That’s the twist in this rebirth-of-recess narrative: In part because of these fears, recess in many schools is now a very different beast. It’s more structured and sports-focused, less dreamy and aimless. Whether it leads to the same cognitive and social benefits is an open question. The nonprofit organization Playworks puts full-time “recess coaches” in low-income schools—currently they’re in 387 schools in 23 cities—who teach children how to play: They organize games; they model how to resolve disputes (rock-paper-scissors); they try to get kids more active and engaged. (A recent study found that schools with Playworks reported less bullying and better behavior.)
“Recess has changed because the times we live in have changed,” says Playworks CEO Jill Vialet. Children no longer know how to play, she says; they don’t run around after school with all the kids on their block. “What we’re doing is creating just enough structure. That same structure that was created by the older kids in the neighborhood in times past—we’re creating that now on the schoolyard.”
Playworks doesn’t make kids play, Vialet says, and the recess coach doesn’t run recess. “There’s multiple things happening on the schoolyard at any given point. The coach floats around the schoolyard.” But the Playworks vision of recess—more structured, more orderly, more active—is very different from the traditional anything-goes break from class.
Recess may look problematic to the grown-ups, but for Pellegrini, the value of recess is that the children, not the adults, are in charge. It may not look pretty, but that’s the point. “A very important part of what kids do on the playground is social competence—that is, they learn how to get along with others,” he says. “You have to cooperate, you have to use language, you have to compromise. And that’s not trivial. That is huge, in terms of both academic success and success in life.”
And despite the fears of many administrators, who talk about recess as if it were a Lord of the Flies sequel, studies have shown that there is surprisingly little violence on playgrounds, says Pellegrini: “It accounts for less than 2 percent of all behavior.”
For someone like Pellegrini, the structured recess of PlayWorks is anathema—the value of recess is in messy free play. For the principals in Playworks schools, structured recess is a godsend—precisely because it isn’t messy.
My childhood memory of recess—as a break that came twice a day, like a natural phenomenon, and that was wonderfully aimless—may be nothing like the recess my children will someday have. The argument over whether to have recess may be ending. But the argument over what recess means is only now beginning. Can we give kids today the freedom to play? Or do we need a pedagogy of recess—a pedagogy of free time? The answer may depend on what we value most, or what we can afford to value most: order or chaos, activity or daydreaming, learning to play or learning to be.