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The Puzzling Demise of Running Around

In Mr. Arp’s classroom, we have something called the Behavior of the Week, and this behavior is rewarded at the end of every Friday. Last week it was “Staying in your seat and raising your hand.” Instead of standing up to sharpen a pencil or get a tissue, the students raised their hands, so that I could say things like “Excellent staying in your seat, I can see that you are really working on the behavior of the week.”

The students did very well, except Osmo. Osmo, of course not his real name, should have been born in a world without seats. He is a good reader, an excellent storyteller, and a fast mathematician, but seats are like hot coals to him. On Friday, during independent reading, he took a break from his work to run around the class with his arms flailing above his head.

“Osmo,” I said, calling him over to me, “why are you out of your seat without permission?”

“Because,” he said, as if admitting a secret, “I’m happy.”

Ouch. What could I say to that? I’ll tell you what I said: “Well please sit down and finish your reading.”

But the comment stuck with me, because it illuminates an ancient fact that my school and many other schools routinely ignore: Oftentimes children run around for fun. Yet my students have gym once a week, and maybe 10 minutes of recess a day. At most.

Even when my students are reading quietly in their seats, they seem like dormant volcanoes. They have so much energy. Have you ever seen what a classroom looks like when a teacher loses control? It looks almost exactly like recess. Kids play games like tag, they run around the classroom, they draw and talk loudly and argue and laugh. The teacher has to work against a real force of nature, the child’s desire to play, to regain control.

The best teachers at my recess-less school incorporate the child’s desire to play into their lessons. I bet you have seen it in action as well: The most effective lessons look like games. In other words, these teachers have learned how to use some of that recess-energy in the classroom, and they have learned how to harness that energy and make it work for them. It seems to me about as difficult as riding a bronco or surfing a gigantic wave. But I know that in teaching as in surfing, I just need to keep trying trying trying until I get a feel for the water.

But still, these kids need real recess! I remember playing around for hours in second grade! I learned kindness during recess, I learned how to listen during recess, how to work with friends and tell stories. I remember endless, endless hours of make believe. And while I do sneak in secret, clandestine recesses throughout the day, it is no substitute.

Does your school suffer from similar difficulties? How do you handle the dearth of kid-time in your elementary school?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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