Recess is as Real Life as it Gets

by @andCreative

Critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.. a taste of the global competencies. I find myself dwelling in citizenship, entrepreneurial skills and wellness  – quite frankly numeracy and literacy are presently lagging at the end of my priorities lately. Real life – critical life and learning feels bigger than reading, writing and math.  

I think about the Ford Government and back to basics mathematics.  The humour in the idea that math scores and quite frankly EQAO are going to change the face of the educated in this province astounds me.  If we look far enough west to curriculum that is competency-based and to schools where the learning is student centred, student driven and student assessed…we find students ready to face the world.

Our curriculum is holding our students back and going backward panics me.  I am an elementary vice principal and I am 14 days in. Exactly 14 days. I have spent my life in secondary school until now.  If I could pick one subject to stop the presses, tweet about and look to students to write the curriculum it would be RECESS.

Recess is the hardest learning in school.  It requires the very most critical thinking and competency based learning and it happens twice per day.  Students need real time feedback, self-regulation and self-assessment tools and most importantly they need to see that recess is in fact is the one thing they will take to the rest of their lives besides their phones and remember what in the hell they learned and why.

It is the most real and ever evolving learning environment.  The weather, the snow, the ice, the equipment or lack thereof are the third teachers every day.  If you can’t climb on the ice then you can mine the ice but once you mine you have a product that is now coveted and people will want it.  You now spend your time protecting it and becoming hysterical when you are not able to. No one understands. What do you mean we are not insured on the equipment during winter?  But the slide is still slippy and the swings are still swingy…I am 4 and I am going to test out that absurd theory everyday for 5 months without fail – twice per day weather permitting.

“The field is covered in ice.  All 385 students will remain on the tarmac.”  A small space that becomes the yard at Attica and devolves to team body tag and attempts to break free to the ice field.  Avoiding concussions, broken limbs and keeping friendships intact are the small wins. Getting back inside to the learning afterwards is difficult.  

Recess is as real life as it gets.  Negotiation, navigation, empathy, loyalty and quick thinking are tools that recess needs from every student.  They have to listen, think critically and they need to be kind. They need to smile first then ask questions. They cannot jump to conclusions and they most certainly have to learn how to stay neutral.  They have to stand their ground, give up some ground, show some grit and carry themselves with pride. They have to bring their traumas, their tragedies and their hard nights to school with them and take them out to recess.  These will inform their decisions. Recess is where hard knocks, harsh words and life tests (not the written kind) come to play everyday – twice every single day.

Bullies are real.  Some are stealth, some just bulldoze.  They want their way and at all costs. The duty teacher often relies on those little voices in our ears telling us what happened to their friends at the hands of the bully and the follow up begins.  The digging and the figuring out and how to do we move forward? Of course everyone has seen something and sides are formed. My friend, he said, she said, he did she did… there has been an injustice and justice must prevail.  A teacher has been told and they will make us feel safe and better about life. You bet they will. Telling someone is important and them listening is the most important. We are better together and we figure it out every day. We are resilient.  

I want more for recess.  I want fewer bells, natural transitions and more space. Andrea tells me this could be a real thing. I want students to use their time outside to figure out who they are and what matters to them.  I want them to reflect on the hard parts and lean into the awesome parts. I want them to come in from recess ready to learn and invigorated from being beside their peers. I want recess to be grounded in the global competencies.  I want students to set the goals as to what counts, what matters and what’s important in thriving at recess and figure out how to assess it, provide and use feedback to make it better and to learn from all of it. Recess is everyday figuring it out with people.  Recess is going to get us ready for real life – I am not sure old math nor any written test ever will.

A: Freedom to run free…with rules.  A lot of them. So interesting and a most magnificent challenge.  A colleague once told me about a school abroad that discovered removing the yard duty supervisors actually removed all of the chaos you speak of.  I’m not sure of how true this was but I kinda believe it. I know that my own kids will call attention to themselves at every opportunity with problems I know they can solve on their own.  How much of recess is a test of independence?

K: Freedom to run free – we gained back our field two days ago.  The space made a difference. They found little rivers and squishy ground and giant mud bogs to just lie in – the sunshine made it feel different.  To be honest – the ice melting changed me too. I go outside as “extra duty” and felt relaxed for the first time. I loved watching them for signs of joy and Spring fever rather than like an hysterical mother.  That being said – the test of independence and the importance of the space to do that feels like a dance. When you see and hear unkind words and actions – the pull aside and the social conversation to move it forward to preserve recess feels good but letting a students lie in squishy water and lose a boot also feels good.  Friends band together and they recover the boot and that snowsuit will dry caked with mud but happy on the hook. How do we create opportunities or space inside before we all come outside to have this lens on recess and life? Andrea, sometimes the multitude of sadness and anger after recess is so big it owns each hallway and spills back into classes.  Do we debrief, listen and learn or do we plow through and get to the other stuff? Where is the balance?

A:  Play does feel good.  And then the bell rings.  I think I’ve told you before my story about the sidewalk.  When each of my kids were old enough to walk by my side – or at least pay attention to where I was in relation to them, I would take them for walks around the block without a stroller.  A stroller would have been 2000 percent easier than getting a toddler to stay on the sidewalk. We talked about avoiding the road of course, but also lawns, porches, flower beds, driveways, garbage and so on.  I was absolutely blown away by the months and months of time it took for this to stick. It was the same process for leaving the playground at the park. Again, I might have picked up my child and taken them out of the park kicking and screaming.  Some parents do. But learning how to transition was a thing. Recess itself is too short. The time we give to learning how is too short. Recess is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity for learning and an opportunity to release some responsibility to the child.

K: Recess is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity for learning and an opportunity to release some responsibility to the child.

These words are like a bomb going off in my head.  “What if I, we could try, we need to…” Driving home at night and to school in the morning.  I listened to a teacher tell another teacher that her kids needed more recess and why and that she was going to take more time with them outside as they are too rushed coming into eat.  The teacher she was speaking with said the opposite. Her intermediate students do not need that much time and in fact it goes badly when they have more time. It made me think about the pictures of the learning commons I sent you from the secondary school I visited and what the intermediates need – the tables and nooks to socialize in and their lack of desire to run around in a muddy yard.  They gather at a ramp they are not allowed on and simply wait for the bell. Grade 2s need more and longer and to take more time in that sunshine. The duty schedule and the timetable dictate the time outside – learning how to transition sounds forced to me too. I loved our conversations about fewer transitions… I think about how that might look… what we believe students need and what we need…recess is very complicated to me.  

A: I need to go outside.  I purposefully leave my lunch at home so that I make myself walk to it.  Otherwise I would be chained to my desk, not noticing how much more productive I could be with a little fresh air.  Transitioning to it takes a bit of effort and it does take up a few precious minutes, but it’s worth it. More important than the transition is the new perspective gained by just being in a different place.  Like when you are in a meeting, leave to use the bathroom, and suddenly have a perfectly fresh idea to share when you get back. Like writers and artists that go to coffee shops. Like the learning commons. Outside is a different place and the act of spending time there opens up our brains somehow.  I don’t care how old you are.

K:  It is why I go outside for recess.  I would miss meeting many students and freely speaking with them if there was no recess.  There are different reasons to smile and speak outside. I want to go back to walking with your children on the sidewalk.  That was an opportunity for independence but there was learning, feedback and support until one day you reminded them leaving the house to be beside you safely and finally they were.  I want desperately for every child to feel like yours proudly walking around the block. Recess is dreading by many students – “how many more minutes to the bell, I hate recess.” I don’t want more rules – ever – because rules mean compliance we know level 2 is the limit with a rule or a framework or a checklist.  I want joy.

A:  Joy comes from the boredom most likely.  Here’s what I think. 15 minutes is enough for you and I and the intermediates to “get fresh air” and a new perspective.  We can manage transitions, no problem. However, some littles are still transitioning from inside to outside when they are asked to go back inside!   You get out there, you find freedom, you test your independence, you find the limits, you search for a puddle… then the bell rings. Think about our post Untitled.  There has to be a moment or two of panic and maybe boredom before you actually settle into your decision about what to do with yourself. So you find your puddle, and after that, you need at least 20 minutes to get into flow – a state of sustained play.  There are no extra rules needed. Just time.

K: “My kids need more time outside.”  I hear an educator say this and she in turn, is going make this time and space for her children.  “They are not ready to come in.” If we value it and we value the children does it change how students see recess?  The opportunity is the time. I am incredibly intrigued by it. The learning feels far away to me and the storm rages on.  Today will be 8 degrees and sunny – glorious – but there is follow up from yesterday and things to make right before first recess.  The giant mud bogs are ready to be squished in but restoring the kindness in some and helping them find their way before they step outside hopefully makes space for them to take some time and be with themselves.  

A:  Whoa! Wait! Play is learning.  Circle back around to the beginning of your post and what we know to be the difference between Dougie’s type of learning and actual learning.  Children are learning competencies through play and social interactions, yes. But they are also learning science, math, language. They are testing their theories about the states of matter and gravity in those mud puddles.  You are not just valuing recess but valuing the learning that is uncovered when children are engaged with the natural materials and humans available to them.

2 thoughts on “Recess is as Real Life as it Gets

  1. At the core of this entry is awareness of one of the most valuable commodities we have as human beings, time. The other being the ability to listen. I was reminded immediately of a segment of a Kindergarten Matters video clip , an exchange between Jerome Hartse and Vivienne Vasquez, two educators whose words circle in my mind long after hearing them.
    Kindergarten Matters: 

    Re-imagining Literacy and Mathematics Throughout the Day Reflections on Learning: Vivian Vasquez and Jerome Harste
    [ music ]
    [Text on screen]: Reflections on Learning: Vivian Vasquez and Jerome Harste [ Vivian Vasquez and Jerome Harste speak to an off-camera interviewer ]
    VIVIAN VASQUEZ: I mean one of the things that we’ve talked about, you know, from the start is really how to engage with critical literacies using the interests of the children, using their lived experiences, using their inquiry questions and a lot of times, that doesn’t happen from gathering them on the carpet and saying to them what are your inquiry questions. It’s more a matter of being a very keen kid watcher and sitting back and listening to the conversations that they’re having not just in the classroom but when they’re in the cubby room, when they’re in the playground, when they’re waiting for the bus, when you’re walking to the library. So all of those are opportunities to really listen and tune in to what the children’s interests might be and then trying to figure out how to negotiate that into curriculum, so how do you then take that and turn it into these learning opportunities in the classroom.
    JEROME HARSTE: So the first thing I think that teachers need to do is to value the voices of children.
    VIVIAN VASQUEZ: I think a lot of people think that critical literacy or, you know, at least these are some of the conversations I’ve had with people is, you know, critical literacy, oh that’s thinking — that’s about sort of higher order questions, higher order thinking; that’s about, you know, thinking deeper. Well, it’s not just about higher order thinking, it’s not just about thinking deeper, it’s about thinking more broadly. It is thinking about thinking deeper, as well, but it’s about thinking about lots of different things in lots of different ways so that you are able to make those informed decisions. It’s about taking up these issues of, you know, language and power and then imagining how things might be different.
    You know, when you’re doing the work that you’re doing, think about there’s lots of things we could be choosing do with children so what are the things that have real life impact and take those up.

    For some of our students the one thing which they all have in common is the experience of recess whatever that might look like at each school. It has potential to ignite wondering. and provides opportunities for students to live through real life conflict, mediate, work towards solutions.

    As far as the precious commodity of time goes I have figured out the greatest gift I can give to family and friends is my time. For the youngest family members spending uninterrupted periods of time at three different parks on a summer day, observing their interactions with others are those days I want to replay, replay, replay.


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