Utopian Recess Construction Kits! On sale now!

For about 50 zillion reasons, I believe that recess should be the cornerstone of our educational system.  That is why I’m super-double thumbs-down about what is happening at our kids’ school.

This year, our local school district implemented a program to create a kinder, gentler, safer recess. Honestly, it creeps me out (think Stepford Recess.) For a fee, this company will send out trainers to help set up a school’s new recess curriculum. And once it’s in place, recess is never the same again.

That sucks. Adults have graded recess, and given our kids a failing grade. At playing. Never mind all the developmentally vital lessons that kids need to learn organically through unsupervised play. According to these adults, our kids aren’t playing correctly. Our school district bought into this premise: adults know how to build a playground community, and kids don’t. So the company was hired to re-create recess. (Re-create. Recreate. How’s that for stinging irony?)

We are talking recess. RECESS!!! This is huge! This is something that is VERY IMPORTANT to kids. On some days, it is the one thing that motivates my son to get to school. On every level- physically, mentally, emotionally- kids need their unsupervised time, in the exact same way that they need their sleep.

Here’s a quote from the web page of the new program:

“Our experience is that diminishing opportunities for unsupervised play in our society have left kids with a very thin understanding of how to manage their own play and that it is important to have grown-ups introduce some basic rules to make play work.”

Or, simply put:

Kids don’t know how to play without adult supervision anymore. Therefore, they need more adult supervision.

It goes on further to say that kids don’t just need adult supervision. They need these groan ups to be playing alongside them as well. Wow.

When you are done tripping on that stuff, check out a few of the new playground regulations:

Regulation of the game schedule– The sport of the week is dictated by a fixed schedule. You can’t play soccer if it’s not soccer week. You can’t play football if it’s not football week.

Regulation of the players on the field– The game of the week is governed by a new set of adult-approved rules. For instance, there is a limit on how many players can be on the soccer field at the same time. Players must sub in, play their minutes, and then sub out and wait in line again. (One of the recesses is a mere 15 minutes long.)

* correction- after meeting with the teacher, this rule was removed in the first week of school.

Regulation of where kids can walk– Seriously. If kids want to walk around the playground, there is one designated route where they can walk.**

** edit- this rule was put in place to keep kids from walking into other designated playing zones.

Regulation of where kids can stand– Unbelievable. The standing area is called “The Chill Zone.” Our daughter says “They think if they call it ‘The Chill Zone’ it will make it cool. But that just makes it even worse.” And how about this- The “Chill Zone” is also where kids who get in trouble are sent. Thus, “chilling” and “punishment” are indistinguishable.


Meanwhile, On the other side of the universe, check out this article  by Dr. Peter Gray. It beautifully makes the case for why children need unregulated, unsupervised play. This is the setting where they learn on their own about social consequences, both good and bad. Are there some tough lessons along the way? Absolutely. Are there times when adult intervention is necessary? Of course. But most of the time, our kids can easily navigate this path on their own.

But back to the school- this recess program has been in place since the beginning of the school year. And I am thrilled to say, recess isn’t dead yet. Check this out. After 5 months under recess lockdown, the kids have had enough.  A revolt! A peaceful, respectful, empowering revolt. And such a powerful lesson for all of us. These kids are taking action to create social change.

Just this past week, a group of 5th graders started a petition calling for an end to the new program on the playground.  On the first day they had collected 5 pages of signatures. And by the second day, they had 8 more pages filled with quotes from kids of all ages. And now, kids at at least one other school have heard about what our 5th graders are doing, and these kids are doing the same thing at their own school. They plan to present these signatures to their principles, and then to the superintendent, to hopefully banish the program from their schools forever. As a parent, that’s a playground fight that I am proud to support.

Beautiful, isn’t it, what can happen when a group of children engage their imaginations in an unregulated, unsupervised activity.


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13 responses to “Utopian Recess Construction Kits! On sale now!

  1. Wow! Very interesting read……unstructured free play has always been a great source of learning for kids. I was dumbfounded to know my kindergarten child gets a measly 20 minutes of play time a week. Crazy! I hope the kids in your school continue to revolt and come out victorious!!

    • derekmunson

      Hey Karin,
      20 minutes?? For kindergarteners? That is completely horrible. Taking away a child’s free time is a form of punishment.

  2. Wow, Derek! That’s craaaazy!!!! Good for the kids for taking a stand. Great article.

  3. Russ

    Derek, I heard about this today from a teacher. His 5th grade son is one of the kids passing around the petition. He is pretty proud of him…I was glad to hear Henry say he just does whatever he wants during recess.

    • derekmunson

      Hey Russ!
      Great to hear that people are talking about this stuff! And I’m looking forward to seeing Henry on the soccer field soon.

  4. Pninit

    I’m curious what the PTA and teachers had to say when they were discussing this program. Were there any hesitations or concerns from their end?

    • derekmunson

      Hi there,
      The program was approved at the district level, and I’m still working on learning more about how it ended up at our school. While it’s possible that I missed an email or newsletter about this program, I didn’t know anything about it until it was already in place at the beginning of the year. I haven’t spoken to any parents that knew about it beforehand either.
      One of the main benefits teachers get from it is having to spend less time dealing with conflicts from the playground, which is where the majority of conflicts occur. Here’s one reason why there is less conflict: The rule changes in 4 square have made the game non-competitive. You don’t have to earn your way up to the “A square.” Everybody just rotates through the squares now and gets a turn there. This stuff produces classroom results that look great on paper, but suck the life out of the recess experience.

  5. marc

    I would like to see the data. Why did they do it and how is it better? Isn’t our district evidence based, where is the evidence. I think they should all say they are uncomfortable at recess and all stay in the classroom. Mess with teachers planning and downtime and it will end tomorrow.

    • derekmunson

      haha- yes that would definitely add some urgency!
      We had a PTA meeting this morning with the focus being the recess program, and there was a good turnout. Lots of questions addressed, and we had a really productive conversation. Collectively, our kids protested, took their complaints to the counselor and principal, and made this happen. I’m super proud of them. As a result, the school now has a group of kids who will be coming up with their own solutions, and meeting with the recess coordinators on a regular basis. They did it!

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