The Recess Regimen

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Brearn Wright Jr. remembers recess during his first year as principal of Clark Elementary School in Petworth as "like a MASH unit."

"Recess time was the time the school nurse dreaded, because she knew she'd have so many kids waiting in the lobby" to be treated for injuries from fighting or falling, Wright said.

Traditionally the one period of the school day when children are free of adult-imposed structure, recess is increasingly regarded by educators as a trouble spot. They say that in the Xbox- and Internet-dominated world of many students, the culture of healthy group play has eroded, turning recess into a chaotic and sometimes violent period where strife from the schoolyard can spill over into afternoon classes.

So last year Wright decided to outsource recess. He hired Sports4Kids, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that introduces students to a regimen of traditional playground games, along with a more closely supervised version of such team sports as basketball. The program also stresses conflict resolution, with disagreements mediated by, of all things, rock-paper-scissors.

In the past two years, principals at 14 elementary and middle schools in the District have signed up with the group, joining more than 160 schools in cities that include Baltimore, Boston and St. Louis. The group's reach will soon be expanding dramatically. Tomorrow, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is scheduled to announce a five-year, $18.7 million grant that will bring Sports4Kids to as many as 650 schools in 27 cities, targeting about 1 million children from low-income families.

Educators and health experts say recess is an important -- and underutilized -- opportunity to promote physical fitness and social development. A 2007 Johnson Foundation study found that, for children in first through sixth grades, recess represents more than 40 percent of the available time in a given school week for physical activity, more than PE classes or after-school programs.

"Recess is one of the best opportunities not only to help kids become more active, but to teach the life skills that will help them live healthier lives," said Robert Wood Johnson president Risa Lavizzo-Mourey.

It also means that this is not the free-for-all that recess used to be. At the Brookland at Bunker Hill Education Campus in Northeast Washington one afternoon last week, the first of two recess periods began with 100 or so fifth- to seventh-graders forming a half-dozen straight lines in front of Brad Riley, the young "site manager" who led them in jumping jacks.

When they dispersed, it was to designated areas, marked by Riley with small orange pylons or chalk lines on the asphalt. There was "snowball alley" (a dialed-back version of dodge ball), jump rope, three-on-three basketball and foursquare. Disputes are resolved by rock-paper-scissors.

"Booyah!" Riley chanted, using an "attention getter" that the kids repeat as he organizes a game.

Sports4Kids is the creation of Jill Vialet, a former Harvard University basketball player who began the venture 12 years ago at two Berkeley, Calif., schools. She was operating a children's museum in Oakland when she encountered four children sitting outside a school principal's office, ejected for fighting at recess. As she started to observe schoolyards, it struck her that games fell apart quickly and that slights easily escalated into serious conflicts.

"Knowing how to play in a healthy way is not an innate skill. It's learned," she said.

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