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Answer Sheet
Posted at 02:00 AM ET, 06/08/2011

Why recess is serious business

Play matters but too many schools don’t give kids a chance to enjoy themselves.

Here’s a story about a school that had no recess for kids, until a teacher showed the principal how to get kids to listen and organize games — and how important the time is for students.

The story is told by Jill Vialet, the chief executive officer of Playworks, a national nonprofit organization that supports learning by providing safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity to schools at recess and throughout the entire school day.

This is the latest installment in a series on The Answer Sheet called “Faces of Learning,” a national campaign designed to explore what powerful learning environments and highly effective teachers really look like.

The campaign is designed to answer the following questions: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?

Everybody, regardless of age or occupation, is encouraged to go to the campaign’s website and share their story, said the creator, educator and author Sam Chaltain, who wrote a book entitled “Faces of Learning” that tells 50 stories of defining moments in education.

You can share your own story here, and also find a free tool that helps assess individual learning strengths and weaknesses and also provides research about how different people best learn.

Earlier stories in this series on this blog can be found here, here, here. here, here, here.and here. And you can follow the Lifelong Learning series on WAMU radio with these and other Faces of Learning stories.

Here’s Jill Vialet’s story:

My organization started going national about six years ago, and our first expansion city was Baltimore. On our first exploratory visit, we brought along one of our coaches, Lamarr. In his late twenties at the time, Lamarr is a big African American guy -- about 6’3” and 240 pounds. He has a commanding presence and kids adore him.

Lamarr and I went out to visit a Baltimore elementary school to see if there might be interest in running our program. I asked Lamarr if he wanted to describe the program, since he had actually been out in the school doing it for the past couple of years. Lamarr declined, saying he just wanted to listen to me pitch, and insisting that he would remain silent.

The principal came out and escorted us into his office — a typical principal’s office, with the big desk and big chair on one side and the little chairs on the other side. Lamarr looked silly — this big guy in this little chair — but he sat right down, a determined look of silence on his face. I launched into the description of what we do, describing how we have at every school one person full time who is out for all the recesses and works with the classroom teachers to teach games through classroom gametime. I explained our Junior Coach model, where kids assume ever more responsibility for the quality of play on the school yard. And I explained the costs. The principal listened intently throughout, nodding and looking interested.

When I finished, he shook his head and said that he thought it sounded like a great program, but that it would never work at his school. I asked if it was because of the cost, but he explained it was because they didn’t have recess at his school. At this point, Lamarr, who had been absolutely silent up to this point, leaned forward.

“But what about when the kids finish lunch and they go outside to run around?” The principal looked a little confused, and replied: “They stay in the cafeteria. We don’t have recess.”

This didn’t compute for Lamarr, so he tried again. “But what about when the teachers take the kids out for a break?” The principal looked at me and then back at Lamarr. “We haven’t had recess in five years. We tried it, but our kids just don’t know how to play.”

“Could I take your kids out for recess?”Lamarr asked. The principal shook his head. But Lamarr was insistent. “Just give me 10 minutes today at lunch. We can wait. I can show you.”

An hour later, I found myself walking into the cafeteria with Lamarr and the principal. The cafeteria at this school wasn’t huge, and there were probably 140 4th and 5th graders literally bouncing off the walls. There were two lunch ladies, in full lunch lady garb -- one standing by either door, and both looking harried and grumpy.

Lamarr strode to the middle of the cafeteria, amidst this insane din, and clapped rhythmically. Nothing happened, although a few kids looked at him. The lunch ladies were staring and looking mildly concerned. Lamarr did it again and this time a couple of kids repeated the rhythm. He did it a third time, and, like magic, all the kids responded in kind. There was complete quiet in the cafeteria.

In a big booming voice, Lamarr said, “Hi. My name is Coach Lamarr. I’m visiting from California and I’m here to run 10 minutes of recess.”

Wild applause broke out.

“But I need you to show your teachers and principals that you can cooperate, OK? So I’ve got three clear directions: Finish up your lunches. Clean up your spots. And line up by class in a quiet and organized way. I’ll meet you all out on the yard.”

The kids jumped into action and, four minutes later, we were out on the yard. Lamarr circled the kids up and had them number off by threes, breaking them into three different groups to play three different games.

Amid joyful squeals, the 10 minutes flew by and Lamarr did the signaling clap once again. This time, the kids responded immediately. He asked everyone to circle up and we went around so everyone could say one word that described their feeling about what just happened.

“Fun!” said one kid. “Awesome!” said another. One boy, in blatant violation of the ‘one word’ rule, said: “When are you coming back?” Lamarr explained that he hoped he could come visit next year, but for that to happen the kids would need to line back up by their classes and return to class in an orderly way.

As the kids filed back to class, the principal came up to me and said: “OK, we need to talk.” As he did, I looked up to see the two lunch ladies, running across the blacktop, stern expressions replaced by wide smiles, tackling Lamarr in a giant hug of thanks.

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