This sorry state of affairs is not limited to the United States. I am just back from speaking at primary (elementary) schools in Australia. I had a few opportunities to interact with children on the playground and I was pleased to notice the great variety of types of play, and how there seemed to be a niche for everyone. Some activities engaged solitary children, others occupied pairs or small groups, and a few involved large numbers. Yet when I shared my approving observations with teachers, I learned that, as in the U.S., recess is an endangered species.
Studies consistently prove its value. In one set of experiments from the mid-1990s, researchers found that school children became less and less attentive the longer recess was delayed. Another experimental study found that “fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had had recess, with hyperactive children among those who benefited the most.” An article in the New York Times in February, 2009, cited a study of 11,000 third graders showing that recess mitigates children’s behavioral problems. (Consider the common punishment for misbehaving children: “No recess!”) And a meta-analysis of over 200 studies suggest that physical activity during the school day results in more, and better, mental activity.
For all their lip-service to the necessity of drawing on research-based teaching strategies, education authorities in the U.S. and Australia (and probably many other countries) don’t seem to care much about research on play. It is interesting that, by contrast, China launched a nationwide “Sunlight Sport” campaign in 2007, requesting that every school offer one hour of sports and games daily to every student.
I read about Chinese children’s play and the Sunshine Sport campaign in a fascinating Australian journal called Play and Folklore, co-edited by Dr. June Factor of the University of Melbourne, an author and folklorist who writes playful and play-filled books for both children and adults. I met June at a reading conference in California about 15 years ago, and I had the good fortune of visiting her in Australia during my recent trip.
The most wonderful thing about many of June’s books for children is that they are actually by children: she is merely the compiler, and what she has compiled is straight from the mouths of kids, whom she and her university students have observed, recorded and interviewed in school playgrounds. The researchers collected children’s games, rhymes, sayings, chants, riddles, jokes and secret languages in abundance. In 2000, she published an entertaining and enlightening lexicon, Kidspeak: A Dictionary of Australian Children’s Words, Games and Sayings. The two children depicted on the cover have harsh words for each other: “Nicky woop” says one in a speech bubble, to which the other retorts, “Drongo!” (Translation: “Go away!” and “Jerk!”)
June’s collections for young readers have been loved since 1983 when Far Out, Brussels Sprout came out. It has since been joined by Real Keen, Baked Bean…Unreal, Banana Peel…Okey Dokey, Karaoke, and others in the Far Out! series. All offer a rich sampling of the linguistic range and complexity of Australian children's vernacular language. “It’s children’s own literature,” says June, “handed down across many generations, sometimes across centuries. It’s a bridge across generations, common to childhood, not just contemporary childhood.” From Far Out, Brussels Sprout:
Quickly, quickly, I feel sickly.
Hasten, hasten, get the basin.
Get the mop!
Mary had a little lamb
She kept it in a closet.
And every time she let it out
It left a small deposit.
They’re not always the most proper ditties in the world. As a result, a decade ago June learned that she was the second-most censored author in Australian school libraries, after Judy Blume. She told me this with more than a hint of irony, considering that the censors were trying to save innocent children from their own words. “It tells you much about the power of adult prudery and unease about the human body and its functions — but, I hasten to add, not nearly as much as in the United States!”
Often, these censorship cases have been dismissed when the schools discovered how many families already owned the challenged books. But what disturbs June more than censors in the libraries is timekeepers on the playgrounds. “Increasingly, playtime is being restricted,” says Australia’s leading observer of playtime. “It’s happening in America and it’s happening here.” In the U.S., where we once feared a “red menace” from Asia, there now seems to be fear that Asian countries including China will overtake us not militarily but intellectually and economically. If it comes to pass, browbeating analysts should consider how our schools rejected the demonstrable benefits of playtime. American education authorities could have the demise of recess to blame for our fall from intellectual eminence. Some might call them drongos!