The Play Gap
In the inner-city neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island, Janice O'Donnell set up playgrounds where kids could build anything they want, and break anything they want. She has been stunned by what everyone has learned in the process.
Written by TODD OPPENHEIMER
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in our Fall 2016 issue. It was updated with new reporting and republished in the Spring 2019 issue.
Several years ago, Janice O’Donnell, longtime director of the Providence Children’s Museum in Rhode Island, conducted a survey of public school superintendents in her community to see how much recess time was available to students. Virtually everyone who responded said they considered recess important, but only a tiny percentage of the schools actually offered it anymore. When O’Donnell started looking into why this was happening, not only in Rhode Island but elsewhere in the country, she was stunned by what she learned.
Over the last 15 to 20 years, many teachers felt their students no longer had time for recess. With the increased emphasis put on standardized testing, their primary job now was to make sure students got high scores. Playtime could be handled after school. At other schools, especially those in crowded inner-city neighborhoods, there was no longer any space for playgrounds, or even a basketball hoop. Among those schools who could and did offer recess, many teachers used it for leverage with difficult students. If students misbehaved, or didn’t finish their work, they had to stay in class during recess. And the pattern in low-income urban communities was the worst.
In many inner-city neighborhoods, after-school playtime has become a fiction. “Half these kids end up in after-school programs for homework help,” O’Donnell told me. The supervisors assigned to these programs, she added, are typically unskilled; students therefore tend to make little progress with the work, which means they continually get assigned more of it. Those who aren’t in after-school study halls often go to schools with few other after-school programs, such as organized sports. In the most marginalized communities, once these youngsters get home, the options are even bleeker. The adults in the family are either working, or absent entirely. “They can’t roam their neighborhoods,” O’Donnell says, “so they’re on their screens.”
In the meantime, other opportunities for growth in school were shrinking as well. To allow more time for serious study, subjects such as music and art were being dropped. In some cases, even science classes were getting cut, because the new federal education law only monitored math and reading.
Schools with formal Physical Education programs don’t necessarily fill these gaps, either. In 2007, in a survey of 1,005 schools, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that physical activity during PE isn’t a robust as we might think. When opportunities for activity were compared between PE, recess, and after-school programs, recess won. It commanded 42 percent of a youngster’s chances to be active, as compared with PE, which came in at 32 percent. (After-school activities were lower still, at 26 percent.)
As time went on, O’Donnell noticed the growing mound of literature supporting the importance of recess, along with other opportunities for free play. The studies showed that active, open-ended play not only makes for happier, calmer kids, it also is critical to our full development—intellectually, physically, and emotionally.
The irony in that finding was certainly not lost on O’Donnell, or on the large number of experts in child development who study American education. Here we have a system intent on improving student’s abilities in subjects like math and reading by spending more time on those subjects in younger years; in the process, we sideline the very exercises that might build up our capacities to use math and reading in the richest ways.
Adding to that irony is yet another one: As the world’s challenges grow, so must our capacities. Take just a few of the many demands the world now faces. We need new technologies to slow climate disruption; upgrades across the globe to fortify aging buildings, utility systems, and other foundations of modern life; and a whole range of new jobs (beyond computer coding) for our swelling population. Meeting those challenges requires serious skills—what we might call a modern form of master craftsmanship. “How are children supposed to develop these skills when they were never given a chance to play with things when they were growing up?” asks Joan Almon, the former director of The Alliance for Childhood.
O’Donnell’s answer was pretty simple: Dig around in your garage for old rags, lumber, metal parts, anything you don’t use or are about to dump in the trash. Throw them in a box with a handful of tools. Round up a bunch of kids, and go find a vacant lot where they can make something out this mess. O’Donnell has now done exactly that in seven different locations in Providence, with a program called Providence PlayCorps. Her “loose parts” playgrounds operate all day for 8 weeks every summer, at a cost of a mere $100,000. Where does all that money go? The bulk is for staff supervision. The cost of materials: “Zero,” she says.
In 1998, Benjamin Canada, superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools at the time, made headlines by endorsing the Atlanta school board’s abolition of recess some years earlier. “We are intent on improving academic performance,” Canada said. “You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.” Recess wasn’t the only casualty. As the lower grades made room in their schedules to follow the district’s new command, the classrooms themselves began to change.
“The play equipment, including the housekeeping center, blocks, and puppets, was removed from Kindergartens so that children could better focus on academics,” writes Olga Jarrett, professor emerita of Early Childhood Education at Georgia State University. One of Jarrett’s doctoral students remembers the day when a truck pulled up to her Kindergarten classroom and loaded up all the play equipment, “leaving her with mainly paper, pencils, and books.”
Unfortunately, Canada had picked a fight with the wrong person. In response to his edict, Jarrett embarked on a slow but persistent campaign to bring recess back to Atlanta schools. In 2008, she won, and today recess in Atlanta is once again allowed. That doesn’t mean it’s widely offered, though, for all the reasons O’Donnell discovered in Rhode Island. And there was another overlay. “Segregation,” Jarrett told me, “is alive and well.”
The elementary school that Jarrett’s children went to is a prime example. In 1975, soon after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation laws were passed, the school was about 60 percent white and 40 percent Black. By the time her children graduated 7 years later, the percentage of white children had dropped to 40 percent. In the decades since, as white families moved out of the area or sought private schooling, the reversal only deepened. Today, she says, the neighborhood is almost 100 percent Black—and low-income. And school playgrounds, such as they are, typically reflect the neighborhood’s wealth, or lack thereof, and the spiral continues.
So does the mindset against opportunities for playtime. Jarrett remembers talking one day with a school administrator in a Black community about how to prevent bullying. When she suggested giving the children breaks for recess, the administrator balked. “We couldn’t possibly have recess,” she said. “We couldn’t let these kids go outside. They’d kill each other.” Jarrett is still baffled by the administrator’s comment. “If they’re not going to learn [how to get along] in school, where will they learn it?” When she was studying playground behavior in another low-income neighborhood, Jarrett says, “we had recess. And we saw children organizing their own games, solving problem, and having fun. We didn’t have one fight.”
The great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget had a term for our blindness when it comes to education. He called it “the American question”—how can we speed up the developmental process? The answer, it seems, is we can’t. Lilian G. Katz, a professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois, perhaps put it best. “While early formal instruction may appear to show good test results at first, in the long term, in follow-up studies, such children have had no advantage. On the contrary, especially in the case of boys, subjection to early formal instruction increases their tendency to distance themselves from the goals of schools, and to drop out of it, either mentally or physically.”
After all that has been written making this case—and the literature goes back decades—why can’t the U.S. get this right? Other countries certainly have. Even the United Nations weighed in on the subject, affirming children’s “right to play.”
Alert, alert! To all those people who are desperate to keep the U.S. from falling behind other countries in academic performance: When it comes to making wise use of playtime, the U.S. is falling woefully behind! In a paper Jarrett wrote for the U.S. Play Coalition in 2013, she found that many countries ranking above the U.S. on international tests give children longer or more frequent opportunities to move and play than we do here.
The examples in her paper, which was entitled “A Research-Based Case for Recess,” include England, which offers breaks in both the morning and the afternoon, and a long lunch break. England also happens to have some of the most ambitious “adventure playgrounds” in the world. (See listings in our sidebar, “Getting Serious about Play.”)
Jarrett also pointed to Japan, which offers students 10 to 20 minutes of free time between every 45-minute lesson, or frequent 5-minute breaks, plus a long lunch; and Finland and Turkey, both of which offer 15 minutes to play after every 45 minutes of work.
And in the U.S.? We think playgrounds are a frill, and instead insist on butts in the chair for long, concentrated stretches. This, despite evidence that the brain fogs out after an hour or so of on-task focus.