep the kids indoors even when the weather is nice. On this particular day, however, it turned out that he was able to go outside during lunch. I was thrilled, of course, being a firm believer that kids should be outdoors as much as possible.

I asked him what kind of games they played, and here's what he said: When they were finished eating they were allowed to leave the cafeteria to go out to the track to walk around it. They could not run. They could not play tag. (Touching of any sort is forbidden all day long.) They could not sit. They could not walk on the grass. What they could do, in other words, was walk docilely in an oval until it was time to go back to class.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

It sometimes seems that modern American schools are as concerned with controlling student behavior as they are with learning. My son, like most kids his age, appreciates the absurdity of these recess rules. Indeed, he and I have marveled at how many thou-shalt-nots kids are supposed to follow at all times, and he's developing a healthy skepticism of rules that are put into place in the name of "safety."

When I griped about the school's recess policy, the reactions from my friends were split. Some caught a whiff of an authoritarian ethos at work and made generationally appropriate references to Pink Floyd's The Wall. Others voiced their support of the policy, pointing out that there just aren't enough adult eyes to make sure the kids are safe if they're allowed to go running around willy-nilly. One friend noted that there have already been two fights at the school this year.

Here's the thing: Middle-school kids are at an age when they need to start learning how to negotiate a complicated world. Every day they experience a whole host of emotions that they can barely comprehend. (When I substitute taught in middle school classrooms I was amazed at how quickly their attitudes can ricochet from child to adult.) Recess is a perfect time to sort some of this stuff out. Not that I advocate kids going at it with fists and feet, but, to me, the fact that some kids might get into fights isn't a good enough reason for such tight control over everyone's activities at all times.

Some of my friends suggested that my son and his classmates gently rebel the next time they are told to shuffle placidly around the track. Among their suggestions were "play tag very, very, very slowly" and "hang out at the farthest part [of the track] until the bell rings, then walk back to class very, very slowly" and have the kids "walk four abreast, synchronized, around the track" while singing Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two)."

Another friend suggested, more seriously, that the school should just give the kids a variety of balls to play with and let them have at it. In no time at all the kids would sort themselves into groups and begin some serious play. Most kids would make good use of the opportunity. The playground jerks would quickly reveal themselves and find that no one wants to play with them. The less athletically inclined would slip off to find other things to do.

The kids could do all of this without adult supervision. A few of them might get banged up a bit in some roughhouse play, or skin a knee, or get grass stains on their clothes, but they'll be fine. They'll burn some calories and learn some important life skills, and they might even have fun doing it.

What could be better than that?