The play gap
A very interesting article by Todd Oppenheimer in Craftsmanship magazine:
Several years ago, Janice O’Donnell, the director of the Providence Children’s Museum, conducted a survey of public school superintendents in her community to see how much recess time was available to students. Virtually everyone who responded said they considered recess important, but only a tiny percentage of the schools actually offered it anymore. When O’Donnell started looking into why this was happening, not only in Rhode Island but elsewhere in the country, she was stunned by what she learned.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, many teachers felt their students no longer had time for recess. With the increased emphasis put on standardized testing, their primary job now was to make sure students got high scores. Playtime could be handled after school. At other schools, especially those in crowded inner city neighborhoods, there was no longer any space for playgrounds, or even a basketball hoop. Among those who could and did offer recess, many teachers used it for leverage with difficult students. If they misbehaved, or didn’t finish their work, they had to stay in class during recess. And the pattern in poor urban communities was the worst.
In many inner city neighborhoods, after-school playtime has become a fiction. “Half these kids end up in after-school programs for homework help,” O’Donnell told me. The supervisors assigned to these programs, she added, are typically unskilled; students therefore tend to make little progress, which means they continually get assigned to more of it. Those who aren’t in after-school study often go to schools with few other after-school programs, such as organized sports. In the most troubled communities, once these youngsters get home, the options are even bleeker. The adults in the family are either working, or absent entirely. “They can’t roam their neighborhoods,” O’Donnell says, “so they’re on their screens.”
In the meantime, other opportunities for growth in school were shrinking as well. To allow more time for serious study, subjects such as music and art were being dropped. In some cases, even science classes were getting cut, because the new federal education law only monitored math and reading.
Schools with formal Physical Education programs don’t necessarily fill these gaps, either. In 2007, in a survey of 1,005 schools, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that physical activity during PE isn’t a robust as we think. When opportunities for activity were compared between PE, recess, and after-school programs, recess won. It commanded 42 percent of a youngster’s chances to be active, as compared with PE, which came in at 32 percent. (After-school activities were lower still, at 26 percent.)
As time went on, O’Donnell noticed the growing mound of literature supporting the importance of recess, along with other opportunities for free play. The studies showed that active, open-ended play not only makes for happier, calmer kids, it also is critical to our full development—intellectually, physically, and emotionally.
The irony in that finding was certainly not lost on O’Donnell, or on the large number of experts in child development who study American education. Here we have a system intent on improving student’s abilities in subjects like math and reading by spending more time on those subjects in younger years; in the process, we sideline the very exercises that might build up our capacities to use math and reading in the richest way.
Adding to that irony is yet another one: . . .