Worried about playground politics and schoolyard shenanigans getting
out of hand, two schools in the town of Edina, Minn., recently hired "recess
consultants" through the non-profit Playworks. As I read the
article in Minnesota's Star Tribune,
my jaw dropped. I felt my blood pressure rise.
The official functions of the playground consultants are to
foster a playground environment of inclusive play and healthy conflict
resolution. Hard to argue with those two
goals, right? Most reasonable humans
embrace the concept of inclusion and solving problems with words instead of
fists (or weapons). Of course, there
will always be the "Lord of the Flies" parenting approach, social survivalists,
if you will, but those seem to be few and far between.
One of my favorite lessons from my own children's time in
preschool was "You can't say you can't play," a mantra from a book by the same
name from Vivian
Gussin Paley. I highly recommend it. Paley devoted her professional career as an
early childhood educator and researcher to these types of questions. There is tremendous merit to these concepts
of inclusion and conflict resolution being taught in early childhood classrooms.
They can no longer walk to the playground independently and are we now moving to a place that they cannot even play on that playground independently?
But still, hired playground consultants? Thanks to Google, I learned that Playworks "coaches"
are actually working in urban areas all over the country. Their website includes testimonials from
school administrators singing Playworks' praises. Disciplinary actions are down and school
performance is up.
HOORAY! Or not.
I fear we are morphing into a culture that is micromanaging
childhood. How are our kids supposed to internalize
these important lessons if we keep absolving them from the responsibility of
learning them, or suffering the consequences if they do not? It is
easy to acknowledge that 3- to 5-year-olds are not fully capable of truly
independent play in a playground setting. Some adult intervention is helpful and necessary at that age. But at 5th and 6th
grade? Are we willing to resign ourselves
to 10- and 11-year-olds needing the same level of intervention as pre-schoolers?
When kids receive the message that an adult will always be
present, even in traditional times of freedom and play, how are they to learn
to navigate and negotiate their development? If the expectation is that tweens require hand holding with social
negotiations, why stop there? Certainly, bullying is still an issue in high school and college, too, for that matter. The cynic in me believes that liability of
schools is playing a role in this as well.
We want the best for our kids. But is our desire to protect and nurture them having the reverse effect of both strangling and infantilizing them?
Our children's opportunities to be children is shrinking
year after year. They can no longer walk to
the playground independently and are we now moving to a place that they cannot
even play on that playground
independently? To what end?
Ultimately, we want our children to grow into
independence. We want them to be
compassionate humans who practice empathy and kindness. We want them to develop strengths and qualities
that make us proud of them. But can we
micromanage those things into existence?
This move to playground consultants, larger than I first
realized when I thought it was restricted to two schools in a Minnesota suburb,
is a disturbing trend of our simultaneous and seemingly contrary attempts to
exert control over our children and pass the buck in our responsibility to them. We need to stop this nonsense.
Childhood is a rich and precious stage of
life. We want the best for our kids. But
is our desire to protect and nurture them having the reverse effect of both
strangling and infantilizing them? These
are questions worth asking as our school districts shell out big bucks for
playground monitors, and we fret over our children, spoon-feeding them lessons on how to negotiate each and every interaction throughout their day.