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Child-Centered Recess

Paula Gordon,   Valley Springs Elementary School
Physical Activity Participation
As an elementary physical educator, I have observed many, many children as they move, literally, through the day. I not only see them in Physical Education class twice a week, but I also see them on the playground, as I am assigned playground duties as well. Seeing children at play during recess was interesting. They love the snow hill, snow moved off the playground pavement or the parking areas and piled in a big “hill”. Naturally, the snow hill is lumpy, slippery, and somewhat dangerous, so it comes with lots of rules and issues. The easy answer if there are problems, is “No More Snow Hill!”. This probably is sound advice, but… children need to climb on “non-standardized” things for the brain to have opportunities to gauge and motor plan. A snow hill is unpredictable and gives a child’s brain those opportunities to gauge, motor plan, fail, learn and have fun. It is a form of “heavy work”, which also helps children develop proprioception, a sense of knowing where their body is in relation to other parts of the body. Instead of banning the hill for safety reasons, we use common sense “rules” and require children at play to make decisions of their own and supervision is there for supervision, not just direction. If they don’t feel safe on the hill or any other activity, they know not to engage themselves in that activity and to find something else to do. During recess, I also observed the “snow fort” building phenomenon. Kids love to build “forts” and took pride and ownership of the fort. However, they also struggled if anyone else used or built on “their” fort. Again, the easy answer would be “No More Forts”. Instead, I lead a PE class on fort-building, using buckets and trash baskets to build a fort. Each grade level had a wall to build and we watched it grow. The goal was to engage children in more heavy work, as well as cooperation and teamwork. I wanted to show them how a simple bucket helped build blocks and snow had to be packed between the cracks as mortar. They not only did a great deal of “heavy work”, but worked together and shared ideas on how to build and make it stronger (one class came up with finding sticks to layer as rebar!). And, it was fun! Now, when they have snow on the playground, they can’t wait to build a fort. Other ways we have “Ramped Up Recess” this year include thinking outside the box for playground equipment and supervision. At Valley Springs Elementary, we have worked very hard to make recess more enjoyable for the students and more manageable for the supervisors. We began a program called Playground Pals, which incorporates student leaders on our playground. These students meet each Monday to learn expectations and various ways to encourage positive play and relationships. We teach the kids what is looks like to be safe, be kind, be respectful, and responsible. Our hope is that the students will then own the playground, and even after their week of service is done, they will continue the work of creating a peaceful and positive playground. We began Creative Play, activities which allow students to use their natural curiosity and love of creativity to give their brains a break. Not every child wants to spend recess running around the playground. These activities allow students to use their natural curiosity and love of creativity to give their brains a break. We have also purchased new toys as alternatives to the permanent equipment, such as bug catchers, sidewalk chalk, walking cans (like the old coffee cans and rope), to name a few. The principal assigned one educational assistant to take ownership of the playground management. She and I have researched many equipment and management ideas. We are currently creating a student survey to help us plan for future playground equipment. We are investigating outside grant options and working with the PTA to aid in funding additional equipment for the next school year. The staff and students worked together to find new uses for old things, an opportunity to reevaluate the way we use our existing equipment. We have allowed our students to explore our playground for new ways to use what we already have. The adults have taken a step back and asked the kids, “How would you use this? Is it safe, respectful, responsible and kind?” If it passes our 4 questions, then it is allowed. We want to leave a lasting impact on our students problem solving skills and reasoning. For example, we have a great basketball court, but no one was using it. We simply moved the balls to a more convenient storage area and now it is used daily. Working with all staff, students, parents and outside resources has made a positive change in recess this year at Valley Springs Elementary. We plan to continue to improve and “Ramp Up” our playground and our opportunities for the students of Valley Springs Elementary!

What improvements have you seen at your school?

We evaluated our recess and explored new ways to include students in the management of recess and the purchase of future equipment. We now have consistent playground rules that make sense. We have Playground Pals, who are students who help manage the playground and one support staff in charge of pulling things together.

How did students and adults work together as a team?

Students are surveyed as to what they would like for new equipment and students participate in Playground Pals to help monitor recess.