Skenazy: Who needs recess coaches? Today’s kids

Lenore Skenazy
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Seeing as lately there’s almost no aspect of childhood that isn’t bewailed, it should come as no surprise that the existence of people called “recess consultants” would be seen by many people to be more evidence that the apocalypse is at hand.

But it’s not. Despite articles, editorials and tweets saying such things as “Oh, good dear sweet God in heaven, save us from ourselves,” the consultants do not strike me as helicoptering killjoys. And I say that as the founder of Free-Range Kids, the entire movement devoted to more freedom and less adult supervision of kids.

How does that square with a program that places kids outside at recess across the country and teaches them how to play some age-old games?

It’s because I think of Playworks, the nonprofit that trains and provides these consultants, as something akin to Lady Bird Johnson.


Lady Bird Johnson was President Lyndon Johnson’s wife, and she had a pet cause: wildflowers. Thanks to development and pollution, these were dying out. So she set about deliberately planting some of the wildflowers that were disappearing. In other words, she used completely artificial means to bring back the natural landscape.

That’s what the Playworks coaches are doing. They are artificially reviving a natural part of childhood that has been dying out: playing.

True, no one was hired to teach me kickball as a kid. But there was a game of it in front of my suburban house every night, so I just kind of absorbed it. Who taught me four square? Hopscotch? Jacks? Chinese jump-rope? No idea. Nor can I say who taught me “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black” or even this double-Dutch rhyme: “Cinderella, dressed in yella, went downtown to meet her fella. On the way, her girdle busted. How many people were disgusted?”

I may be middle-aged, but even when I was a kid, girdles were on their way out. Way out. Which means that the rhymes I was learning came from long ago, handed down from elder sister to younger to neighbor to kid down the block.

Until there were no kids playing on the block anymore.

One recent study found that the percentage of kids ages 9 to 13 playing outside unsupervised for even just one hour a week is 6. The percentage of kids walking to school is about 11. So all those games, rules and songs we learned by osmosis are not being learned by an entire generation of kids. We may like to think of play as innate, but what’s innate is the desire to play. It’s not innate to come up with the rules of four square or a rhyme about a wardrobe malfunction. Those are things handed down from generation to generation.

When they’re not, it’s like a lost language. Enter the Playworks coaches. Like Lady Bird Johnson with her wildflower seeds, they are trying to bring back childhood games – because those games would not come back on their own.

I went to a Playworks conference and saw how it works. The coaches quickly trained us so that we could run the games. Aha! That’s the model they use with kids, too. They also taught everyone “rock-paper-scissors” as a fast way to resolve conflicts and get back to playing.

As far as I could tell, the program is not about micromanaging recess or forcing participation or insisting, “Everybody wins!” It’s about giving kids back that precious thing we took away from them: time with their friends, on their own, learning games as old as girdles.

And probably older.

Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”

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