When Lauren McNamara was conducting classroom research in Chicago elementary schools in the late 1990s, what she observed played out like a Joni Mitchell song.
There was no recess. In fact, there weren’t even playgrounds. They were paved over to put up parking lots.
That all-important break in the school day had been scrapped because of academic pressures, limited resources, behavioural headaches and liability issues.
It didn’t sit well with McNamara, a Child and Youth Studies professor, given the “vast amount of evidence” about the importance of recess in children’s social, emotional and academic development. It also piqued her curiosity about whether Canadian schools faced similar pressures when the recess bell rang.
McNamara started investigating more formally three years ago after reading a story in the local newspaper about balls and other equipment being kept under lock and key from students during recess because schools feared the liability issues such playthings posed. She wanted to know how local elementary school students spent their time on the playground without equipment to pass the time.
McNamara found many children simply didn’t know what to do with themselves and that was causing problems, including social challenges that sometimes carried over into the classroom.
Shy students were having trouble negotiating the unstructured playtime with others. Students with disabilities were also trying to find their place on the playground.
“A lot of kids don’t know how to play anymore,” McNamara said. “There are kids who love recess and it’s as idyllic as we (adults) think it is but there are large groups who don’t know what do and they struggle.”
While the loss of the childhood ritual of play could be blamed on “a real lack of activities” for children during recess, there are other factors that can affect the way children play. McNamara found older students weren’t passing on play skills to younger children, for example. Interaction between the two groups was virtually non-existent and negative.
“There seems to be a breakdown somewhere,” she said.
In addition to identifying the problems come recess, McNamara set out to find some solutions.
Students needed more equipment and more supervision so she set up stations with coaches to encourage play when the bell rang. She recruited some of her own students as well as older children at the school to act as mentors to younger students in kindergarten through Grade 3 and help put the play back in playground. They also encouraged positive social skills and problem solving.
Three years into the project, McNamara has 32 volunteers helping her, six paid research assistants and has rolled out the project’s play stations in four Niagara elementary schools located in economically challenged neighbourhoods.
The research assistants act as program co-ordinators at the schools coming up with new activities for volunteers to run, getting equipment ready to use, and keeping children interested in playtime.
Not only are children learning and doing something synonymous with childhood, those positive experiences on the playground have benefits elsewhere, McNamara noted.
“Recess is very connected to school engagement and school engagement has a lot to do with academic outcomes,” McNamara said. “When kids feel safe and they have a chance to take a break in the academic day to relieve pent up stress, they do better in school.”
Meanwhile, older students, usually in grades 7 and 8, who are acting as recess mentors, are developing leadership skills, she added.
“It’s almost like they’re learning about another side of themselves working with little kids,” McNamara said.
The hope is the recess time programming McNamara and crew are implementing will eventually be able to carry on without their help. She sees opportunity for Brock students to volunteer at local schools during the classroom breaks. Having community members or groups, such as sports teams and fitness instructors, to help students pass the time with activities is another option.
Going without such pastimes isn’t an option, though, for McNamara.
“Kids definitely need a break and they need to run around. Just sending them outside is not enough,” she said. “I’m saying ‘Let’s take advantage of that time, let’s make it effective. Let’s not overlook this opportunity we have.”