In today’s (February 24) New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports on new research suggesting that play and down time may be as important to a child’s academic experience as reading, science and math, and that regular recess, fitness or nature time can influence behavior, concentration and even grades.
The article reminded me that back in elementary school, the only two times I was ever sent to the principal’s office were because of recesses taken away.
The first time, in fourth grade music class, the teacher created a contest pitting boys against girls, with the winners getting an extra recess. I don’t remember the contest, but I was absolutely livid that, through no fault of my own, half the class was enjoying the bliss of being outside to run free and play kickball while my half was trapped inside the classroom.
I was still upset that night about the lost recess when my dad came up with a funny but ingenious and instructive suggestion: start a petition drive to demand the boys be given a recess too. That’s what I did the next morning. All the boys in my class were only too happy to lend their John Hancocks. But our teacher, Mrs. Dye, was threatened by my initiative. She saw me as a smart but brash trouble-maker and promptly sent me to the principal’s office—a punishment in the highest order. Luckily Mr. Adams saw things differently. He was impressed that a 10-year-old kid would start a petition drive—as he should have been. It’s one thing for the music teacher to use recess as a reward, but how could a fourth grade teacher be angered by a little kid embracing nonviolent democratic protest? Apparently Mrs. Dye still lives in town and eats at my dad’s restaurant; he says she still asks about me. So I know she was a good soul—I know it now, that is.
The other recess-oriented time I got in trouble was at the end of an otherwise normal morning recess. A couple students ignored the teacher’s whistle and didn’t want to line up to go back inside. So Mrs. Ellingson, in a fit of disciplinary action, announced right then and there, before we’d even made it back to class, that the next day’s recess was cancelled.
I’d dutifully lined up at the end of recess, and so had about 28 of 30 kids. So without even thinking, I blurted out, “What a bitch!” Mrs. Ellingson didn’t hear, but a smarmy classmate of mine, Johnny F. (I don’t want to mention his last name, because he’s now an ex-con), tattled on me. And while I was indeed guilty of using an expletive in reference to my teacher, it wasn’t lost on me that Mrs. Ellingson was immediately willing to convict me based on Johnny’s hearsay evidence.
That afternoon as lunch ended, the other kids headed out to the playground and I stayed with Ellingson in her classroom as part of a detention accompanied by her personal guilt trip. She also sent a letter to my parents.
It’s true I shouldn’t have called this poor elementary school teacher trying to get a handle on her rowdy class a bitch. I can also appreciate that the lost recess she tried to invoke was a lesson to us fifth graders that we were a part of society, and that one person’s ill-advised actions threatened the harmony of us all.
Even so, recess was sacred to me as an elementary school kid. I loved recess. I waited for recess. I needed recess. Badly. So reading today that there’s scientific evidence backing up the cognitive, physical and emotional value in recess, I felt vindicated. Maybe I was a little pain in the butt to those nice teachers at Newby Elementary. My cousin Anna is now a student teacher at that same school where I spent six of my formative years, and I’d certainly sympathize with her if some bratty kid had the audacity to call her a bitch. Hell, I’d want to drop kick the little one like I was Ray Guy. But I still take pride in having the instinct to stand up for my recess rights when, in both cases, I had them coming.