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How Our Schools are Screwing Up Recess

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In Finland, they have FREE zoology lessons. Every day. On the highway.

I am *this* close to packing up and moving my family to Finland. This close.

The Finns, they just get it. Their health care system works for everyone. They provide educational opportunities for the their citizens. They all take real vacations and appreciate life. They have amazing maternity leave.

You know what else they get right? School. Have you seen their international rankings? They score above the US in every subject. But what intrigues me most about the Finnish system is how often they let their students take unstructured breaks during the school day. At a time when our school system is reducing the number and length of recess time, the Fins are giving their kids 15-minute breaks after each 45-minute session. Think about that for a minute…

My son–and thousands like him–has anxiety issues. Many of his friends struggle with ADD and ADHD. And they have one half hour opportunity to move around and get their schpilkis out before being expected to go back to class and be perfectly focused for the rest of the day. (Not to mention that most of them then go from school straight to Hebrew School, or other activities, and are immersed in homework–don’t even get me started!)

I don’t have ADD or ADHD (although I do struggle with a “minor” anxiety issue of my own…) but I can tell you that during work, I pop up and move around all day. Each time I complete something I’m working on, I get up, stretch, and walk down the hall and chat with my colleagues–anything to break up the monotony of continual working. I need to refresh and reset my brain so that I can focus on a new task.

READ: Preparing for a Bar Mitzvah with ADHD

So at least during recess, the kids have a chance for unstructured, unadulterated play–right? Wrong. Have you seen the new programs schools are instituting for recess time?

Well, my son has had the pleasure of experiencing it firsthand and boy does he HATE it. And so do I.

Basically, kids at my son’s school now have five choices of what they may play each day during recess. And each choice is monitored by a teacher. If there is a conflict, the activity center is often shut down and the kids are forced to choose from one of the remaining activity centers.

This may make sense for schools where they have small play spaces. Our school has a gigantic field. Now during recess, most of it is empty because children are stuck in their centers and not allowed to roam around. And that makes me monumentally sad.

READ: Three Kids, Three Reasons to Dread the School Year

What I would like to understand is why students don’t have the option to play whatever they want during recess. It is the only time during their long day where they have an opportunity for unstructured play and a chance to do what they want without being forced to abide by an adult’s plan.

I understand that structured activities are helpful for some students–and a very easy solution for schools to control discipline. I also think that completely being on top of the kids all the time is detrimental to their social and emotional growth. How can they learn social skills if an adult is constantly controlling every situation and telling them how to act? How will they learn to resolve conflict if the teachers constantly swoop in and micro-manage every situation?

Yesterday at recess, my son and his friends were told that they had to stop playing soccer because a friend wanted to switch up the teams and no one else agreed. Wait, what? If this whole system is meant to help deal with conflict, why didn’t they help the kids figure out a solution to make their friend happy? Or [gasp] since everyone else was happy, why didn’t they tell that friend that they were going to keep the teams and teach a powerful lesson that we don’t always get our way? The kids were safe and in no real danger–I’m OK with letting them figure it out themselves. Aren’t you?

If not, we are going to be those parents who have to pick up the phone and call their university professors when they forget a homework assignment or mess up in some other way because they were never given the chance to deal with conflict on their own. I don’t want to be that parent, but that means I have to lay off and let them figure things out (and so does the school). Why are we so worried about our kids getting bumps and bruises along the way (literally and figuratively)? Isn’t that what teaches and strengthens them so that when the big bumps and bruises come later, they will be resilient?

Come on people–loosen up! Or at least loosen the reigns for 30 minutes every day so that our kids can have a normal, free recess.

Otherwise, I’m off to Finland…

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