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At McLean School, Playing Tag Turns Into Hot Potato

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A playground pastime is getting a timeout this spring at a McLean elementary school.

Robyn Hooker, principal of Kent Gardens Elementary School, has told students they may no longer play tag during recess after determining that the game of chasing, dodging and yelling "You're it!" had gotten out of hand. Hooker explained to parents in a letter this month that tag had become a game "of intense aggression."

The principal said that her goal is to keep students safe and that she hopes to restore tag (as well as touch football, also now on hold) after teachers and administrators review recess policies.

The decision has touched off a debate among parents. Some call the restriction an example of overzealous rulemaking that fails to address root problems and undermines children's development; others say it's best to err on the side of caution.

"We are regulating the fun out of normal childhood activity," said Jan van Tol, father of a Kent Gardens sixth-grader. "In our effort to be so overprotective, we are not letting children be children."

Gerri Swarm, secretary of the school's Parent-Teacher Association, said she was glad the principal was taking seriously student concerns about being pushed or shoved. "In this day and age, you can't dismiss this as something not to worry about," she said.

Many schools nationwide have whittled down playground activities in response to concerns about injuries, bullying or litigation. Dodge ball is a thing of the past in many places, and contact sports are often limited at recess.

The Fairfax County schools' office of risk management maintains a list of activities that are prohibited at any school-sponsored events. In addition to bungee-jumping and scuba diving, students are not permitted to break dance or play dodge ball or tug-of-war.

Restrictions on tag are less common. Officials at several suburban Washington school systems said they were not aware of any schools that had banned the game outright.

In most places, principals have considerable leeway to decide what is appropriate or safe recess behavior as they sometimes manage large numbers of students in small spaces. Kent Gardens, with more than 900 students, is over capacity. Hooker said the playground can get crowded when there are four or five classes there at one time.

Over the past couple of months, she had noticed that tag was taking up too much space and sending too many students to the nurse's office.

"This is not the old-fashioned tag, where you could use two fingers and you would be it and move on to someone else," Hooker said. The game, she said, has become much more aggressive. "I call it the nouveau tag."

This tag involves grabbing people who do not necessarily know they are playing and possibly bumping them to the ground. "Then the kids do 'pyramiding' or 'towering.' They pile on each other. [Sometimes] they call it 'jailhouse' or 'jailbreak,' " because the child has to break out, she said.

Since the prohibition began early this month, physical education teachers have begun a "chasing, fleeing and dodging" unit in first through fifth grades. Students essentially play variations of tag, and the teachers remind them about safety rules and point out the athletic skills they can transfer to other sports, said Sue Straits, a PE teacher.

Stephanie Sullenger, president of the Kent Gardens PTA, said she supports the principal. Sullenger said she suspects that children are acting out because of "spring fever," and that as their behavior improves, tag will be restored.

In the meantime, she said, "children are very resilient and creative, and I'm sure have moved on to find wonderful things to do on the playground."

Other parents said that slips and falls are part of growing up and that restricting games is not the right solution.

Chris Delta, a Kent Gardens mother, said she knows "life's not going to breeze" for her children. She wants them to learn how to cope with difficulty.

Her own daughter has been injured on the playground, she said. Once she was pushed off a jungle gym and had the wind knocked out of her, and another time she got a goose egg when a student threw a rock in the air and it landed on her head.

"I didn't expect because of these two instances that the equipment would be banned or all the rocks or pebbles or stones would be taken away," Delta said.

Michael Haaren, a father, said that if some children are being too aggressive, they should be disciplined. Limiting the activity is a "draconian" measure, he said.

He is concerned that schools are on a bad trajectory. "Where are we headed here? The elimination of recess altogether? It has happened in other schools. Will we eliminate 'duck duck goose' because kids are being touched?" he asked.

Dozens of parents turned out for a PTA meeting to hear the principal explain the decision. Many opposed the plan.

Hooker said the resistance surprised her. "I did not know that tag was so sacred," she said.

But many talk about the game in a tone tinged with nostalgia.

"When you think about elementary school, you do think about recess and tag. Boys chase girls and girls chase boys," Heidi Schwarztrauber said. "There is a lot of growing up in that."

She opposes restricting the game. "I think it robs the children of something very special . . . a universal experience," she said.

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