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A Recess Coach For Kids?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Ethiopian-born singer and songwriter Meklit Hadero has made a splash on the music scene with her jazzy-soul sound and poetry verse. Now she tells us what's playing in her ear.

But, first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We call upon a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today, what's going on on the playground? For some school districts, either too much or not enough. Too much bullying, too much hogging the equipment, too much forming up into cliques and not enough actual playing and exercising.

Yesterday, we talked about that tragic story out of Massachusetts, where a 15-year-old girl killed herself, authorities say, after she endured relentless bullying by her schoolmates. We talked about some strategies to stop bullying in schools. Now we want to look at what some are calling a way to stop bullying before it starts.

Some schools across the country are hiring recess coaches. Those are people who give guidance and keep things calm and nice on the playground. But while many parents and teachers are relieved that someone is finally bringing order to the chaos, others say that's crazy. Kids should figure out how to play with each other.

Joining us now to talk more about his is Jill Vialet. She is the president and founder of Playworks. That's a nonprofit organization that provides and trains recess coaches. Also with us is Lenore Skenazy, founder of the blog and book "Free Range Kids." And also with us, Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist Jamilia Bey. Hello, everybody, thanks for joining us.

Ms. JILL VIALET (President and Founder, Playworks): Oh, thank you, Michel.

Ms. LENORE SKENAZY (Founder, "Free Range Kids"): Thanks for having us.

Ms. JAMILIA BEY (Journalist): Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So, Jill, why don't you start and explain exactly what a recess coach is and where did this idea come from?

Ms. VIALET: I founded Playworks about 14 years ago. And at the time I was running a children's art museum and I was waiting to meet with a principal. It was right after lunchtime and she comes in from the playground just super-frustrated and she starts going on and on about how lunchtime recess had become this really difficult period of the day for her school.

The kids, who were really basically good kids, were starting to believe about themselves that they were bad kids. And how her teachers found every reason under the sun to be somewhere else during that period of time and going on and on. And she looks at me and she's, like, can't you do something? And I had this total flash that when I was growing up, you know, every day after school I would be at the local park and rec and there was this guy, Clarence, who was the park staff person, and Clarence just made sure that I got in the game. And he didn't make it a big political deal, he just made sure I got to play.

And so, in a lot of ways, the way I think of it is, when I was growing up, there were all these older kids in the neighborhood who taught me this culture of play. And they taught us how to do rock, paper, scissors. They taught us how to pick teams. They taught us how to even up teams if one team was really beating the other team handily. And they really conveyed this culture of play. So, in a lot of ways our coaches function like the older kids used to when we played unsupervised a lot more.

MARTIN: So, what are people saying about all this? You can imagine that there's a lot of harrumphing going on about this. Oh my goodness, you know, now we need to teach kids how to play.

Ms. VIALET: Yeah. There's some harrumphing. I'd say overwhelmingly, though, you know, no whining. We were on the front page of The New York Times. That's extraordinary, right? People are talking about play and taking play seriously. So, harrumphing seems like a natural reaction to something being taken seriously. And overwhelmingly people are, like, God, this is great. If you can figure out a way to bring some structure so that the kids can ultimately take responsibility for that structure, that makes for kids who are way more engaged in the school day.

MARTIN: Let's get some other feedback from some of the other moms here. Jamilia, what about you? Now, we have to say your son is two.

Ms. BEY: Yes.

MARTIN: He's a little too he's too young to have come home with a nosebleed from some kid knocking him down and trying to take his stickball. So, what's your take on it?

Ms. BEY: Harrumph, harrumph, harrumph.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEY: This is more of this, you know, overscheduled, over-managed adult intrusion into the lives of children. Give the kids a break. You know, if they're at recess, let them have a break from being told what to do. Let them learn organically how to figure these things out themselves. I understand that, you know, if a kid as being pushed or if someone's bullying or that type of thing, a teacher should step in and say, stop picking on Becky. But to tell the children how to play, to tell the children what to do, it's just too much. Recess is a break. What is the definition of recess? How does having a coach help?

MARTIN: Well, hold on a second. It's interesting that there was a piece in The New York Times about this - we'll have a link on our Web site. Go to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. We'll have a link.

But somebody wrote in response to the Times piece, saying: A recess coach could've ruined my elementary education in Minneapolis in the 1950s. It could also stump the natural selection of playground prodigies. In second grade, at recess bell, I always ran to the ball diamond as fast as I could. Then I took charge of team formation and managing so we could get in as many innings as possible in 20 minutes. And he says that adult control would've hindered my elementary leadership development.

Now, I don't know what he does now. I don't know if he's a prison guard, or I don't know what he does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SKENAZY: That's (unintelligible).

MARTIN: But - for sure. But Lenore, what about you? You were saying you were initially skeptical, but...

Ms. SKENAZY: I was on harrumpher. And I'm on record on "Free Range Kids" as blogging like exactly like what Jamila was saying, that this is taking away free play and my God, are we, you know, structuring every ounce of every day out of our kid's lives? And, you know, free play is so important, and why would we take this away? And then I heard from people whose schools had this program, and they were saying, you don't understand. If there's nothing fun going on at recess whatsoever and it's just kids, you know, either fighting or moping or just waiting for recess to end and the kids don't know any games because they haven't had their older brothers and sisters teaching them, it's like a lost language, an important thing.

It sounds like from what - the descriptions of Playworks that people have been writing to me that, first of all, you don't have to participate, but it's a way of participating. And secondly, that they're just teaching kids stuff that I wish all kids knew. I wish kids all knew how to play Freeze Tag and Duck, Duck Goose and Mother, May I. But I think if you interviewed 100 kids, maybe half of them would know and half of them would stare at you blankly.

MARTIN: You know, you raise an interesting point, Lenore, because a lot of kids are singletons now. They don't have older brothers and sisters to play with. They don't.

Ms. SKENAZY: Not only is it...

MARTIN: Or they may have...

Ms. SKENAZY: It's not only the lack of older brothers and sisters. It feels like these games have been forgotten. I mean, a lot of time is spent indoors. We all know that kids are spending way more time on their computers and on their, you know, texting and television - and not that, you know, that is the source of all evil, but if you're doing that, you're not out on the streets. I mean, I go outside and there are not clumps of kids organizing their own games and spontaneously starting a kickball game like they used to do in front of my house when I was growing up. You go past parks, and they're empty. You go past my sister-in-law's park, you're not even allowed to play there without a permit. God forbid you come by and, you know, you have a basketball or a baseball. You know, you'll be turned away.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about recess coaches, and we're talking with writers Lenore Skenazy and Jamila Bey. Also with us is Jill Vialet, the president and founder of Playworks. That's a non-profit organization that provides recess coaches.

Jill, how does a recess coach come to be in a school or a place?

Ms. VIALET: So we contact the schools, and so there often is a principal that's interested or one of the parents or teachers or we work with entire districts, like we're launching this coming year in six new cities: Detroit, Denver, Philly, Little Rock, Houston and St. Paul. And the way - you know, we hire these young adults usually right out of college and we train them, and then we send them into the schools.

And I've got to respond to the harrumphers and Jamila, that mostly when people harrumph, it's they haven't been out to see a school recently and what they're remembering is their own childhood. And I've got to tell you, I thought David Elkins' op-ed piece, where he really talked about how play has really changed. When I was a kid, we were outside every day after school, all weekend, all summer, and I think frankly, this sort of - this dichotomy between structured and unstructured play is a false choice. We were unsupervised, but I got to tell you, it was extraordinarily structured, and with older kids teaching us the roles to games. And we took that culture with us. We took that structure with us to the schoolyard when we were let out in recess.

And so the idea behind these coaches is they're not recess fascists. They're just getting enough structure so that the kids themselves have a sense of expectation, so that they have a fighting chance to actually get to control the world around them and they understand what's going on.

MARTIN: Speaking of fighting, I got to tell you, I don't want to get (unintelligible) in my business here, but I remember being miserable at recess because there were just too many bullies, and that the bullies ruled the playground. And if you - you either had to fight or you'd get chased off, and it wasn't fun. There was nothing fun about it. And the attitude seemed to be well, it was kind of kill or be killed, and this is a necessary part of childhood. And I have to ask Jamila, is it really?

Ms. BEY: I know this is unpopular, but there is something to natural selection. I don't think social Darwinism for 20 minutes a day is going to make or break the average child.

MARTIN: Why can't the world be better?

Ms. BEY: You know what? A recess coach, the issue you're talking about is an important one, but that's not the job of a recess coach. If the school...

MARTIN: Why not?

Ms. BEY: Because if the school culture is such where bullying is tolerated or where a child can't go to a trusted adult and say hey, you know, there are kids ganging up on somebody. There are kids ganging up on me. If they can't do that at recess, chances are they can't do it 20 minutes earlier at lunch. They can't do it in the hallway.

MARTIN: Well, maybe. But, I mean, you know, why? Well, who says? I mean, you know, did you wear a helmet when you were a kid and rode your bike? I didn't. But, you know what? Would my kid wear a helmet now? Yes. Hello?

Ms. BEY: Yeah, but you know...

MARTIN: So if somebody comes up with a good idea, what the heck?

Ms. BEY: No, I think it's a good idea, but I also think that it's taking over for what gym should do.

Ms. SKENAZY: You know, what Jamila, it sounds like also what you're thinking of is that the coaches are out there and they're deciding every team and they're making sure that it's all perfectly equal and that everything is run like a Utopian society. But it sounded to me when I was reading the letters from people who had Playworks at their school is that they're just giving the kids these tools, like this is how you play Double Dutch. This is how you play Dodge Ball. And then the kids can go off and play it themselves and make their unfair teams and...

MARTIN: And throw balls at each other's heads.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SKENAZY: And throw ball at each other's heads and make the teams unfair, and - but without any games at all that they know how to play, it's not fun.

MARTIN: So Jill, what about Jamila's point? There are those who argue that the creating of these hierarchies and that kind of what Jamila called social Darwinism is how kids learn to grow up and deal with situations. What about that?

Ms. VIALET: I guess it just feels like the reality of the situations that we're dealing with, we're in 170 low-income, urban public elementary schools across the country. We are by no means sterilizing the situation. Nor would I want that to happen. I mean, I have kids of my own. I want them to break their arms and figure out how do you navigate the world in a way that, you know, fosters independence and creative thinking and - but the reality is the level of structure that we do is what stands between schools offering recess and schools figuring, you know what? It's too much. We can't do it. We are like sort of, in some ways, the choice isn't between us and a school where there's a little more bumps and bruises. The choice is between us and the school that doesn't offer recess.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask just one other question Jill, which is that - Jamila, this is another experience you might be talking about too, that sometimes when kids get help from an adult, it just makes them a bigger target later.

Ms. BEY: Amen.

MARTIN: How does that work? How does that work?

Ms. VIALET: Oh no, no, no, no. If you go to our school, our staff are rock stars. They are. I mean, like I'll tell you, they're out there and they are playing with the kids and they're having fun and they get the kids who are hanging on the periphery involved. The kids who want to play naturally are given space and they're reminded about boundaries and there's - I mean, it's just - it feels good. It feels right, and it feels like the way play is supposed to feel. And it's extraordinarily democratic, and it's not dorky and it's not going to get kids, you know, singled out. It's just about making play possible. And play is just a huge springboard for all kids being engaged in school.

MARTIN: Can I just add one other thing, Jamila, that I actually read in a biography of the late, great Althea Gibson, the tennis star - who was the first, I think, African-American to win at Wimbledon.

Ms. BEY: Wimbledon. She was.

MARTIN: She learned to play tennis from a - they didn't call them recess coaches. They called them playground coaches back in the day, and cities used to hire people to go out and help the kids play in the streets because they didn't have playgrounds. She learned from a playground coach guy.

Ms. VIALET: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Who was paid by the city to - that she lived in - to help kids play. So does that change your mind at all? No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEY: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: That's okay, Jamila.

Ms. BEY: It's, you know, and we're all moms. We all want what's best for our children. We all want our kids to have a wonderful experience at school and in life. I just believe as the late-great George Carlin once said: When does a kid get to sit there with some dirt and a stick? When do they get to just be left alone, and if they want to do something, they get to do it? You don't have to schedule everything. Give them gym class otherwise.

Ms. VIALET: I want to get you out to see a school in D.C. I'm going to get you out to see one of those schools, because you know what? The kids don't have to participate. We're creating an environment where there are games going on, where there's a sense, like, okay, over here is where free play is happening. I think, really, if you get out and see it; it doesn't look like what you remember. There's - I love chaos. I am pro chaos. But I don't want to scary chaos.


Ms. VIALET: I want chaos that feels, you know, positive.

MARTIN: Okay. I'll leave it there for now. So, are you going to take her up on it, Jamila? You going to go out and check it out?

Ms. BEY: I would love to come and check it out. It's a date.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Jill Vialet is the president and founder of Playworks. That's a non-profit organization that provides recess coaches. She joined us from Berkley, California. No jokes, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book "Free Range Kids" and a columnist for parentdish.com. She joined us from New York. And Jamila Bey, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist joined from our studios in Washington.

Ladies, moms, thank you all so much.

Ms. BEY: A pleasure to be here.

Ms. SKENAZY: Thanks. Go play.

Ms. VIALET: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.