Learning on the Playground

Were you one of the kids who got picked last for kickball? I was, and I hated it, until I figured out how to beat the system. My Catholic school didn’t have equipment for recess games, so kids brought their own balls, bats, mitts, jump ropes, and so on. The person who brought the ball was captain and got to choose who was on his team. So I started bringing a kickball to recess, which meant I was always captain, and I was never picked last again.

I remembered this story when I took Curt Hinson’s pre-conference workshop, “Six Steps to a Trouble-Free Playground,” at the Responsive Classroom Schools Conference last week.  Dr. Hinson talked about how profoundly the games we play as children shape our social and emotional development—that was certainly true for me! When I was in elementary school, some of the things I learned on the playground were:

  • Winning is the most important thing. Most of us won’t win.
  • The people who are most skilled stay in the game longest, so they get the most practice and improve.
  • The people who are the least skilled spend the most time on the sidelines, so their skills don’t improve.

Dr. Hinson contends that the adults can structure recess in ways that encourage very different learnings. How much would children’s attitudes about physical fitness change if they were intrinsically motivated—for instance, if instead of playing to win, they played because mastering new skills is fun? For instance, imagine playing variations on “Duck, Duck, Goose” and “Musical Chairs” where everyone plays all the way to the end—no one ever gets out! Or a version of touch football that focuses on skill-building for all in a safe, supportive environment?

We played these games and others at the workshop, and they were definitely fun for adults. I’m sure they’d be fun for kids, too. So much of Hinson’s approach to recess aligns with the Responsive Classroom strategies I teach elementary educators to use: for instance, he talked about ensuring that activities are developmentally appropriate, making expectations and rules really, really clear, and teaching skills carefully, with lots of time for practice. He also talked about giving children limited choices in a way that echoes the Responsive Classroom practice called Academic Choice.

If you’re thinking about making changes to the way recess works (or doesn’t) at you school, I definitely recommend Curt Hinson as a speaker and the books and other resources he’s developed. In our workshop, he talked about an indoor recess kit that I’d love to check out!

Mark E. Emmons, M.Ed. has been in the field of education for more than thirty years. He recently retired from teaching third and fourth grade students in a multi-age classroom in the small, northern Vermont town of Jay, where he used Responsive Classroom for over fifteen years.

Tags: Playground